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Karlsson-less San Jose Sharks still have tough decisions to make on defense

Karlsson-less San Jose Sharks still have tough decisions to make on defense

SAN JOSE – He no longer has Erik Karlsson but San Jose Sharks general manager Mike Grier will still have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to selecting the seven or eight defensemen who will be on the 23-man roster for the start of the regular season.

Henry Thrun is making sure of that.

Thrun, 22, had three points Sunday night to continue what’s been an impressive training camp so far, as the Sharks began the post-Erik Karlsson era with a 5-2 preseason win over the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center.

Thrun, who played eight NHL games last season after he left Harvard, will probably be in the lineup again in at least one of the next two games as the Sharks play a home-and-home series with the Anaheim Ducks, starting with a game Tuesday in San Jose.

“He’s had a very good camp,” Sharks coach David Quinn said of Thrun, “and he’s come here to earn a job.”

Whether Thrun stays with the Sharks or is reassigned to the Barracuda of the AHL before the start of the regular season could come down to his waivers-exempt status.

The Sharks have 10 defensemen who would require waivers to be assigned to the AHL. Realistically, though, Jacob MacDonald, Leon Gawanke, and Nikita Okhotiuk are the only ones in that group in danger of being sent down.

Knowing they need depth (they used 12 defensemen last season), the Sharks do not want to lose any of those players to a waiver claim. MacDonald, 30, provides versatility given his ability to also play forward, Gawanke, 24, appears capable of providing some needed offensive punch, and Okhotiuk, still just 22, could be a part of the team for years to come.

To that end, Thrun, who does not require waivers, might have to start the season in the minors.

“When you’ve got competition, that’s never a bad thing,” Quinn said. “Making the team may not be right on opening night, but you may have to go down to the American League and give the general manager time to create a spot for you. So it may not be in the short term that you’re going to make the team, but you could make it sooner than later because of your performance and training.”

The Sharks could keep eight defensemen to start the season, with Okhotiuk, who the Sharks really wanted as part of the Timo Meier trade with New Jersey, joining Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Mario Ferraro, Kyle Burroughs, Jan Rutta, Radim Simek, Matt Benning and Nikolai Knyzhov on the roster.

That would limit the Sharks to 13 forwards to start the year, bringing about its own questions. But it gives San Jose a bit more flexibility when finalizing its defense corps after training camp.

“I’m honestly just worried about what I do,” Thrun said of the competition. “I’m my biggest believer in myself and I think that if I do what I do and play the way I can … that’s all I can take care of. I can’t really control the movement that goes on with other players.”

Thrun turned professional last spring following his junior year at Harvard and had two assists to close out the year. But he also averaged close to 20 minutes of ice time per game, quickly earning Quinn’s trust after being thrown into the deep end straight out of the NCAA.

Thrun worked on his skating and his shot throughout the offseason, and it appears the training has paid off. His improved skating has allowed him to close gaps on opposing forwards quicker than before and although his shot remains a work in progress, he got two wrist shots through from the point that beat Golden Knights goalie Jiri Patera, including one 24 seconds into the game.

Thrun finished with over 21 minutes of ice time, forming an effective defense pair with Jan Rutta.

“It’s nice to start a game with a goal, right? So he just kept it going,” Rutta said. “I think he played a really good game.”

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Thrun’s efforts were not quite enough to make people forget about Karlsson. But so far, there’s enough there to make folks inside the organization feel good about Thrun’s long-term prospects.

“I really like his game,” Sharks center Tomas Hertl said. “He’s young, but he’s got a lot of confidence.”

“Mentally, coming into camp, one of the biggest things I wanted to focus on was being patient,” Thrun said. “You’re not going to make the team on one play and you’re not going to get cut from the team on one play. So I tried to start off simple, build from there, and slowly ramp up your confidence. I feel that I’ve done that throughout camp.”