SAN JOSE, Calif. – Preparations for the upcoming campaign started early for the San Jose Sharks when they retooled their roster before last season’s trade deadline.
A strong finish last spring, followed by a playoff run that ended in Game 7 of the second round, proved to the Sharks that those changes that made the team faster and more aggressive worked.
Now they hope that new identity carries over to this season and is just the right tonic to help one of the league’s top regular-season teams over the past decade take that next step and make it to the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
“The fact that they played that way, that they executed, had some success with it, should be rewarding,” coach Todd McLellan said. “They should be embracing the opportunity to do it again.”
The change from a slow-moving puck-possession team to a faster, more physical one that plays a more direct style began when San Jose dealt players like Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus.
The Sharks added Raffi Torres and moved Brent Burns from defence to forward to create three potent scoring lines and altered their style as well after years of a different approach.
General manager Doug Wilson made few changes in the off-season with the most notable moves being the acquisition of forward Tyler Kennedy from Pittsburgh and the signing of 2012 first-round draft pick Tomas Hertl from the Czech Republic.
“These players have the ingredients we’re looking for to match up with the system we want to play,” Wilson said. “We want to play a north-south game, attack people, make them defend, and you’ve got to have players that have that skill set to be able to do that. We’re coming back, and if we’re ready to build on what we did last year, we’re very excited about this team.”
Those additions will be important after Torres injured his right knee in training camp and will miss at least the first month of the season.
Here are five things to watch for the Sharks this season:
SHUFFLING LINES: McLellan wants to keep Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau together on one line with Joe Thornton and Burns on another after those pairs fared well late last season. The third player on those top lines could rotate with Kennedy and Hertl most likely getting the first opportunities. San Jose wants to keep Joe Pavelski as a third-line centre to exploit teams that lack the Sharks’ depth up the middle.
POTENT POWER PLAY: The Sharks had one of top No. 1 power-play units last season with Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Pavelski and Dan Boyle combining for 25 of the team’s 34 man-advantage goals. The problems came with the second unit and in 5-on-5 play, where San Jose ranked third worst in goals scored at even strength.
LEADING LOGAN: The Sharks have long been led by veteran stars like Thornton, Marleau and Boyle. But last season, the 24-year-old Couture emerged as the team’s top player and a leader. Couture led the Sharks with 21 goals and had 37 points, while also matching up with the opponent’s top line much of the season. That kind of play could earn him a spot on the Canadian Olympic team and a letter on his sweater as an alternate captain this season.
FINDING NEMO’S BACKUP: With Thomas Greiss having left for Phoenix after two seasons as Antti Niemi’s backup, the Sharks are looking for a No. 2 goaltender to ease the burden on their workhorse starter. Niemi has made more than 80 per cent of the starts since joining the Sharks three years ago, including all but five in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. But with a full 82-game schedule and possible Olympic appearance for Niemi, the Sharks want to fine a reliable backup between Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri to ease Niemi’s load.
HAVLAT’S HEALTH: Marty Havlat was limited to parts of two games last post-season before a groin injury became too serious to overcome. Havlat had major surgery in June to repair the injury and is working his way back to full health. Havlat has been plagued by injuries in two seasons with the Sharks, missing 51 regular-season games. But San Jose still believes he can be an important playoff contributor if healthy based on his 52 points in 74 career playoff games. “We look forward to the day that Marty is fully healthy and he can play uninterrupted,” McLellan said. “We’ll be excited about having him then.”