(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
The San Jose Sharks had a weird year.
For much of the 2013 campaign, they were inconsistent, and amazingly so. They swept the first month, winning all seven games they played in January, and looking like one of the league's elite teams. But seven games later they were back to .500, following the seven-game winning streak with a seven-game losing streak. After that, they settled into a routine of being completely unpredictable. Some nights they looked like one of hockey's best. Other nights they did not.
All that in mind, it was no surprise when Doug Wilson looked to be selling the team off at the trading deadline and admitting they weren't contenders. But as it turned out, that's not what they were doing. They were simply regrouping, speeding the team up, both in terms of personnel and system. The moves paid off big-time in the playoffs, as the Sharks completed their first sweep in franchise history.
They wouldn't escape the second round, but Sharks fans still have reason to be optimistic this season. They seem like a new team, and with Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic growing into elite NHLers, the Sharks look like they're going to remain a contender for some time. What does this year have in store?
Patrick Marleau completes the sweep for San Jose.
Not a lot of changes for the Sharks this offseason. Most of their big moves happened late last year, like when they moved Brent Burns up front, getting a power forward as a result. Those are tough to find.
Suffice it to say, the Sharks didn't look as in need of a makeover after the postseason, and Doug Wilson made just one noteworthy change this summer as a result, acquiring Tyler Kennedy for a second-round pick, in effect to replace T.J. Galiardi, whom the Sharks moved to the Flames.
Forward: San Jose's greatest strength is up the middle. Few teams have the horses to hang with a depth chart of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski.
Thornton remains the leader of the bunch, both in spirit and in letter. He wears the "C", and he was the top scorer last season with 40 points in 48 games. He'll skate on line 1 with giant mountain man Brent Burns. The two are huge, and nigh impossible to contain.
What's more, they may not even be San Jose's best line. Couture leads the next wave in more ways than one -- the second centre over the boards, but also seemingly ready to take over as San Jose's top guy. His 21 goals last season were tops on the club and he finished just three points back of Thornton's team scoring title. This could be the year he surpasses Big Joe, especially if he continues to skate with the speedy Patrick Marleau. The two can fly.
That's a great formula for the Sharks. Their first line is massive. Their second line is slick. And their third line is no slouch either, led by two-way terror Joe Pavelski, who isn't quite as offensively gifted but may be the hardest of the three to win a shift against. When McLellan shortens his bench to three lines, there's no respite from San Jose's attack. And when he shortens it to two, that's no picnic either.
With Marty Havlat injured, as usual, Tyler Kennedy and Tomas Hertl are likely to be the other two wingers on the top two lines to start the season -- Kennedy looks to be getting slotted on Couture's other side -- and you can expect Pavelski to skate most regularly with Tommy Wingels. When he returns from his ACL tear, Raffi Torres will slot somewhere into the top nine as well, perhaps back on the Thornton line, bumping Kennedy and Hertl down a notch each.
Defense: Yet another reason the Sharks didn't need to do much this offseason: they saw some major improvements from within last year, especially on the blueline, where Justin Braun and Matt Irwin both came into their own as defenders.
Braun flourished last season on a shutdown pairing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who has quietly become the best defenceman in San Jose. Take it away, Fear the Fin:
Vlasic seems to think the game at a higher level than almost everyone else on the ice, making him a terrific positional player who excels at dismantling odd-man rushes, is lethal with the poke check and routinely stands up opposing teams at his own blueline. The result of that skillset is things like the fact that, last season, only all-world veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Kimmo Timonen faced a greater quality of competition than Vlasic did while also posting a higher on-ice shot differential. Year after year, Vlasic consistently plays some of the toughest minutes on the Sharks' blueline while posting the best defensive results.
Pairing two is a little more offence-oriented, with speedsters Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin kickstarting the breakout as few duos can. Jason Demers, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan are all in the mix for the reliable third pair.
Goalies: Antti Niemi is coming off arguably his best season as an NHL goaltender. He finished tied for the league-lead in wins, seventh in save percentage at .924 and 11th in goals against at 2.16, but those numbers are secondary to his biggest feat, which was, for several stretches of the year, singlehandedly keeping the Sharks in contention. More of that, please and thank you.
Doug Wilson has proven himself to be one of hockey's savviest General Managers, making little moves that often don't reveal their cleverness until later. His Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe trades at the deadline had me and many others in the hockey world thinking he was admitting his Sharks' fallibility, but that was the point. He got maximum return looking like a seller, only to turn around and show how truly replaceable both players were while getting better in the process. The Sharks are in good hands up top.
Same goes for on the bench, where Todd McLellan's system tweaks made the Sharks look like a completely different team. It's amazing to think a first-round exit might have cost him his job the same way it cost Alain Vigneault's. He's as shrewed and smart a coach as there is.
How can you not be moved by this video tribute to some of the players that have worn the teal over the years? Jonathan Cheechoo! The greatest player who ever lived!
Thornton, Couture, Pavelski. In a league where centre depth is key, the Sharks are one of the best around.
Faceoffs. The Sharks prioritize winning draws and they have some of the league's best faceoff men taking theirs. As a result, they start with the puck more often than not.
It's a tie between SJ Sharkie, the only mascot who rides a segway to work, and Antti Niemi, one of hockey's most acrobatic and entertaining goalies.
The Sharks are strong pretty much everywhere, and I suspect they'll be one of the league's most formidable teams this season. But as for the postseason, you pretty much never know who they'll become, and that's the most troubling thing.
The Sharks are going to be excellent. They've got a great top four, a great top three centres, and plenty of size and speed on the wings. Their division is going to be tough and we all know that, but that's in large part because they're in it. Expect them to challenge for first in the Pacific.