In January of last season, the Sharks looked headed for disaster. Picked by many to win the Western Conference and possibly the Stanley Cup, they hovered near the middle of the pack for much of the season's first half. After losing six straight to open the calendar year, they reached their lowest point on January 13th, falling to 12th place in the Conference.
Four days later, however, their turnaround began when GM Doug Wilson made some minor depth moves, claiming Kyle Wellwood and Ben Eager off waivers to flesh out his forward lines.
It paid off. Wellwood and Eager didn't light the world on fire, but with the added depth, everything seemed to be in its right place. The team gelled, the stars began to produce, and the Sharks took off, posting the best record in the NHL the rest of the way, and closing out the season with the second-best record in the conference.
They continued their strong play into the playoffs, too, knocking off the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings to reach the Western Conference finals for the second straight season.
They would go no further, however, falling to the Vancouver Canucks, whose forwards outplayed the Sharks' forwards and exploited the Sharks' thin defense to dash San Jose's hopes in five games.
Needless to say, Doug Wilson felt some changes were in order, and he didn't hesitate to make them.
There's no grey area for the Sharks' anymore. After two consecutive appearances in the Western Conference finals, lasting three rounds is old hat. Anything but a breakthrough to the Stanley Cup Final itself would be a failure.
Will Wilson's big moves pay off? Can the Sharks finally get to the dance?
If he can get healthy, Havlat could be a nice addition. He doesn't have Dany Heatley's ceiling, but he brings an element of speed to the Sharks' top six that simply wasn't there last season.
Brent Burns, too, fills a major gap, providing coach Todd McLellan with another big minute guy on defense. Dan Boyle was something of a one-man show on last year's blueline, but Burns is a more than capable number two. The Sharks' defense is much deeper with him in tow.
Wilson also brought in a couple of depth centres, adding Michal Handzus to replace Kyle Wellwood on the third line, and Andrew Murray to replace the departed Scotty Nichol on the fourth. In addition to Wellwood and Nichol, the Sharks said goodbye to two more pivotal forwards: Jamal Mayers and Ben Eager.
Also, Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi play for the Wild now. These may be bigger departures.
Heatley put up 146 points in 162 games with the Sharks -- strong numbers, to be sure, but not nearly strong enough for a player that collected $16 million over that span.
He was a disappointment in San Jose, especially last season, where he registered only 64 points, not nearly good enough for the superstar winger that many thought would return to the century mark upon being paired with Joe Thornton. That the former 100-point scorer could be traded in a one-for-one with Martin Havlat is a sign of how low his stock had fallen.
The Sharks will miss Devin Setoguchi, who showed considerable promise as a finisher, but never quite got back to the lofty levels of his 30-goal season in 2008-09. With Logan Couture proving ready for a spot in the top-six, Setoguchi was somewhat expendable.
And finally, Doug Wilson let depth defenseman Kent Huskins walk, adding veteran Jim Vandermeer in his stead, and Ian White will be replaced by Colin White, likely to save on nameplate stitching thread.
Even with Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi on the way out, the Sharks are one of the conference's deepest teams at forward, with Joes Thornton and Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe, Havlat and Couture comprising a formidable top-six.
The group is ridiculously versatile. They've got size, speed, and plenty of skill. Plus, four of those guys can play centre, meaning Todd McLellan isn't exactly limited when it comes to line combinations.
Joe Thornton will be looking for a bounceback year after putting up only 70 points for the first time since 2003-04. It's not unreasonable to think the superstar centre could add 20 or 30 points to that total this season.
But, the key to this group will be Logan Couture, who put up 56 points in his first full season, and looks to improve on those totals in his second year. There were stretches last season where Couture was the Sharks' best player, even in the playoffs, and on a team with this kind of depth, that's impressive. If he can outdo his freshman campaign, this could be the year he establishes himself as a star in this league.
At defense, the Sharks will be led by Dan Boyle and Brent Burns, and while this will give the team more firepower from the back end, I'm skeptical that Burns is exactly what the Sharks needed. Granted, they had to improve their blueline overall, and the addition of Burns does that, but he may not be the shutdown guy they were lacking in last year's Western Conference Finals. If you listen to Wild fans (although, to be fair, why would you?), they'll be the first to tell you that, skilled as Burns is, he's prone to defensive lapses.
With the offensive firepower boasted by the rest of the Western Conference elite, the Sharks simply can't afford to be defensively suspect. If Burns has a shaky transition year, they could be in trouble.
Antti Niemi continues to be the guy in goal, with Thomas Greiss back from Sweden to back him up.
Last season, Niemi had the lustre of his Cup ring glossing over some of his weaknesses, but now that he's finally lost a playoff series, he won't be viewed with the same rose-coloured glasses. He'll have to play better to avoid criticism. He wasn't a top ten goaltender in any category last season, and with his four-year, $3.8 million contract extension, the Sharks will be expecting more out of him.
"Deep Blue Sea", which also features a star-studded cast (LL Cool J, Sam Jackson, Thomas Jane!), a group of Sharks engineered to be faster and more dangerous, and a core that's been destabilized. The difference is that the San Jose Sharks just want to win the Stanley Cup, not escape to open waters and breed.
Considering the success they've had and the strong team they've iced season after season, it should be ridiculous to suggest that the tandem of GM Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan could be on the hot seat if the Sharks don't take that next step this season. That said, when you've been this good for this long without crossing over into great, something's got to give.
These guys are two of the best in the business, but if the Sharks take a step backward, one or both of them could be available for hire next summer.
The safe bet for a major breakout season is Logan Couture, but he sort of broke out last year, so I'm disqualifying him. Instead, keep an eye on Benn Ferriero this season. The diminutive forward has made appearances in the Sharks' lineup over the last two years, but the departures of Heatley and Setoguchi should open up a permanent spot for him in the San Jose lineup.
Ferriero's been close to a point per game guy in the AHL, and he had five goals in 33 NHL games last season. He should improve on those totals in his first full year, especially once he settles into the Sharks' top nine. He has a nose for the net and a high skillset, and his productivity could surprise a lot of people.
Martin Havlat has never played an 82-game season in his 10-year NHL career, and he's only reached the 80-game mark once. Suffice it to say, he's injury prone.
When he's on, Havlat has mad dangles, but his recurring shoulder problems tend to mitigate this aspect of his game. The winger had surgery to repair damage in the area in May, but he still hasn't been cleared for contact. If Havlat can't give the Sharks a healthy season, he could leave them with a big hole in their top six.
This is perhaps the finest shark-related scene in pop culture history. It's also a metaphor for the Sharks' season. The shark represents the Sharks of old -- a past full of failures -- and Batman climbing the ladder represents San Jose's attempts to make it to the Stanley Cup Final this year, and the shark repellant represents Doug Wilson's major moves, which will hopefully, put the past behind San Jose forever. Airtight metaphor.
The Sharks have a strong group of forwards, but they have a lot of new faces up front and a lot of questions. San Jose was willing to make such a large dent in their forward depth because Logan Couture looks ready for superstardom, but if he takes a step backwards in his sophomore season, things could go off the rails.
Furthermore, if Thornton doesn't return to the production he's capable of, and/or if Martin Havlat can't stay healthy, things could be messy in San Jose. The Sharks should be just fine, but the potential for disaster is there.
The Sharks are always contenders, and this season will be no different. Expect them to contend for the Western Conference title and make another deep playoff run. I'm not convinced they're a Cup team, but they're certainly one of the heavy favourites.
- Doug Wilson
- Martin Havlat
- Logan Couture
- Brent Burns