A common question that will be floating around NHL locker rooms this week will be, who has the biggest advantage in a shortened season and with a compressed schedule? Will it benefit veteran teams like the Sharks, or will a younger, quicker team like, say, Edmonton, excel?
Defenseman Brad Stuart said on Sunday that San Jose should be a step ahead when things get underway on Jan. 20.
“A lot of guys have been around and have a lot of experience in different situations. Probably not quite this situation, but we should be able to handle it well,” Stuart said. “That will be to our advantage, having guys that know how to prepare themselves regardless of how many games we’re playing or how late in the season it is, or anything like that. At some point as a veteran, you figure that out.”
Stuart, 33, is one of several thirty-somethings that the Sharks will be counting on. Ryane Clowe (30), Adam Burish (30), Marty Havlat (31), Douglas Murray (32), Joe Thornton (33), Patrick Marleau (33), Michal Handzus (35) and Dan Boyle (36) are the others.
Stuart, who was acquired by the Sharks from Detroit and quickly signed to a three-year contract, remained in the Bay Area and skated regularly at Sharks Ice during the lockout.
“Personally, I feel as good as I can not having not played any real games," he said. "I haven’t any physical contact for at least eight months I guess. That will be the tough part. The legs and skating are the easy part, it’s going to be the physical play and contact that will take some getting used to.”
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It was a streaky and ultimately disappointing 2011-12 season for the Sharks, who struggled to make the postseason before the St. Louis Blues quickly jettisoned them from the tournament.
It will be nearly nine months to the day when the Sharks play Calgary on Sunday, but head coach Todd McLellan hopes that the bitter taste of last season is still somewhere in the Sharks’ players mouths.
“I’d like our players to still have last year in the back of their minds,” McLellan said. “With that said, the memory of what we did well and what we didn’t do well.
“But, I’d also like them to be moving forward. Part of that is reestablishing our identity. We talked about that as a group this morning in our team meeting. Who are we, and how do we want to play?”
So, how does McLellan want his Sharks to play, in comparison to last season?
“I’d like us to be a faster team, a harder team to play against, and I’d like us to be a supportive team. I want us to play together, and not go off on our own at times and play as individuals.”
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When HP Pavilion drew more than 12,000 fans for a San Francisco Bulls ECHL game in December, it was a pretty clear sign that hockey in the Bay Area was going to be just fine. Sharks CEO Malcolm Bordelon said after the lockout ended that fewer than 100 season ticket holders dropped their seats during the lockout, driving home that point.
Still, it was a pleasant surprise for many that the turnout at Sharks Ice on the first day of camp was significant. The building wasn’t overflowing like the first day in some cities, but it was still a solid crowd. The players recognized the fans before starting practice, raising their sticks in the air and waving after receiving a standing ovation.
It was another positive sign that the damage from the nearly four-month long lockout will be minimal.
“This is my fifth year here and the fans are great,” Dan Boyle said. “It’s going to be a process, starting from opening night across the league. It’s going to hopefully not take too long, but our fans are great. It is what it is. Some places are going to be more forgiving than others, and hopefully we’re one of those places.”
Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: “It might take awhile, obviously, within six years there’s a lockout and a half and they don’t deserve that. We might have to win back a lot of fans that were disappointed, but today it was nice to see basically a sold out crowd, so to say.”
Joe Pavelski realizes that there still may be many fans harboring some ill will towards the NHL. He’s hopeful they’ll eventually make it back, but that might depend on the Sharks’ performance.
“We’ve got to take care of our part,” Pavelski said. “Hopefully the people that are on the edge still will come back, and we can provide a good product for them.”