COMMENTARY | When the puck drops on opening night against the divisional rival Vancouver Canucks, a new NHL season starts for the San Jose Sharks. Just years ago the sexy pick of pundits to win the Stanley Cup, the Sharks are now very much a team in transition, but stocked with both proven veterans and young up-and-comers.
While the defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks are loaded and still in the conference, guarded optimism abounds. The Sharks used a strong second half surge last season to swim deep into the playoffs, sweeping the Canucks before eventually falling one goal short in Game 7 to the Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks will look to build on that momentum, and the following are four keys to their ultimate success.
Not all games are created equal
The NHL has realigned, staying with two conferences, but going from three divisions in each conference to just two. More importantly, the league has changed the way the playoffs are structured. No longer will the top eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. Starting this season, the top three teams in each division qualify, with two other wild card teams from the conference earning their way in.
In Pacific Division play, the Sharks will play the Kings five times and the Canucks four. Winning the majority of these games in regulation will be critical to earning a high seed in the playoffs. Not only does two points for a win help the cause, but zero points for division rivals can add up to healthy gap.
Avoiding the injury bug
The Sharks already enter the season bothered by injuries, the most severe being the knee injury of forward Raffi Torres, shelving the Sharks' most gritty player for up to five months. In addition to Torres, center Adam Burish will miss time, and his absence in the faceoff circle on the penalty kill will no doubt be felt immediately.
It's important for every team to avoid injuries, and the Sharks are no exception, particularly with unproven scoring depth on the forward line. However, the most important Shark is goaltender Antti Niemi, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season who carried the Sharks for long stretches. If Niemi goes down for a prolonged time, the Sharks will struggle for wins.
Young guns will need to contribute
Opening the season, the Sharks will feature three young forwards on the roster, including 19-year old phenom Tomas Hertl, who will likely start the season getting big minutes on the Sharks' first line with center Joe Thornton and forward Brent Burns. Thornton is the premier passer in the league, so Hertl will get his opportunities and scoring chances. If he converts those chances to goals, the Sharks will be a strong contender.
Joining Hertl on the opening night roster are Matt Nieto and Freddie Hamilton, both impressing Sharks coaches in camp and earning spots on the squad over more veteran players. How long they stay on the roster depends on their production. If their play merits minutes, they will get opportunities to contribute. If their play results in healthy scratches or low minutes, expect one or both to shuttle back and forth to the Sharks' Worcester affiliate for playing time and further development.
The rigor of a long regular season will have an impact on the Sharks' most veteran players- Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Marty Havlat, Dan Boyle, and others. If the young guns can steady the ship during those games, the Sharks will be poised to avoid long losing streaks.
Miles to go
The NHL regular season is a long haul. With at least one game in every NHL city this season, the Sharks will log more travel miles than any team in the league - according to Dick Hoag of www.ontheforecheck.com, over 57,000 miles.
With veteran leadership, travel and life on the road should not be too problematic. Still, it will be important for coach Todd McLellan to be aware of the grind and how his players respond. An occasional off night with little jump in the legs is inevitable, but it will be important for the coaching staff to make sure off nights don't grow into long streaks of lackluster effort and mounting losses.
@RayHartjen is a longtime rink rat who's been on a decades-long quest to get the stink of hockey gloves off his hands.
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- San Jose Sharks