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Sharks prepare for new season with same lofty expectations but new goaltenders

The San Jose Sharks begin training camp with a stark reminder of how last season ended and of the offseason changes the team underwent since being swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final.

There was newly signed goalie Antti Niemi wearing his Sharks sweater Saturday with the Blackhawks mask and pads he used when knocking San Jose out of last season's playoffs.

That led to some good-natured ribbing from his new teammates that might last a few more days until Niemi gets his new equipment.

"As soon as he gets rid of the pads and the helmet we'll be all good," defenseman Dan Boyle said.

Coach Todd McLellan was focused on a different piece of equipment than the red helmet that still riles up the Sharks four months after they were eliminated in the playoffs — one he hopes will carry the team to its Stanley Cup.

"I just see the big white pads that got in the way of the pucks today," McLellan said. "That was fine. I didn't see a red mask. Our training staff will take care of that as time goes on."

The addition of Niemi and Antero Niittymaki in goal to replace longtime stalwart Evgeni Nabokov is the biggest change the Sharks underwent over the summer.

They decided before the start of free agency to let Nabokov leave as general manager Doug Wilson believes high-priced starting goalies are unnecessary luxuries in the NHL's salary-cap era.

Wilson then signed Niittymaki to a $4 million, two-year contract on the first day of free agency but didn't stop there. After Niemi was let go by the Blackhawks in a salary cap move, the Sharks signed their former nemesis to a one-year, $2 million deal earlier this month. That created a crowded goalie position that still includes last year's backup Thomas Greiss and youngster Alex Stalock.

"These are goalies who are all used to competing," Wilson said. "They know that performance will dictate who is in there. Todd has made it crystal clear to them. It's not new to any one of those guys to have to compete for their ice time. It's not a bad thing."

It is a change from how things have been the past four seasons, when Nabokov was a steady presence between the pipes. He started nearly 80 percent of the regular season games during that span and all 45 playoff games the Sharks have played since the start of the 2006-07 season.

Niemi has played in just 42 regular-season games in his career but showed he can carry a team in the playoffs. He played all but one period of the Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup title, going 16-6 with a 2.63 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and two shutouts.

Niittymaki matched his career high with 46 starts last year in Tampa, going 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average. He has more regular season experience than Niemi but has played only two playoff games — both in relief for Philadelphia in 2006.

"They'll get an opportunity to compete nightly for the net," McLellan said. "Our job is to win games. If we feel like one on a given night will give us a better opportunity, we'll play him. That's all I know."

There is also a different mood around the Sharks than a year ago, when they were once again plagued by questions about playoff failures.

San Jose was knocked out in the first round in 2009 after posting the best regular-season record in the NHL, the third straight early exit in the postseason for the Sharks. Last season, the Sharks once again earned the top seed in the Western Conference and then knocked out Colorado and Detroit in the first two round.

But the season had a disappointing end as the Sharks were swept in the Western Conference final by Niemi and the Blackhawks. "We have to pick up where we left off," forward Devin Setoguchi said. "We can't come into camp and think just because we had a good playoff we can slack off."

One of the big questions to be decided in training camp is who will take over the captaincy from retired defenseman Rob Blake. McLellan named Blake captain last year to replace Patrick Marleau, although he stressed that the leadership must come from a group not just one captain.

Boyle and Joe Pavelski are among those likely to be considered for the spot. The team must also replace Blake on the ice, where he averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time a game despite turning 40 during the season.

The Sharks have brought in former Detroit defenseman Andreas Lilja to camp on a tryout. Lilja said he had an offer early in free agency from Detroit but wanted to go somewhere he could make a bigger impact.

"We're always looking at players who can come in and make this a better hockey team and create more competition," Wilson said. "Competition is the greatest motivator. If you don't like competition, you're in the wrong profession."

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