A busy offseason it was not for the San Jose Sharks.
A team that looked dead as disco in mid-March made some key trades and notable changes in on-ice strategy, surged into the postseason, and nearly knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champs after a first round sweep. That roster has essentially returned in full, with a few tweaks. Are the Sharks a better club than the one that played seven tough games against Los Angeles, or have they taken a step back?
How the Sharks have improved:
1) Is there a better third line center in the NHL than Joe Pavelski? The Sharks historically put an emphasis on the center position, and having Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Pavelski down the middle should give San Jose a balanced and dynamic attack. The versatile Pavelski will also see time on a top power play unit that can be nearly unstoppable when it’s on its game, and Couture looks primed to make a run at the 40-goal plateau. Thornton is, well, Joe Thornton, and he’ll surely be among the team’s scoring leaders.
2) Tyler Kennedy was the only notable addition to the Sharks as far as NHL veterans go, joining the Sharks when the club sent a second round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the 27-year-old winger. Kennedy fell out of favor with the Penguins’ coaching staff for some reason, but already looks like a good fit in San Jose, and his style of play should mesh well in a second or third line role. He essentially takes the place of TJ Galiardi, who improved incrementally as last season went along, but was much too inconsistent. Galiardi was traded to Calgary.
3) Rookie Tomas Hertl also appears to have locked up a top line role, and after two years of playing with men much older and more mature than him in the Czech league, the hope is that he is ready for the rigors of an NHL season. Should the six-foot-one, 210-pound Hertl stay on the left wing of Thornton and Brent Burns, his name will be among preseason Calder Trophy candidates.
How the Sharks have regressed:
1) Raffi Torres’ absence to start the season will be felt. Suddenly, the Sharks are a little slower and not quite as mean with Torres unable to provide his trademark brand of hockey. The Sharks were already thin at the wing position when training camp opened, and now they will either have to go with a middling veteran or unproven youngster to take Torres’ place.
2) Antti Niemi will once again be counted on to play as often as any goaltender in the league, just the way he likes it. But when Niemi needs a breather (or misses any time due to injury), the Sharks will have to go with either Alex Stalock or Harri Sateri. The organization is high on both players, but no one can predict what kind of success either will have at the NHL level, as goaltenders are often the hardest players to speculate upon. It will be trial by fire for whichever player earns the backup position.
3) Finally, while the Sharks have some promising young players like Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this is still primarily a veteran club. That includes Thornton, 34, Patrick Marleau, 34, and Dan Boyle, 37. The Sharks’ three highest paid players are still effective, but at some point they will start to slow down, if they haven’t already. If that happens in 2013-14, the Sharks are in trouble. If that trio continues to play at a high level, it could be an exhilarating hockey season in the Bay Area.