The San Jose Sharks missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in general manager Doug Wilson’s tenure after the 2014-15 NHL season, and the back end was the primary weakness contributing to it. The changes he made got the results he was looking for in the second of back-to-back preseason games against the Pacific Division rival Vancouver Canucks Tuesday, Sept. 22.
The Sharks have a new coach in Peter DeBoer, new goalie in Martin Jones and Paul Martin was added to solidify a shaky blue-line corps. In the coach’s first win behind the bench, his new goalie had a shutout and his new defenseman scored the game-winning goal. Even the loss the night before reached the end of regulation and the shutout was partially the result of a few scoring-line forwards not playing against the Canucks.
What is more important is that the back end has been exemplary in both games of the Kraft Hockeytown event awarded to the Vancouver area. The only goal allowed through over 126:39 was in overtime against an extra attacker—unlikely to happen more a few times during the 2015-16 NHL season and still resulting in San Jose earning a point in the standings.
Moreover, the Canucks seemed to give more ice time to top players outside of the Sharks playing Jones the entire second game. The first two games of the preseason are hardly worth getting excited about—especially given the games include players on the ice that will never make it to the NHL—but the returns are about as good as they could be on the back end.
The day before Jones turned away all 30 shots faced over 65 minutes, Troy Grosenick and Aaron Dell combined to work on a shutout into overtime. In front of the net, blue-line support was especially strong on rebound clears in both games and the unit had two goals and three assists in the win Tuesday.
San Jose also has reason to be excited about how Tomas Hertl played in both games. He created some chances in the first game before scoring a goal and assist to go with winning eight of 10 draws in the second. Having him play in both games and still shine addresses some of the conditioning concerns, and winning draws allows DeBoer to consider him in the middle.
Hertl made a couple big defensive plays as well, as did Brent Burns (goal, assist, 26:31 in second game). The encouraging signs do not end there: Nikolay Goldobin stood out creating offensive chances that eventually led to a goal and early returns suggest Ben Smith can handle the middle on the fourth line as DeBoer would clearly prefer.
There are three home exhibitions (including one against Vancouver) and then two more on the road, but the 2015-16 NHL season is now just two weeks away. First impressions will often be lasting enough and there is not much margin for error, so anyone fighting for ice time has to not only play well now to catch DeBoer’s eye but make it last when the games count.