When it comes to the regular season, the San Jose Sharks have become an elite NHL team over the last several years. Unfortunately for the Sharks, the truly great teams are defined by how they play after the regular season ends.
For the fifth straight year the Sharks compiled over 100 points in the regular season. They also entered the postseason as one of the top two seeds in the West for the fourth straight year.
The good news is that two of San Jose's three all-time trips to the conference finals have come over the last two springs. The bad news is the Sharks have a combined 1-8 record against Chicago and Vancouver over the last two Western Conference finals.
Despite the club's recent postseason flameouts, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan are determined to bring a Cup to Silicon Valley. Wilson made some big changes in the offseason towards that end, including shipping talented sniper Dany Heatley to Minnesota for winger Martin Havlat -- a slightly cheaper, and riskier, investment.
Of course San Jose is still loaded with talent up front with guys like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture, to name a few. The defense has also improved with the arrival of Brent Burns, who came over from Minnesota in a separate trade this summer.
We can be pretty certain that the Sharks will be a playoff team once again, and another 100-point season is probably in the cards too. The real question is will the offseason tweaks be enough to get San Jose the Cup it so desperately wants?
FORWARDS - Thornton replaced the retired Rob Blake as team captain just before the start of last season and, to the surprise of many, he really seemed to enjoy the challenge.
His point total did drop from 89 points in 2009-10 to 70 (21 goals, 49 assists) last season, but Thornton was also called on to play a more important defensive role for the Sharks. He also turned in nearly a point-per-game in the playoffs, notching three goals and 14 assists over 18 postseason tilts.
At 32, Thornton, who was selected No. 1 overall by Boston in 1997, is still one of the better playmaking centermen in the league. San Jose is his team to lead, but as Thornton's linemate Patrick Marleau knows, that is something that could change.
Marleau, who was taken second after Thornton in the 1997 draft, served as San Jose's captain for several years before he was stripped of the "C" in favor of Blake in the summer of 2009. The sniping left winger has been a good soldier, however, playing in all 82 games in each of the last two seasons and tallying 81 goals and 156 points along the way.
Last year, Marleau, who can also play center, led the Sharks in both goals (37) and points (73). He added seven more markers and six assists in the playoffs and contributed four goals and three helpers in his club's five-game loss to the Canucks.
With Heatley gone, Pavelski takes the right wing spot on the club's top line. The 27-year-old Wisconsinite turned in his best point total last season with 20 goals and a career-best 46 assists. Pavelski has also proven to be a clutch scorer, registering 27 points (14g, 13a) in 33 playoff games over the last two years.
San Jose also has the makings of a terrific second line with Couture expected to center Havlat and left winger Ryane Clowe.
Couture, 22, had a fantastic rookie season in 2010-11, recording 32 goals and 56 points and garnering a nomination for the Calder Trophy. The ninth overall pick of the 2007 draft was also second on the team with a plus-18 rating in the regular seen and Couture added seven goals and seven assists in the postseason.
Clowe, meanwhile, has turned into a solid power forward and is coming off career bests in goals (24) and points (62) in 2010-11. Clowe, 28, has far exceeded the expectations since San Jose selected him in the sixth-round of the 2001 draft and his numbers could get better if Couture continues to progress.
Havlat's fresh start in San Jose came after two disappointing years with the Wild. The 30-year-old Czech playmaker signed a six-year, $30 million contract with Minnesota in the summer of 2009, but his 116 points (40g, 76a) in 151 games in a Wild uniform fell short of expectations. However, Havlat will be called to provide secondary scoring in San Jose instead of trying to be a team's top offensive weapon like he was in St. Paul.
The Sharks added depth down the middle with the signing of veteran centerman Michal Handzus, who signed a two-year, $5 million deal to join San Jose this summer. Handzus provides enough scoring (12g, 18a in 82 games with Los Angeles in 2010-11) to man the third line and also provides strong defensive play and the ability to kill penalties.
San Jose's bottom two lines are not expected to do a great deal of scoring, although that's not really a problem if the top-six forwards are doing their job. That should leave the third and fourth lines free to focus on checking and tight defensive play to help wear the opposition down.
One concern is that Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, who was traded to Minnesota for Burns, will be missed in the scoring department, but San Jose did a good job of offsetting those losses. Although he isn't Heatley, Pavelski should be fine on the top line and Havlat is more than capable of replacing Setoguchi's 22 goals and 41 assists from last year.
DEFENSE - The loss of Heatley and Setoguchi's production will also be alleviated by the acquisition of Burns, who proved to be a scoring threat with the Wild.
Burns recorded personal bests last season in both goals (17) and assists (29). The 26-year-old's 17 goals were just one less than the total amount tallied by San Jose's top-four scoring defensemen in 2010-11. At 6-foot-5, 219 pounds, Burns also boasts tremendous size and physical strength.
Vlasic was second only to Boyle in ice time per game for San Jose last year. The 24-year-old registered four goals, 14 assists and a plus-14 rating over 80 games.
Boyle, meanwhile, led all Sharks blueliners in goals (9) and assists (41). The 35-year-old will still take the lead as San Jose's top power-play quarterback after recording 27 (4g, 23a) of his 50 points on the man advantage last season. Boyle, who won a Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay in 2004, has also proved his worth in the playoffs, tallying six goals and dishing out 24 assists over 33 postseason games in 2010 and '11.
Murray's stay-at-home style gives the puck-moving Boyle an anchor, but he still managed 14 points (1g, 13a) in 73 games last season.
The 23-year-old Jason Demers could be on many club's top pairing, but in San Jose he helps provide tremendous depth. Last year, Demers posted two goals, 22 assists and a team-best plus-19 rating over 75 games.
San Jose also picked up Jim Vandermeer in the offseason, signing the journeyman to one-year, $1 million deal. Vandermeer, who joins his sixth team since the lockout, recorded two goals and 12 assists in 62 games with Edmonton last season.
GOALTENDING - After a slow start to the 2010-11 campaign, Antti Niemi solidified himself as the club's No. 1 goaltender. Before the season was finished, the former Chicago netminder had landed a four-year, $15.2 million extension from the Sharks.
Niemi, of course, back-stopped the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup title as a rookie in 2010, but the 28-year-old became one of Chicago's many salary cap causalities last summer. The Sharks are certainly glad they scooped him up for an initial investment of one-year and $2 million.
Despite beginning the year with a 9-13-2 record, Niemi managed to go 35-18-6 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in his first year with the Sharks. He struggled a bit in the postseason, recording a 3.22 GAA and .896 save percentage in 18 playoff appearances.
San Jose can't afford another poor start from Niemi in 2010-11, as backup Antero Niittymaki is expected to miss the first few months of the season after recently having surgery to repair an unspecified lower-body injury. Niemi is also coming off offseason surgery to remove a cyst, but he isn't expected to miss time in the regular season.
Niittymaki was the team's savior in the early part of last season and wound up with a 12-7-3 record and a 2.72 GAA in 24 games. The veteran Finn is entering the final season of a two-year deal.
Thomas Greiss will likely spell Niemi until "Nitty" can return to action. The 25-year-old Greiss spent last season playing for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Sharks are still one of the best teams in the league and are among a handful of clubs that have a serious chance to win it all in 2011-12. San Jose will face fierce competition for the Western Conference crown once again and the Sharks must prove they can beat the best when it counts. It's hard to tell at this point if this will be the year San Jose finally reaches the Stanley Cup finals or if the club once again falls short in the postseason. One thing is sure, most of us will keep guessing the latter until the Sharks can prove us wrong.