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Top Shelf: Sharks dive headfirst into season

Knocking Gary Bettman's decision to place teams in non-tradional hockey markets has become a favorite pastime of hockey fans.

When speaking on this subject, however, Bettman detractors often choose to skip mentioning the San Jose Sharks. That's because the franchise has been a rousing success story in just about every way possible.

One thing that's eluded the Sharks has been postseason success, but with the way they've begun this compressed season, it may be time to put San Jose back on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.

Several years ago, the Sharks were perennial Cup favorites, but the franchise's status over the last three seasons could be considered the team's post-hype era. The bottoming out happened in the spring of 2009, when San Jose won the Presidents' Trophy with 117 points in the regular season only to lose in the first round of the playoffs to Anaheim.

The Sharks followed that top-seeded meltdown with consecutive trips to the Western Conference finals. Still, those years did little to alter the notion of San Jose as playoff underachievers because the Sharks won only one total game over the two conference championship series.

Although the 2011-12 season also ended in a first-round exit, it's been hard not to notice the Sharks since this lockout-season began over a week ago.

All San Jose has done is build a 5-0 record while outscoring the opposition by a 23-8 margin, giving the Sharks the best goal differential of any team this season.

Patrick Marleau has garnered most of the headlines by recording a whopping nine goals in the team's first five games, but there is more to the Sharks than the red-hot winger and his superstar linemate Joe Thornton.

A closer look at the Sharks reveals a team that is incredibly deep at both ends of the ice and one boasting a nice mix of young players (Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and veterans (Martin Havlat, Dan Boyle). The team also has a No. 1 goaltender with a Stanley Cup to his credit, as Antti Niemi is less than three years removed from his championship performance for the Chicago Blackhawks in the spring of 2010.

Despite the stockpile of talent in San Jose, it's still easy to dismiss the best start in franchise history as an early season illusion thanks to the Sharks' humbling playoff past.Of course, the Sharks would be best served to ignore the past and follow the old Will Rogers saying that tells us: "Don't let yesterday use up too much of today."

Perhaps the presence of Larry Robinson on the bench can help San Jose transition from trendy playoff pick to actual postseason force.

Assistant coaches normally don't get a great deal of attention, but Robinson is anything but a normal case. Robinson was a Hall of Fame defenseman whose name has been etched on the Stanley Cup nine times as a player, head coach and assistant. Robinson nearly made it No. 10 last season after serving on Peter DeBoer's staff in New Jersey, which fell two wins shy of beating the Los Angeles Kings in the Cup Finals.

Obviously, Robinson offers a wealth of knowledge as a winning player and coach and he's someone San Jose's head coach, Todd McLellan, can lean on for advice in this shortened season. Speaking of coaching in seasons cut short by lockouts, Robinson also brings expertise in that realm, having served under Jacques Lemaire when the Devils won it all following the truncated 1994-95 campaign.

Of course, we're still months away from the actual start of the playoffs and there could be numerous obstacles between the Sharks and postseason glory. Some of those roadblocks could come in the form of injuries and others from serious competition from other powerful teams in the West like the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and the defending champion Kings.

Just don't make the mistake of dismissing the Sharks out-of-hand due to their sketchy playoff past. After all, strange and unexpected things can happen in a shortened season.

COOLER HEADS PREVAIL IN SUBBAN-HABS SQUABBLE

For a moment there it seemed like the Montreal Canadiens and P.K. Subban were digging in for a protracted war over his contract status, but to the delight of Habs fans everywhere, the nightmare scenario has been avoided.

Subban and Montreal agreed to a new deal on Monday, signing their talented young defenseman to a two-year deal reportedly worth a total of $5.75 million.

It was rumored that Subban was looking for a longer and more lucrative deal but what he wound up getting was more of a trial run. Montreal might have caved in to those demands if it had more cap space, but if the 23-year-old improves upon his first two NHL seasons, the Habs will have to pay a premium to retain his services down the line.

For now this looks like a win for Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin, but if all goes as planned, Subban's moment to score a much bigger payday will come eventually.

One lingering question: How will Subban's absence at the start of the season affect his play for the rest of the campaign? The club is already off to a strong 3-1-0 start, and in theory the addition of last year's leader in ice time should help Montreal build off the strong opening. Then again, if Subban joins the Canadiens out of shape or lacking focus, it could have an adverse effect on a club that entered this season with an outside shot at making the postseason.

Subban could play as soon as Wednesday's game in Ottawa.