Early in any season in any sport, it is hard to measure teams against one another. Players on both sides may not be the same and teams have not established their new identities. In fact, the San Jose Sharks are one of several teams that may not even have their final roster set: NHL.com reports that Scott Gomez is set to sign Tuesday, January 22, but 90 minutes later David Pollack of the San Jose Mercury News said no deal is imminent via Twitter.
Since the Sharks are reportedly the only team still talking with Gomez, there is no hurry. Coach Todd McLellan has said both parties want to make sure it is a good fit, which may mean each side getting a feel for how much of an upgrade he would be so his value can be more accurately ascertained. McLellan referred to Gomez as a player that "needs to prove himself right before he proves everyone else wrong."
At this point, two things seem likely: Gomez will be a Shark but is not in time for tonight's game at 7:00 p.m. PST. The Sharks are visiting the young Edmonton Oilers, who at the very least are an improved club from last season.
They added top pick Nail Yakupov to a dynamic young forward corps: Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Sam Gagner. They have solid to good forwards to give them secondary scoring: Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Sean Horcoff and maybe even Teemu Hartekainen if the results of these guys playing together in the minors during the lockout.
Edmonton was able to come back from a 2-0 deficit late in the second period and win a shootout on their season-opening visit to the Vancouver Canucks. Allowing that (albeit depleted) attack just two goals in 65 minutes is impressive. But generally the biggest questions about the Oilers are on the back end.
Devan Dubnyk has not consistently shown he is capable of back-stopping a team to the playoffs, but his performance at the end of last year suggests he might be. His 6 ft., 7 in. frame opens up low angles but covers the net better than anyone else in the league.
He may have gotten a little help from the blue line, with Justin Schultz coming in fresh off his instrumental role in Team USA winning gold at the under 20 championships. The Oilers have a deep support group: Ladislav Smid, Ryan Whitney, Nick Schultz, Theo Peckham, Mark Fistric and Andy Sutton. The big question is, can the younger Schultz give them at least one real power play quarterback?
If not, they probably miss the playoffs in a tough division. By contrast, the Sharks are one of the oldest teams in the league but have a strong blue line. Even without Brent Burns and Jason Demers, that unit was solid Sunday night in Calgary.
Matt Irwin stepped in well alongside the top-scoring defenseman of the last four years, Dan Boyle. First pair Brad Stuart and Marc-Edouard Vlasic also finished plus-1, and Justin Braun and Douglas Murray form a third pair better than a half-dozen second pairs.
Goalie Antti Niemi is coming off a brilliant, 31-save performance Sunday. Known as a streaky goalie, this could be a great sign not only for Tuesday's game but for a shortened season. The shot-blocking defensive style of the Sharks requires Niemi to have help cleaning up rebounds and deflections to be successful.
The blue line also has to advance the puck to their strong scoring lines. The Sharks still have one of the best one-two scoring punches in the NHL with Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski one the first line and Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and Martin Havlat on the second line.
San Jose has question marks in their checking lines: Michal Handzus, Tommy Wingels, T.J. Galiardi, Andrew Desjardins and Adam Burish are all proven forwards, but there might not be a 10-goal scorer among them. Or there could be three.
The Sharks biggest problem last year was the penalty kill. Letting in a goal on the first shorthanded situation Sunday and being assaulted during the second suggests the changes made have not taken root yet.
Avoiding penalties might be the safer road for both teams. The Oilers should be better on the power play than they were last year, when they finished third at 20.6 percent—right behind the Sharks at 21.1 percent.
Last year all four games were one-goal margins, with both winning two head-to-head. Both Edmonton wins were in a shootout. Could history repeat itself?