Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the San Jose Sharks.
After four consecutive Pacific Division titles and two consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals, the San Jose Sharks took a serious step back in 2011-12.
In fairness, their step back began in the first half of 2010-11, but a late-season turnaround saw them return to their seemingly rightful place near the top of the conference and quell concerns.
There was much less concern-quelling this time around. The Sharks hovered around the middle of the pack all season, and for the first time in a long time, they found themselves fighting for a playoff spot in the season's final week.
It was bewildering. The consternation was palpable even in the press box. (Just win the game!)
Fortunately, the Sharks were able to stave off disaster and squeak into the playoffs, snagging one of the final two spots. Unfortunately, they earned a date with the St. Louis Blues, who exposed their struggles creating offence, compounded them by smothering the NHL's 2nd-best powerplay, and made quick work of the Sharks' awful penalty kill, scoring 6 times on 18 tries.
Five games later, the Sharks were golfing.
In recent years, GM Doug Wilson has made tweaks to the core during the offseason. This time around, he left the group mostly intact and buttressed Todd McLellan by adding two new faces to his coaching staff: Jim Johnson, and Hall of Famer Larry Robinson.
Is it enough? Can the Sharks return to the top of the conference?
"But seriously, this is our year"
The Sharks' losses are minimal, unless you really thought Benn Ferriero, Daniel Winnik or Jim Vandermeer were difference-makers on last year's team. Ferriero left for Pittsburgh, Winnik for Anaheim, and Vandermeer was still unsigned when the lockout began.
Incoming is Adam Burish arrives from Dallas to bolster the fourth line, and defensive defenceman Brad Stuart, who made it perfectly clear that he wanted to go to San Jose during the offseason, and got his wish. Doug Wilson acquired his rights in exchange for forward Andrew Murray.
At forward … The Sharks are a top-heavy bunch. "I think it's important to be a four-line hockey team," Doug Wilson said in the offseason, but the Sharks are going to be hard-pressed to accomplish this with their personnel. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, and Joe Pavelski dominate San Jose ice time.
Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat, make up the rest of the Sharks' top six, provided Havlat is healthy.
A lot hinges on Havlat's health. When he's unavailable, the Sharks' top six lacks high-end speed through the neutral zone. But the team was 25-11-3 with him in the lineup. Keeping Havlat healthy is a top priority, which means avoiding line changes.
On defense … Dan Boyle and Brent Burns will continue to be the names people recognize, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will likely continue his emergence as the team's secret best defenceman.
Brad Stuart arrives to fortify the top four, giving the Sharks a breakout-starter and a stay-at-home type on both of their top two pairings. It may be their best top four since Todd McLellan arrived.
Douglas Murray, otherwise known He Who Wooed Elin Nordegren, should slide to the bottom pairing with either Justin Braun or Jason Demers.
In goal … Antti Niemi remains the guy, and he simply needs to be better. As Fear the Fin notes, he's replaced Patrick Marleau as the most divisive Shark, both for his "aesthetically unpleasing style" and the fact that, you know, fans probably thought he would stop more shots.
But he can still win for the Sharks, especially if their penalty-kill improves in front of him.
Drawing its inspiration from the New Radicals, "The Stanley Cup: It's in You" is a touching Sharks pump-up song with kind of a gross subtext. How did it get in there? Does the keeper of the Cup know?
Three days after the Sharks' season ended, GM Doug Wilson told coach Todd McLellan that he'd be keeping his job. Had the season ended prior to the postseason, this likely wouldn't have been the case, but McLellan got another chance when the team squeaked into the playoffs.
He's definitely on a shorter leash, however. The two new assistant coaches have to be seen as something of a shot across the bow, and Wilson's insistence that the Sharks be a four-line team can be read as critical of McLellan's tendency to lean on his stars.
But Wilson will be watched closely as well. He didn't do much this offseason, and if it results in another short playoff run -- or worse, no run at all, he might see the walls start to close in on him.
It's still Joe Thornton, but it's far, far closer than it should be. The 33-year-old has now posted two consecutive seasons below 80 points, and last season, the superstar centre fell below 20 goals as well. He's still a difference-maker, but Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are beginning to enter into the conversation for the Sharks' best player, and it's too soon for that. When Thornton's on his game, it's not up for debate, and if he can remind people of that this season, the Sharks will have success.
He's already been an All-Star, but Logan Couture is still improving. I expect this to be the year he flirts with a point per game pace.
As I mentioned earlier, Martin Havlat is key to the Sharks' success this season, and that's a cause for concern.
S.J. Sharkie claims to be the most awesome mascot. He's even won an award to that effect.
But how meaningful is an award when it's hosted by the Cartoon Network?
And how meaningful can it be when it follows after awards like "Captain Clutch", which went to Tim Tebow, "Most in it to win it", and "Gnarliest Newb"?
I SUBMIT NOT VERY.
S.J. Sharkie. Fraud.
Paid for by the Slamson the Lion Foundation.
The Sharks haven't done enough to return to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. There isn't enough speed in their forward corps and teams have begun to figure out how to keep them out of the middle of the ice. But they're going to be better defensively and they're still a very talented team, and they're not mediocre enough to be playing for the final playoff spot on the season's final day again. A fourth to sixth-place finish awaits them.