How Sharks have answered biggest questions in camp so far originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Editor's note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California's Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
The Sharks, three years and running out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, naturally have a lot of training camp questions.
But we’re also getting some answers with a few days of camp and preseason action under our belts.
Here are some of the Sharks’ big questions and how they’re getting answered so far.
Who Plays with Couture?
It was presumed that the top line of Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Alexander Barabanov would be kept together, and indeed, that’s what head coach David Quinn has done so far through training camp.
The big question, instead, is who would get to play with second-line center Logan Couture? The veteran pivot didn’t have it easy last year; except for a productive, early-season stint with Meier, Couture’s most common linemates were youngsters Jonathan Dahlen (not qualified) and Noah Gregor (eight goals in 63 games), and Rudolfs Balcers (bought out) and penalty-killing specialist Matt Nieto (six goals in 70 games).
Couture badly needed some help, and so far through camp, he has skated with veteran wingers Oskar Lindblom and Kevin Labanc.
There’s some potential here to form a credible NHL scoring line. Both wingers are just 26 -- UFA signing Lindblom rang up 28 goals in a 111-game stretch from 2018-20, and Labanc scored at a half-point-per-game pace from 2018-21 -- but there are also huge question marks.
Lindblom’s game hasn’t been quite the same since his September 2020 return to the lineup after a successful fight against bone cancer. Labanc is returning from shoulder surgery that sidelined him for most of last season.
If Lindblom and Labanc don’t pan out, power forward Luke Kunin and hot shot prospect William Eklund are waiting in the wings.
What’s Going on With Meier’s Contract?
Meier’s agent Claude Lemieux helped quell some in-season speculation about the pending RFA’s contract recently, telling San Jose Hockey Now: “We have not received any offers yet, and don’t expect anything until the end of the season.”
He added: “All is good with Timo and the Sharks. When they are ready to start negotiating a contract extension, they will reach out.”
So that’s it until the offseason, right?
Well, maybe not. But at the very least, we’re not as likely to get the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go drama that followed pending free agent Hertl last year. That’s a big difference too: The Sharks won’t be under the gun to make a decision on RFA Meier like they were on UFA Hertl.
At the moment, contract talks between the Sharks and Meier appear quiet. They might not start up until Meier proves last year’s All-Star campaign was no fluke -- or the Sharks prove to the Swiss winger, who professes winning as his priority, that they’re progressing as a franchise.
Will Eklund, Bordeleau Make the Team?
Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau are flashy, uber-skilled forward prospects -- in theory, exactly what the Sharks, the third-worst scoring team in the league last year, need in the lineup.
But new general manager Mike Grier and head coach Quinn have made it a point to make the bar higher for rookies to break into the Sharks' lineup than in previous years.
They don’t want to continue this trend: Over the last three years, 29 Sharks have made their NHL debuts. You can count the legitimate NHL’ers in one hand: Mario Ferraro, maybe Noah Gregor and Nikolai Knyzhov. No doubt, Eklund and Bordeleau have the talent to join them, but a deeper Sharks forward corps is designed to make it harder for the youngsters to showcase their talents at the highest level.
Can Erik Karlsson Stay Healthy?
It’s the million dollar -- or $11.5 million dollar -- question for the most expensive defenseman in the league.
Karlsson has missed significant portions of three of his four seasons in San Jose. Ironically, his healthiest season, 2020-21, when he appeared in 52 of 56 regular season games, was probably his worst year in teal.
On Jan. 20 last season, before his campaign was turned on its head by forearm surgery, Karlsson was on pace for an 18-goal, 40-assist campaign. That would’ve made him a top-10 scoring defenseman last year.
The Sharks will take that this season.
Who Else Will Play Top-four Defense?
Besides Karlsson and defensive specialist Mario Ferraro, it’s hard to say who else will fill out the Sharks’ top four. It might be San Jose’s biggest question.
At the moment, Quinn is saying all the right things about the 35-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who hasn’t reliably held a top-four job since at least two years ago.
“He’s going to have an opportunity to do what he’s done very, very well in this league for a long time, and that’s play against top lines and play penalty kill," Quinn said "That’s what he’s been really good at, elite at, really for a big chunk of his career. We feel he’s still capable of doing that.”
Vlasic has been paired with Ferraro so far in camp. They project to be San Jose’s shutdown duo.
Meanwhile, free agent signing Markus Nutivaara, who played just one game last season because of a hip injury, has received a first look with Karlsson so far in camp.
Radim Simek, Matt Benning and Jaycob Megna, each unproven in an elevated role, are next up to the plate.
Who Gets Opening Night Start?
Like any head coach, Quinn would love both Kaapo Kahkonen and James Reimer to play well, and for one to emerge as his true-blue No. 1 goalie.
Who will it be? The opening night starter will at least suggest who Quinn’s first hope is.
It’s worth noting that neither Kahkonen nor Reimer has played over 50-plus games in a season in their careers.