Updated: October 3, 2011, 3:46 PM ET
Christian Petersen/Getty Images The Sharks hope the offseason addition of Brent Burns will make them tougher along the blue line.

Sharks: 10 Things You Need To Know

By Pierre LeBrun

Back-to-back trips to the Western Conference finals have the San Jose Sharks feeling like they are oh-so-close to the promised land.

"We're focused on winning the Stanley Cup," center Logan Couture told ESPN.com. "I believe we're headed in the right direction; we made some big changes this year."

Trying to maximize their time in the "contending" window, the Sharks had another busy offseason, the most notable change being the addition of top-four blueliner Brent Burns.

"We've been knocking on the door and I think we've strengthened our weaknesses," veteran blueliner Dan Boyle said. "Hopefully we can get back in the same position and this time move on, but that's a long ways away."

Is this finally the year?

"It's a pretty good conference," San Jose captain Joe Thornton said. "There are probably six teams that have legitimate chances to get out of the West. We need to work, push each other every day, and if we do that, I think we have a good chance."

1. High expectations
Last season, Sharks GM Doug Wilson thought he waited too long to act, so he got a jump on things this offseason by making a pair of blockbuster moves with the Minnesota Wild. Wingers Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley were off to Minny, while Burns and winger Martin Havlat were headed to wine country.

The moves caught Sharks players off guard.

"It is surprising. Most teams that go to the conference finals two years in a row say, 'Hey, we did a pretty good job,"' Thornton said. "But Doug thought our defense had to get a lot better. If we are going to win, it's going to be about playing good defense. We have a good defense now with Burnsie in the mix. I think we now have one of the best defensive corps in the league, which is going to help us win, I think."

Why the big moves, Mr. Wilson?

"Because we're proud of what we accomplished, but we're not satisfied," said Wilson.

As he does at the end of every season, Wilson sat down with his staff and broke things down. He saw a need to act.

"No matter what you accomplish, it's a fresh start," Wilson said. "And yeah, we're aggressive. We have players and coaches who work their butts off and they want to know they've got a chance to win. Other teams are improving. Just because you had a very good year, we're not satisfied because it wasn't the ultimate. … We have high expectations and we will not apologize for that."

2. What Burns brings
The shifty Burns is a major addition if he can stay healthy. The Sharks have been missing another quality, top-four man ever since Rob Blake retired. Wilson was on Minnesota for Burns for a long time before finally sealing the deal.

"Having Burnsie back there with Dan Boyle is huge," said Couture. "Our power play, you look at the five players that could potentially be out there on the first unit, it's scary. I believe both those guys are top-10 puck-moving defensemen and to have them on the same team together is going to be pretty cool to watch."

At least in camp, Boyle was lining up with the towering Douglas Murray as usual, while Burns had Marc-Edouard Vlasic as his partner. The third pairing would be Jason Demers with either Colin White or Jim Vandermeer. Promising youngster Justin Braun isn't too far off, either.

With Boyle, Burns and Demers all on different pairs, the Sharks will always have a puck-moving defenseman on the ice. The addition of Burns also does something else -- it brings down some of Boyle's minutes so the Sharks don't overtax their veteran.

"I'm a competitive guy and I want to play a lot of minutes," said Boyle. "But I think big picture, a little minute here or there will probably benefit me and benefit the team. We'll see how it goes."

3. There's more grit, too
The additions of White and Vandermeer also give the Sharks more toughness on the back end, something they believed they needed after losing to Vancouver in the West finals.

"When you looked at Boston's blue line and Vancouver's last year was deeper and had more bite than ours did," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "We felt we needed to adjust a bit.

"White and Vandermeer don't get a lot of people talking about them, but they're key pieces, as well. They're big bodies who have played a lot in the league. They're good defenders, they're rugged. Three pieces on the back end -- we haven't had that in a long time."

4. The under-the-radar addition
The Los Angeles Kings wanted Michal Handzus back, but they were busy dealing with their pursuit of Brad Richards (failed to get him). So, during those crazy hours of July 1, the Sharks swooped in and signed the UFA Slovakian center. Handzus played well in a first-round series loss to San Jose, and the Sharks clearly noticed.

"You do as much homework as you possibly can on players before you sign them. You're pleased when you hear positive things, but you also try to dig for some negative stuff so you know what you're dealing with," McLellan said. "I couldn't find anything on this guy. What I heard was that he was a great teammate, he was fit, he knew his role and knew how to play it. He gives us more size through the middle, a big net presence on the power play if we choose to use him there and he brings some experience. We're excited to have him."

5. The bottom six
Handzus and Torrey Mitchell will line up as a pair on the third line, but after that, it's a little wide open in the bottom-six group. Tommy Wingels got a look on the third line for a few preseason games, while Jamie McGinn could also be in the mix. Andrew Desjardins will start the season as the fourth-line center. His linemates were to come from a number of candidates who were fighting it out at camp. Andrew Murray and Brad Winchester mostly played with Desjardins in the preseason.

The Sharks will monitor this one. If the internal applicants for these bottom-six jobs don't answer the bell, we believe Wilson won't wait too long before working the phones for more experienced checkers. Stay tuned.

6. A new role for Joe Pavelski
The arrival of Handzus means Pavelski, a third-line center last season, will move back into a top-six role. He started camp on the right wing with Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Pavelski had a career-high 66 points (20-46) last season, but dipped in the playoffs to 10 points (5-5) in 18 games (ankle problem) after putting up 17 points (9-8) in 15 games the previous postseason when he was ultra-clutch. Either way, this is a big season for him to produce in a top-six role.

7. Havlat an upgrade over Heatley?
This can only be answered after the season. They are both big-time goal scorers, but different players. Heatley can grind it out more in front of the net and in the corners. Havlat has way more speed, and according to Wilson, that's what the Sharks were looking for, especially once they dealt the swift Setoguchi.

"We just felt we needed Marty's speed and type of game in our top six," said Wilson. "Hopefully Marty can just use his speed, create some offense, play well defensively."

Havlat began camp alongside Couture and Ryane Clowe on what has the potential to be one of the most dynamic second lines in the NHL. Havlat is coming off summer shoulder surgery and took it easy early in camp. He's battled injuries throughout his career. The Sharks have to cross their fingers they can keep him injury-free once he's fully recovered from his shoulder issue.

8. Goalie injuries
Starter Antti Niemi had a minor procedure done right before camp to remove a cyst, limiting him in practice early on at camp, although indications point to him having a decent chance to be ready for the opener. The more serious situation is with veteran backup Antero Niittymaki, who is sidelined 12 weeks after groin surgery. Thomas Greiss will step in as the backup to start the season.

The big story here is Niemi and how he fares now that he gets to play a second full season with the Sharks. There was an adjustment period in 2010-11 after his departure from Chicago. Now he's settled and knows what to expect from his teammates. He had a solid 2010-11 season, particularly in the second half. He told ESPN.com during camp that he hopes to show more consistency.

9. Anyone still doubting Joe Thornton?
If playing with a separated shoulder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals or piling up 17 playoff points (3-14) in 18 games doesn't quiet his critics, you wonder if anything ever will, short of a Stanley Cup ring. Thornton's offensive production dipped from 89 points in 2009-10 to 70 points last season, as he focused more on being a two-way player.

"People say Joe has evolved, I think our team has evolved," said Wilson. "Sometimes that goes together. When you have other good pieces around you, you don't feel like you have to do everything yourself. … Putting up points isn't the report card we're using here. It's winning, and Joe welcomes that."

Thornton had offseason shoulder surgery and the scars were still noticeable at camp, but said he's 100 percent.

"I feel great," said Thornton. "Everything feels good and healthy. I had a good offseason. I feel strong and I'm just excited to go again."

10. The sophomore campaign
Couture was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year after putting up 56 points (32-24) in 79 games and also posting a plus-18 rating, second best on the team. But his defensive game is what sets him apart as a young player. Now the task is that much tougher; teams around the league will key on him in his second season.

"We trust him all over the ice. His year will be different. I sat down and talked to him. He kind of snuck into the league last year and got off to a really good start," said McLellan. "His year off the ice will also be different. There will be more demands put on him in some cities. I believe he's mature enough to handle that and it shouldn't affect his game."

We agree with the coach. If you spend enough time around Couture, you don't see a kid that's content by any means.

"I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can be, night in and night out," said Couture. "The best players in the world are consistent. They're playing their best every night. That's something I believe I have to work on. There were times when I was a good player some nights, and other times when I didn't do anything. That's something I'm really focused on this year."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

More From The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine's preview provides even more in-depth coverage of the upcoming NHL season:

• Custance: Different season for the Caps?

• Chang: The Playoff Power Meter Insider

• Custance: The Crosby/concussion dilemma

• Photos: Hanging with champs in Boston


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