The 2013-14 NHL season started Tuesday, October 1. Only one Pacific Division team played—the newly-arrived Edmonton Oilers took the 5-4 home loss to the Western Conference maiden Winnipeg Jets—but it was a significant day for the San Jose Sharks nonetheless.
A season starting before a team does is not often meaningful when they are a perennial pick to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, having last missed them in 2003. But this may be the last chance for aging core veterans Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
The Sharks have clearly moved toward youth over the last few months. They let veterans go before the trade deadline and during free agency. They re-signed 20-something forwards Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to huge contracts to be the new core while allowing Boyle, Thornton and Marleau to enter the last year of their contracts.
To drive the point home, they kept three rookies on the opening night roster. Granted there were extenuating circumstances: Tomas Hertl was expected to play before training camp even started and another spot opened up when an already thin forward unit lost Raffi Torres to injury. Still, in the past both positions often went to veteran journeymen, much less steal a third roster spot.
Coach Todd McLellan has made it clear that Freddie Hamilton and Matt Nieto are in San Jose to play, not watch from the press box. Both played huge roles in the preseason, and look ready to step up. They can both stay if they play well, but everyone has been issued a coach's warning according to CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz:
We think we’ll give some of the players that have been here in the past the opportunity to get their games established early, but the leash isn’t going to be very long, because I think there’s some guys that can play down there.
Bracken Kearns may not be a veteran with only 13 games of NHL experience, but he is over 30 years old and was on the roster for five games during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Nevertheless, he is headed to Worcester of the AHL.
The fact that similar but younger career reserve Matt Pelech was sent to San Francisco of the ECHL is clearly so he will be close when the team can put Torres and Martin Havlat on the long-term injured reserve (LTIR) to open up both roster and cap space. Pelech is the perfect 20th skater because he has played forward and blue line in the NHL, so could serve as either in the event of an emergency like one unit being hit with the flu.
John McCarthy has 51 games over three seasons with San Jose. He might have gotten a spot in the past, but is also headed for Worcester. Anthony Stewart has played over 250 NHL games and scored 39 points in 2010-11, but he was released from his training camp tryout contract.
Alex Stalock also won the battle for the backup goalie spot over Harri Sateri, who will now see at least four times as many games not having to sit behind Antti Niemi. Matt Tennyson was the last player cut from the blue line because the Sharks believe their young players need ice time, not to "eat popcorn and watch a bunch of veterans play," as McLellan said. That almost certainly means Brad Stuart will be ready to return as scheduled for the season opener Thursday, October 3.
Starting the season without Havlat and Torres hurt the Sharks in a projection of their Pacific Division finish. Come playoff time, it could help them when those forwards have returned because Hamilton and Nieto will see valuable time that will help prepare them to fill in during the inevitable subsequent injuries to the unit.
Include the second capable NHL backup, and this would give San Jose great depth in all three units. So where does that leave them in the Western Conference playoff pictures?