Sharks: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
There is something reassuring about the San Jose Sharks. Eight straight trips to the postseason, two trips to the Western Conference finals in the past three years, great fan base, terrific coaching and management. They are the model of efficiency and consistency. And yet for all their success -- only Detroit has a longer current playoff streak in the Western Conference -- there remains a definite feeling of a job unfinished with this talented squad. After an up-and-down 2011-12 season, they settled uncomfortably into the seventh seed last spring and then got bounced in five games by St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. Now some are questioning whether San Jose's window on a championship has closed. GM Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan will aim to pry that window open one more time this season; the Sharks return basically the same lineup, but the clock is definitely ticking ominously in San Jose.
1. Overseas Experience
What should be a positive, at least early on, is that 11 Sharks played overseas at least some during the lockout, including key personnel like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and netminder Antti Niemi. What does that mean as the season moves along? Well, McLellan isn't exactly sure, although the basic math tells you that Patrick Marleau will be at a different point in his season arc at Game 40 than Thornton will be at. But coaches we have spoken to around the NHL say it's obvious in early practices which players have been playing competitive hockey, and that should, in theory, give the Sharks a better chance at getting out of the gate quickly. The other element that could/should aid the Sharks in getting off to a good start is familiarity. Apart from the return of one-time Sharks draft pick Brad Stuart and Adam Burish, the lineup will be much the same as last year's, so players will be familiar with McLellan and his systems. If this were his first year coaching and the Sharks had less than a week to prepare for opening night, it would have been "extremely difficult," McLellan told ESPN.com. "There's a lot of familiarity," he said.
2. Penalty-Killing Woes
No team as talented as the Sharks with the experience this lineup boasts should be 29th in the league in penalty killing, as the Sharks were last season. Nor should they be torched for six goals on 18 power-play attempts in five games against St. Louis, as was the case when they lost four straight after winning the series opener against the Blues. McLellan knows that. So does Wilson. That helps explain the additions to the coaching staff of Hall of Fame defenseman and Stanley Cup-winning coach Larry Robinson, along with former NHL defenseman Jim Johnson. McLellan said the coaching staff spent a lot of time during the lockout getting to know each other, and he hopes that will pay dividends on the ice and in the standings. The yin to that yang is that, if the Sharks go sideways early on, the rumors of Robinson's being groomed to take over for McLellan will be hard to quell.
3. By The Numbers
Apart from their penalty-killing woes, the Sharks remained statistically impressive. They ranked eighth in goals allowed in the NHL and second overall with the man advantage. They were 26-12-3 at the Shark Tank. So how did they end up scrambling for a playoff spot late in the regular season after looking like they would own the division title for a fifth straight season? Well, apart from the aforementioned penalty-killing woes, the team was just mediocre on the road, going 17-17-7. And if there is one indication of the frustration Sharks fans felt with their squad, it might be in the difficulty the Sharks had in taking control of games. The Sharks led after the first period just 19 times (they went 15-2-2 in those games) and trailed after the opening frame 27 times (they went 8-16-3). Does that speak to a lack of preparation? Is that an older team simply taking too long to get revved up for games? Either way, the Sharks have to be better prepared to not just start a truncated season but to start each and every game.
4. Stuart To The Rescue
The Sharks have always impressed with their depth on both sides of the puck, and one would imagine the return of prodigal defenseman Brad Stuart to the fold will add to the team's defensive strengths. Stuart, a left-handed shot who is comfortable playing the right side, was once upon a time the third overall pick in the 1998 draft, and he began his career with the Sharks. He won a Cup in Detroit and is a big, smart defenseman who, among other things, should help bolster the Sharks' penalty kill. Stuart's presence may be doubly important as the Sharks began training camp with some injury issues, including wrist or hand injuries to Justin Braun and Jason Demers -- both young, important cogs in the Sharks' defensive machinery -- and some questions about Brent Burns' health.
5. The Second Line
For the Sharks, one way to put a disappointing season behind them is to get a healthier, more productive campaign out of their all-important second line of Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture. Last season, Havlat was rehabbing a shoulder injury and Clowe was working through his own nagging issues, so the trio did not produce as consistently as they would have liked. All three should be ready to roll next week, though, McLellan said, and that could change the team's complexion considerably.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering fifth NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
On The Rebound: Patrick Marleau
It may not be encouraging to see a 10-point drop in each of the past two seasons from Patrick Marleau, but there is a limit to such a trend. While he may not climb back up to 83 points in the current San Jose Sharks lineup, Marleau should erase the 10-point drop from last season and get back into the mid-70s. Most of the Sharks' top-six forwards disappointed offensively in some way last season. Age may be a factor, but it's not as if Marleau, 32, is in serious decline. If the top two lines can stay healthy, the Sharks should provide ample fantasy contributions -- Marleau included. Marleau will likely stick with Joe Thornton on the top line, which means he will have plenty of opportunity to get back to the 40-goal range, instead of barely cracking 30. He is not a top-line fantasy player (as in top 30 overall), but Marleau should anchor your No. 4 through No. 6 forwards line. After all, Marleau still ranks fourth overall in goals scored during the past three NHL seasons.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Sharks:
• June 10: Acquired D Brad Stuart from Detroit.
• June 26: Re-signed D Justin Braun, C Andrew Desjardins and C Tommy Wingels.
• July 1: Signed RW Adam Burish.
• July 2: Signed C Bracken Kearns.
• July 9: Named Larry Robinson associate coach.
• July 10: Named Jim Johnson assistant coach.
• July 11: Re-signed D Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
• July 12: Re-signed LW T.J. Galiardi, LW John McCarthy and LW Frazer McLaren.
• C Daniel Winnik (unrestricted free agent, signed by Anaheim).
• C Torrey Mitchell (unrestricted free agent, signed by Minnesota)
• RW Benn Ferriero (unrestricted free agent, signed by Pittsburgh)
• C Andrew Murray (rights traded to Detroit)
• C Dominic Moore (unrestricted free agent)
• G Antero Niittymaki (unrestricted free agent)
• D Jim Vandermeer (unrestricted free agent)
• D Colin White (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Brad Winchester (unrestricted free agent)