SAN JOSE -- Since Peter DeBoer took over at the helm, the Sharks have marketed themselves as a "defense first" kind of team. But even with high-profile players and a couple of dominant winning streaks, Team Teal ended the regular season with the eleventh-most goals-against in the league.
The good news is San Jose's blue line is already looking to get a boost in the future -- even if the future of some of its personnel is still unknown.
The Sharks will almost certainly have two key members of their d-corps back in Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Burns is coming off another Norris Trophy-worthy campaign and fought off the flu to keep his ironman streak alive. Vlasic may have gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, but after being sidelined midseason with an injury returned to be one of San Jose's key defensemen down the stretch.
The blue line can get a boost from there if Radim Simek returns to the lineup healthy next season. After his impressive rookie campaign was cut short by a knee injury, the Czech d-man has been relentlessly rehabbing in an effort to get back to game action. San Jose's defense no doubt looked its best at the halfway point of the regular season when Simek was healthy and paired up with Burns. (And when Erik Karlsson was healthy, but we'll get to him in a second.) Getting the Simek-Burns combo back together already speaks well for the Sharks' future.
As will getting the Burns-Boughner duo back together. There's already a ton of excitement over Bob Boughner rejoining the Sharks' coaching staff next season given the good relationships he has with the veterans in the locker room. Having him back in the fold could be just what San Jose's defense needs to be more consistent.
That consistency is still a bit tough to determine, however, because it isn't certain what the rest of the d-corps will look like next season. At its best, San Jose's defense had Burns paired with Simek, Vlasic reunited with Justin Braun, and a healthy Erik Karlsson paired with Brenden Dillon.
Now, Karlsson is the most talked-about player about to hit free agency and Braun's name has popped up as potential trade bait if the Sharks really want to push to keep Karlsson on the team. Even if Karlsson is the only member of this season's starting d-corps who doesn't return, that leaves Dillon in need of a defense partner for next season and making up for No. 65's skill set will be no easy feat.
Things get even more interesting in regards to the blue line's depth. Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed are set to hit free agency on July 1 and aren't locks to return -- both of whom had to step into the lineup multiple times this season when one of the starting six d-men were injured. There's no word on whether either skater will be in San Jose next season, although Heed's numbers were better in both the regular season.
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Not everything is so up-in-the-air, however, as San Jose has some promising defensemen coming up through the pipeline. Jacob Middleton, who got a couple of games in at the NHL level last season, will likely get a few more looks with the big club this upcoming season. Nick DeSimone is set to become an RFA but could get a look with the big club if he stays in San Jose after a 46-point season (14 goals, 32 assists) with the Barracuda. There is a similar case for Kyle Wood, who is coming off a 35-point campaign (6 goals, 39 assists) in his first season with San Jose's AHL club.