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What’s Doug Wilson Doing with Sharks Forwards?

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Credit: flrent (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If the San Jose Sharks are done this off-season, they’re not going to look remarkably different up front next year.

I don’t mean in terms of names and faces. San Jose legend Joe Thornton going to Toronto is change enough. Meanwhile, long-time penalty killer Melker Karlsson is also gone.

I mean in terms of proven NHL ability.

In October 2019, the San Jose Sharks had, by my count, 10 NHL-proven forwards:

  • Logan Couture
  • Evander Kane
  • Timo Meier
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Marcus Sorensen
  • Patrick Marleau
  • Joe Thornton
  • Melker Karlsson
  • Barclay Goodrow

The 2019-20 Sharks finished last in the Western Conference.

One year later, San Jose has…wait for it…10 NHL-proven forwards:

  • Logan Couture
  • Evander Kane
  • Timo Meier
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Marcus Sorensen
  • Patrick Marleau
  • Stefan Noesen
  • Ryan Donato
  • Matt Nieto

Of course, it’s not simply about quantity, it’s also about quality. Assuming Couture, Kane, Meier, Hertl, Labanc, Sorensen, and Marleau at least hold serve — a big if considering the 41-year-old Marleau’s advanced age — we’re weighing Donato, Nieto, and Noesen versus Thornton, Karlsson, and Goodrow.

Safe to say, neither trio is to be mistaken for the Legion of Doom.

Donato has second-line upside but was a fourth-liner on an average Minnesota squad. On youth and upside, I’ll give him the edge over the 41-year-old Thornton, who is a question mark as a potential third-line center with the Maple Leafs.

Colorado leaned on Nieto on the PK as much as San Jose relied on Karlsson there. Nieto also adds an element of a speed and perhaps a touch more offense, so the Long Beach native should be a small upgrade.

Goodrow and Noesen isn’t really a comparison. Goodrow has proven to be an ace penalty killer and a Stanley Cup-caliber role player — Noesen, up to this point in his career, is a fourth-liner who hasn’t displayed any special teams value. While both are ultimately bottom-six forwards, Goodrow is clearly the more valuable NHL player right now.

So is Donato, Nieto, and Noesen versus Thornton, Karlsson, and Goodrow perhaps a wash? It’s close either way. Anyway, this isn’t point: The point is, right now, are the 2020-21 San Jose Sharks appreciably better at forward than the 2019-20 version?

I’m not convinced.

I haven’t forgotten about Joel Kellman, Noah Gregor, Dylan Gambrell, or Antti Suomela, but while they have NHL experience, I don’t consider any of them NHL-proven. Gregor may also be the only forward in this group who has legitimate middle-six upside.

Fredrik Handemark, John Leonard, Lean Bergmann, Alexander True, Joachim Blichfeld, Sasha Chmelevski, and Jayden Halbgewachs should also be in the mix, but they’re all huge question marks at the NHL level because of their significant inexperience. Blichfeld, Chmelevski, and Leonard own middle-six potential, but Blichfeld has three NHL games to his name, Chmelevski has zero and just one full pro season on his resume, and Leonard has zero professional experience.

So here’s the question that San Jose Sharks fans are rightly asking: What’s Doug Wilson doing?

The Sharks have about $3 million dollars in cap space. It’s the stingiest free agent market in recent history, meaning bargains a-plenty.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Soderberg, Erik Haula, Josh Leivo, Dominik Kahun, and Conor Sheary are among the cost-friendly middle-six UFA forwards still available.

Last summer, San Jose made the mistake of heading into the season relying on too many unproven forwards. Besides Bergmann and Gambrell, Peter DeBoer was forced to dress Danil Yurtaykin and Lukas Radil on opening night.

“Looking back,” Wilson admitted last week, “maybe I didn’t have enough depth and competition last year, early in the season.”

By March, of the aforementioned group, Gambrell was the only NHL regular.

And granted, last off-season, the Sharks didn’t boast significant cap space, it wasn’t a buyer’s market, and Kane was suspended for the first three games of the season.

That’s not the case here: It’s a buyer’s market and San Jose has money to spend.

Wilson, however, countered yesterday: “Would it be nice to add some things? We probably have to re-establish certain areas of our game and earn some things to be added.”

That sounds like Wilson is planning to start the 2020-21 season with this forward group as is.

He also added, of 2019-20’s rotating cast of young forwards: “We have some guys who had a taste last year, they’re now going to be a year older. So we think they’re ready to compete.”

Wilson isn’t wrong here and should know his internal assets better than anybody else. A lot can change in a year. But he also burned credibility last season with his reliance on in-house help that didn’t help.

Okay, so we’re at least two-and-a-half months away from the start of the season. There’s still plenty of time for Wilson to add to his forward group and at a reasonable price. We should always be careful about taking a GM’s public statements at face value.

But right now?

Safe to say, there are more questions than answers in this San Jose Sharks’ line-up.

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