SAN JOSE, Calif. – The start of a new season usually means a clean slate as teams look ahead with promising optimism to what could be instead of back at what wasn’t.
That is proving to be difficult for the San Jose Sharks, where the questions in training camp were more about how a brilliant regular season was spoiled by another playoff disaster last season than about what will happen this season.
“I’ve only been here a year and I’m already sick of it,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “I don’t want to talk about playoffs. We’re 82 games away from the playoffs. There’s no sense talking about it now.”
Imagine how some of the players who endured even more playoff disappoints in San Jose must feel. The Sharks open their season Thursday night in Colorado, but there is nothing they can do until the playoffs begin in April that can take away from the hurt of last season’s first-round loss to Anaheim.
That’s to be expected when the team with the second most points in the NHL over the past four seasons hasn’t gotten past the second round in that span.
“There’s a lot of good things for us to build on,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “There is a growth that takes place in this league and sometimes getting kicked in the butt is not such a bad thing.”
That’s exactly what happened last season. The Sharks set franchise records and NHL bests with 53 victories and 117 points after a 25-3-2 start. That raised hopes that after three straight second-round losses, the Sharks could finally get over that hump and into a Western Conference final or beyond.
But they struggled late in the season and then lost the first two games at home to the eighth-seeded Ducks and never recovered. They were eliminated in six games, sending them to an early start to what became a difficult summer.
“Whenever you lose it’s tough,” centre Joe Thornton said. “With us, in years past our Achilles heal wasn’t the first round, it’s always been the second round. In that case it was a little bit tougher because we were excited after we had such a good year. To get bounced out early was a real shock to all of us. We were all set to go to the second round and get past that stumbling block. But now we couldn’t get out of the first.”
That marked just the third time since the current playoff format was adopted before the 1993-94 season that the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy failed to get out of the first round.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan was part of the most recent team that suffered such an upset as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06. After losing in six games in the first round to Edmonton that season, the Red Wings bounced back to make it to the conference finals the next season and win the Stanley Cup the following year.
McLellan has used the lessons he learned in Detroit with his new team.
“We’re not the first team that’s ever done it,” Thornton said. “Todd has gone through it firsthand. He’s helping us regroup and refocus and get us ready for this year. It’s good Todd’s been through this before.”
Wilson didn’t overhaul the roster in the off-season but did make some significant changes, most notably acquiring high-scoring wing Dany Heatley from Ottawa for Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo. The Sharks also added some grit to their third and fourth lines, with Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer, and should get a boost from having a healthy Torrey Mitchell this season.
Heatley, who has averaged 45 goals over the past four seasons, is expected to team with Thornton and Devin Setoguchi on what could be one of the most potent lines in the league.
“That adds extra punch to our offence,” Thornton said. “He’s such a dynamic scorer and he creates a lot of room for guys like me and Setoguchi. He’s going to take a lot of pressure off. I think it’s going to open up the game a little more.”
While there were some notable changes, most of the core of the team is back for McLellan’s second season in San Jose, led by Thornton, Boyle, Setoguchi, Patrick Marleau, Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Rob Blake and goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
It was a mild surprise that Marleau, long rumoured to be dealt, is returning for a 12th season in San Jose. Marleau has been a scapegoat for many of San Jose’s post-season struggles, but is coming off a career-high, 38-goal season. McLellan made the decision to strip Marleau’s captaincy in training camp.
The team announced Wednesday that Blake will be the captain with Boyle and Thornton as alternates, although Wilson says everyone needs to be involved.
“Leadership has to come from 23 players,” Wilson said. “It’s across the board.”