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Sharks Aim to Return to Playoffs Under DeBoer

by Eric Gilmore / San Jose Sharks

SAN JOSE - For the first time since 2008, the San Jose Sharks opened training camp with a new coach. Center Joe Thornton said he liked what he heard from Peter DeBoer, who replaced Todd McLellan, the winningest coach in Sharks history.

"I think he has a powerful voice," Thornton said of DeBoer. "He comes in and tells us right away [that] this is how we're going to play. But it's going to be nice. Nothing against Todd, but maybe it was time to get a new voice in here. We're all excited to have Pete behind the bench now."

The Sharks had a busy offseason after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season. Not only did they replace their coach, they traded for goaltender Martin Jones and signed two quality free agents, right wing Joel Ward and defenseman Paul Martin. The Sharks' biggest offseason addition last year was forward John Scott.

"When we were away in the summer and we added those pieces, there was an energy I could feel," forward Joe Pavelski said. "I was excited to get back when I got back and see everybody and get out on the ice. We like the signings we've had and improvements and we'll move forward from that, and hopefully it will be positive."

FORWARDS

The Sharks still have plenty of offensive weapons, including Thornton, Pavelski and Logan Couture, but this group underachieved last season, especially at even strength and in the defensive zone. With a new coach, the addition of Ward, who arrives from the Washington Capitals, and plenty of young talent pushing to break through, roster spots and ice time will be on the line at training camp.

"I think everyone has kind of a new life to go out and prove the type of player you are," Couture said. "Everyone's got that kind of clean slate. Everyone's got the opportunity to go prove to this coaching staff what they can do."

Pavelski had 37 goals and 70 points last season, leading the Sharks in each category for the second straight season. He's found a home at right wing next to Thornton on the top line, and talk of him centering the third line has all but vanished.

Thornton had 65 points, his lowest total in a full season with the Sharks, but he's still one of the NHL's best passers and most durable players.

Couture is coming off a career-high 67-point season and appears to be a lock to center the second line. When camp opened, Marleau was on his left, as he was last season, and Ward was on his right. Ward, who has played 517 NHL games, is the type of hard-nosed, gritty player DeBoer covets.

"It would be great to get the opportunity to play with them," Ward said. "They're great hockey players, high-level IQ and their skill sets are unbelievable."

Marleau, the Sharks' all-time leading goal-scorer, is coming off a rough season and could lose ice time if he doesn't bounce back. Marleau scored 19 goals, his fewest in a non-lockout season since scoring 19 in 2007-08, and had a Sharks-worst minus-17 rating.

Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto, each entering his third NHL season, combined for 23 goals in 2014-15; they'll be expected to provide more offense.

Nikolay Goldobin, San Jose's first-round pick (No. 27) at the 2014 NHL Draft, Timo Meier, the first-round pick (No. 9) in the 2015 draft, and Joonas Donskoi, a free agent addition from Finland, are among the young players who will try to earn a roster spot.

"It's going to be probably the most competitive camp since I've been here," general manager Doug Wilson said.

DEFENSEMEN

Martin, who arrives from the Pittsburgh Penguins, will add some much-needed experience and stability to the Sharks defense. Entering his 12th NHL season, Martin will be paired with Brent Burns and should be a perfect complement to a physical, free-wheeling force who loves to join the rush. Martin is a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman who spent much of last season paired with offensive-minded Kris Letang.

"His skill set is, I think, what separates him from a lot of other players in the League," Martin said of Burns. "He's got that raw talent. I think the difference with him and Kris is he's got that size, too, to be able to play physical when he needs to separate his man from the puck. A lot of similarities. ... I'm sure he'll be up ice a little bit more than I will. It's just picking the right spots and making sure we're covering each other."

After spending a season and a half as a forward, Burns returned to defense last season. He scored 17 goals (seven on the power play) and had 60 points, tied for second among NHL defensemen with the Montreal Canadiens' P.K. Subban, six points behind Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators.

DeBoer said he believes Burns is "on the verge of becoming one of the top defensemen in world."

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks' most reliable defenseman, returns for his ninth NHL season at the age of 28 and once again will be matched up against the League's top scoring lines. Vlasic was plus-12 last season, tied with Pavelski for the Sharks lead. He likely will be paired with Justin Braun, a skilled skater who's looking for a bounce-back season.

Brenden Dillon, who was acquired Nov. 21 from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Jason Demers, appears to be a lock for the top six, but competition could be fierce for the sixth spot in the lineup. Mirco Mueller, a first-round pick (No. 18) in the 2013 draft, is a prime candidate, but he had four points in 39 games in an injury-marred rookie season and could open the season with the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League if he struggles.

Dylan DeMelo, Matt Tennyson, Patrick McNally, Mark Cundari and Jeremy Roy, a second-round pick (No. 31) in 2015, are among the hopefuls trying to win a roster spot.

GOALIES

The Sharks made their biggest offseason move shortly after the draft when they acquired Jones, 25, from the Boston Bruins, who had landed him in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks paid a steep price for Jones, sending Boston a first-round pick in 2016 and prospect Sean Kuraly. But they expect him to be a long-term upgrade from Antti Niemi, whose five-season reign as San Jose's No. 1 goaltender ended when the Sharks traded his negotiating rights to Dallas for a seventh-round pick in the 2015 draft.

The 6-foot-4 Jones, who backed up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, has appeared in all of 34 NHL games, but he has a career 1.99 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage. During the 2013-14 season, he won his first eight starts, tying the NHL record for consecutive victories to start a career. He had three shutouts and a 0.98 GAA during that stretch.

"This is a guy that we identified at the top of our list," Wilson said. "There were a couple ways we were going to try and acquire him, but one way or another we were going to get him."

Alex Stalock, Niemi's backup for the past two seasons, is Jones' top competition in camp. He had a 1.87 GAA and .932 save percentage in 2013-14 but struggled last season, partly because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Stalock's GAA average rose to 2.62 and his save percentage fell to .902.

Troy Grosenick, who went 1-1 with a 1.53 GAA average for the Sharks last season, could also push for a roster spot.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Job No. 1 for DeBoer and his assistants will be to fix a penalty kill that ranked 25th in the NHL last season (78.5 percent); that's 19 spots lower than the Sharks finished in 2013-14. The addition of Martin could help the PK get back on track. He's been a prime penalty-killer for the Penguins and, prior to that, the New Jersey Devils. DeBoer undoubtedly will crank up the intensity on the penalty kill.

The Sharks' perennially strong power play finished sixth at 21.6 percent. Pavelski was second in the NHL with 19 power-play goals, showing his knack for finding open ice in front of the net and burying pucks, often after feeds from Thornton. Burns, with his strong shot from the point, is a dangerous weapon and had seven goals with the man-advantage. If San Jose wants to take its power play to another level, it will need more scoring from players such as Couture and Marleau. Pavelski was the only player on the roster who had more than seven power-play goals.

COACHES

This is DeBoer's third NHL stop; he coached the Florida Panthers for three seasons and the Devils for three-plus, a run that ended when he was fired after a 12-17-7 start in 2014-15. DeBoer has made the playoffs once in his coaching career, but that was when he led New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 in his first season with the Devils.

"The overall message was we're excited to be here," DeBoer said after the first day of training camp. "They should be excited about the opportunity that this season presents. It's going to be a long journey. There are going to be some bumps in the road. But we like our group and we see some fantastic potential here. Let's put the work boots on and get started."

DeBoer said he doesn't plan to change all the systems established under McLellan or discard line combinations that have worked well.

"The bottom line is not everything here is broken," DeBoer said. "We're going to concentrate on the areas that need fixing right away."

DeBoer said he wants the Sharks to "defend harder" and be "tougher to play against" this season, especially in front of the net on each end of the ice.

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Sharks 2015-16 Projected Lineup

FORWARDS

Tomas Hertl - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski

Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Joel Ward

Tommy Wingels - Chris Tierney - Matt Nieto

Melker Karlsson - Ben Smith - Raffi Torres

DEFENSEMEN

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun

Paul Martin - Brent Burns

Mirco Mueller - Brenden Dillon

GOALIES

Martin Jones

Alex Stalock

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COMING AND GOING

2014-15 record: 40-33-9, 5th in Pacific Division

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Key additions: G Martin Jones, D Paul Martin, RW Joel Ward, Peter DeBoer (coach)

Key subtractions: G Antti Niemi, LW John Scott, D Scott Hannan, D Matt Irwin, Todd McLellan (coach)

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