Published September 25, 2013
| Sports Network
Having made the postseason in nine straight years, the San Jose Sharks aren't ready just yet to go into a rebuilding mode. It could be coming soon though, with center Joe Thornton, winger Patrick Marleau and defenseman Dan Boyle all unrestricted free agents at season's end.
San Jose's current string of postseason appearances began with a Western Conference finals loss to Calgary in 2004. That was Marleau's seventh NHL season with the Sharks and Thornton came on board following a trade with Boston during the 2005-06 season. Boyle was traded to the Sharks ahead of the 2008-09 campaign.
That helped San Jose make back-to-back trips to the conference finals in 2010 and '11, but the club won just one game in those two series and was then bounced out of the first round the following year.
A seven-win start to the lockout-shortened campaign raised the bar again, but the streaky Sharks followed with an 0-4-3 stretch while watching their offense go cold for stretches at a time. A seven-game win streak from March 25-April 5 eventually righted the ship and San Jose swept Vancouver out of the first round.
The Sharks then pushed the Los Angeles Kings to a seven-game series in the semifinals before a 2-1 setback ended their season.
But San Jose had already begun looking towards this season before the last was complete. Looking to find players to fit a more aggressive style, Ryan Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray were all dealt before the deadline last season, while the likes of Raffi Torres and defenseman Scott Hannan came aboard.
Torres and Hannan were re-signed in the offseason. And, while the above- mentioned trio play out their respective deals, the 24-year-old Logan Couture was locked up with a five-year extension over the summer, while Joe Pavelski, 29, was extended for five years as well.
FORWARDS - The Sharks will have some decisions to make for their top six forward groupings, especially with Martin Havlat's return date from groin surgery unknown.
Havlat suffered his injury during the postseason, making him ineligible for one of the Sharks' two compliance buyouts, which they were likely to use to get the final two seasons of his six-year deal off the books. He has just 15 goals in 79 games with San Jose.
Couture, Marleau and Thornton should all see their average of 18-20 minutes of ice time per game. Thornton led San Jose with 33 assists and 40 points last season, Couture had a team-best 21 goals and Marleau matched Pavelski for third on the club with 31 points.
That core is also key to a power play that converted at 85 percent last season, tied for seventh in the NHL.
Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, Torres and Kennedy will all battle for time on the top two lines. Burns should have an inside track based on results, which saw him post 20 points in 23 games after making the switch from defense to forward during his injury-hampered campaign.
Torres had six points in 11 games after being acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes and scored once in five playoff games, but has to find his discipline. His infamous head shot of Marian Hossa during the 2012 playoffs netted him an eventual 21-game ban, while he also missed the remainder of the Sharks' set with the Kings last season after a high hit on Jarret Stoll.
The Sharks will have to make due without Torres for at least the first month of the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during the preseason.
Kennedy, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second-round draft pick and later signed to a two-year deal, adds a bit of Torres' grit with more scoring, having potted 21 goals in 2010-11.
Then there is Hertl, who appears ready for NHL action after getting taken 17th overall in the 2012 draft. The 19-year-old center had 18 goals and 30 points in 43 games with HC Slavia Praha last season and could shift to wing if he earns a spot on the top lines.
Depth comes from James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins, Tommy Wingels and Adam Burish.
DEFENSE - While the offense was up-and-down, the Sharks blue line was as steady as they come. San Jose ranked sixth on defense with 2.33 goals against per game, while the penalty kill also ranked sixth at 85.0 percent.
The unit doesn't have a lot of flash and doesn't offer a ton of offense after Boyle, with Matt Irwin second among Sharks defensemen with six goals and 12 points in 38 games.
Boyle led the Sharks with 22 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time per game and Marc-Edouard Vlasic plays relatively mistake-free for his 20 minutes per game. Veterans Hannan and Brad Stuart also fit the mold of what San Jose likes to do at the back end.
Irwin and Justin Braun also continue to improve and the shift of Burns from defense to forward leaves another spot for either Hannan or Jason Demers.
GOALTENDING - While the Sharks face future uncertainty on offense and defense, they appear set in goal thanks to 30-year-old Antti Niemi.
Niemi was a workhorse in his third season with the Sharks, starting 43 games and going 24-12-6 with career bests in goals against average (2.16) and save percentage (.924). He appeared in 2,580:46 of ice time to lead all NHL goaltenders while earning his first Vezina Trophy nomination.
Niemi tied for first in the NHL in wins and the former Stanley Cup winner with Chicago in 2010 continued to be clutch in the postseason. He is 8-1 in playoff overtime games since joining the Sharks.
Few could blame backup Thomas Greiss for bolting to Phoenix in free agency as Niemi doesn't leave many minutes to fill. Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri split time in net last year with Worcester of the American Hockey League and will battle for the reserve role with the Sharks.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - This could be the curtain call for a number of Sharks players this season, but they hope to make it an encore performance that goes deep into the playoffs.
The Sharks stay in the new-look Pacific Division, losing Dallas but gaining Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Though Thornton, Marleau and Boyle are closer to the end than the beginning of their NHL careers, the trio certainly still have production left in the tank. Head coach Todd McLellan could have them take a back seat this year to the likes of Couture, Pavelski and Niemi as the Sharks transition to the future.
The playoffs are certainly within reach for San Jose, but a run to the Cup Finals may have passed this group by.