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Greg Wyshynski

NHL 2010-11 Season Preview: Wrestling with San Jose Sharks

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...

Last Season (51-20-11, 113 points; first in the Pacific; first in the Western Conference)

It used to be so easy, writing about the San Jose Sharks. Tossing up the logo as the "universal sign of choking." The Heimlich maneuver jokes. The cracks about Thornton and Marleau wearing the cloak of invisibility in the playoffs.

Then the Sharks had to go and survive an upset bid from the Colorado Avalanche and eliminate the Detroit Red Wings in five. Sure, they were dominated by the eventual champs from Chicago; but only the most cynical among us would still label them chokers. And by that we mean "Ducks fans."

This offseason saw a seismic shift in the Sharks' lineup: The departure of franchise goaltender Evgeni Nabokov(notes) to Russia and veteran defenseman Rob Blake(notes) to retirement. Will the Sharks swim back to the top of the conference, or is this a year of transition for Todd McLellan and the boys? Or, to ask a more audacious question: Is this the year they finally take the Cup?

Key Subtractions

The last time the Sharks didn't have Nabokov as their primary starting goaltender was in the 1999-2000 season, during which he played understudy to the immortal Steve Shields. He amassed 563 293 regular-season victories during that span, helping the Sharks to five first-place finishes and missing the playoffs only once. Say what you want about his postseason play, but he was money in the bank during the first 82 games.

He was also too rich for the Sharks' budget, and left for a KHL contract.

After two strong seasons on the Sharks' blue line and 20 seasons overall, Rob Blake retired from the NHL. Valuable depth center Manny Malhotra(notes) departed for a big contract from the Canucks. Jed Ortmeyer(notes) was unsigned after July 1.

New Additions

It begins in goal: Antero Niittymaki(notes) was signed from the Lightning to a two-year deal with the notion that he'd become the starter for the Sharks. When Antti Niemi(notes), winner of a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in June, became available, GM Doug Wilson received Niitty's blessing to bring in the fellow Finn and create a goaltending tandem/competition for the Sharks.

Jamal Mayers(notes), formerly of the Flames, will replace Ortmeyer down the lineup.

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Wrestler That Best Personifies the Team

A great look, enormously talented and always a welcome addition to any television broadcast ... but Bam Bam Bigelow could just never get over and become a perennial champion. Dude lost a Wrestlemania match to Lawrence Taylor!

Forwards

Joe Thornton(notes) posted a 1.13 points per game average, up from the previous season, in scoring 89 points in 79 games. He had 12 points in 15 playoff games, although he was saddled with a minus-11. Overall, the combination of Thornton and Dany Heatley(notes) produced 59 goals, with Heatley finishing with 82 points. Expect more of the same, and perhaps even more production.

Patrick Marleau(notes) went from the indignity of losing the captaincy to an outstanding offensive season: 44 goals and 39 assists for a plus-21, breaking out before breaking the bank in his UFA summer to come back to the Sharks.

Joe Pavelski(notes), an RFA, also resigned with the Sharks for a 4-year deal after back-to-back 25-goal seasons. Ryane Clowe(notes) saw significant time with Pavelski and posted a career-best 57 points. Devin Setoguchi(notes), however, hopped on the Cheechoo Train, seeing his 31 goals drop to 20 and his 65 points drop to 36 without the benefit of Thornton has his primary pivot.

Scott Nichol(notes) was a great addition down the lineup as a defensive forward. Players like Torrey Mitchell(notes), Logan Couture(notes), Frazer McLaren(notes) and Jamie McGinn(notes) are going to be counted on for quality contributions this season.

Defense

Whether or not it was his fault, Dan Boyle's(notes) postseason gaffe lived in infamy. But the Sharks defenseman rebounded from that nightmarish night against the Avalanche and finished the playoffs with 14 points. That's after a 58-point regular-season. One of the NHL's top blue-liners.

His primary defensive partner was Douglas Murray(notes), a hulking defensive defenseman who could probably beat you in a spelling bee. Marc-Edouard "Pickles" Vlasic missed some time last season, which limited his points to 16 after scoring 36 the previous season; and he'll need to adapt to a new D-man pairing with Blake retired.

With Blake gone, Jason Demers(notes) is probably the team's second-best offensive defenseman, scoring 21 points as a rookie while being shuttled back and forth from the AHL. Kent Huskins(notes), Niclas Wallin(notes), Jay Leach(notes) and camp invitee Andreas Lilja(notes) (if he sticks) provide the veteran depth.

Goaltending

Niittymaki has earned his reputation as one of the best tandem goalies in the NHL: Playing well when he's given the chance, though never well enough to win a job, and pushing the other goalie to better performances. As the Sharks' starter, he would have been a question mark; as part of a duo with Niemi, he's a great fit.

Niemi had moments of brilliance during the Blackhawks' Cup run; once the team reached the Finals one could say that he didn't win them the championship, but didn't lose it either. He started 35 games last season; how many will he get with the Sharks? With Niittymaki, the regular-season grind should be manageable.

Thomas Greiss(notes) is still in the mix, and is justifiably pissed.

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Match We'd Pay To Watch

Dany Heatley vs. The Sens Army Spartan. This December, Heatley will return to Ottawa, having demanded a trade from that fair city in 2009. The fans will have their say; but what say this centurion, provided his mic is on?

Breakout Player

Good call from NHL.com here on Logan Couture:

The departure of third-line center Manny Malhotra as a free agent clears the way for Couture to assume a much bigger role in San Jose this season. The Sharks' 2007 first-round pick (No. 9) scored 5 goals and 9 points in 25 regular-season games despite getting limited ice time (not more than 15:03 in any game) and added 4 goals in 15 playoff contests.

He's got offensive upside, provided he earns the ice time.

Potential Flop

Niemi. He played behind a better defense in Chicago, and only has one year of regular NHL work on his bio. He should be fine in a tandem, but he needs to prove it ... or else his Finnish friend is getting most of the starts.

Finishing Move

We believe it was Kate Gosselin who once said, "If you're good at something, just keep doing it." The same theory applies to Joe Pavelski's signature shootout move, which has about as much creative variation an AC/DC album.

Special Teams

With Heatley's 30 power-play points and Thornton and Boyle scoring 29 each, the Sharks were fourth overall on the power play last season at a 21-percent conversion rate. They were also aces on the kill, finishing fifth at a 85-percent conversion rate.

Coach/GM

Todd McLellan is 104-38-22 in two seasons as Sharks head coach, with a first-round loss and a conference finals loss in the playoffs. He's managed the lines well, and the players have bought into his system. As Ivano of Fear The Fin wrote: "To me his contribution to the team's success in the first two rounds of the playoffs were as big as were those of Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Going into this next season, coaching is the least of our concerns in San Jose."

All you need to know about GM Doug Wilson: The dude knew Chicago was in salary cap hell, signed Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) to a 4-year, $14 million offer sheet that Chicago matched, and then cherry-picked Niemi after the Blackhawks couldn't afford his arbitration win. Combine that with getting Pavelski and Marleau into new deals, and it was another strong July and August for the Sharks GM ... although fans would likely trade that for a strong June for once.

2010-11 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: A-
Defense: B
Goaltending: B-
Special Teams: A
Coaching: B+
Management: A-

Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)

The Sharks are a lock for the playoffs, but will be pushed by the Los Angeles Kings in the division. But once the postseason begins ... as usual, all bets are off. Niemi has a Cup ring; can he have another run? The defense needs another body; can Wilson pull the trigger? Patrick Marleau had 13 points in 14 playoff games; can he do it again? The Sharks have many of the pieces for a championship; yet they're still the team for whom a first-round loss wouldn't be a stunner.

Entrance Music for 2010-11 Season

The Sharks have a lot going for them, but what they don't have is swagger. So what better way to strut into the new season with confidence than via the thumping bass of this theme for the original Jive Soul Bro, Slick?

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