Sharks' new balance bodes well for breakthrough

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – Walk into the dressing room, and you think this team is starting to jell. The Sharks lost three of their first four games, but then speedy new addition Martin Havlat(notes) made his debut and whoosh, they won their next three, all away from San Jose.

Now it's a practice day in Detroit, and the boys are loose, chirping each other. Another new addition, Michal Handzus(notes), is lying in the middle of the floor, his spine aligned on a long foam roller, raising one arm with a free weight while lifting the opposite leg. What's he doing, trying to get the body of a Greek god?

"Is that why they call you 'Zus?" winger Joe Pavelski(notes) chided as he passed by.

It's life on the road, and life is good.

"Out on this road trip, I think we're starting to come together," coach Todd McLellan said. "We're starting to feel like a team. We're starting to do things on the ice that are familiar to each other. The new players are adjusting well. The old players have welcomed them in."

Only not everything fits the narrative.

"I don't really buy into that jelling stuff, though a lot of people do," defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) said, pausing for a moment. "It's a long season, you know?"

Boyle has never really bought into it, but with experience, he has even more evidence to support his theory. He has won the Stanley Cup, with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. He has fallen short of it three years in a row with the Sharks. There are different paths to victory and different paths to defeat, and a lot of things happen along the way no matter which path you take, some of which are outside of your control or chemistry.

Last season the Sharks spent months in a malaise but snapped out of it, finished strong and advanced to the Western Conference final for the second straight year. Three of their first four games this season were decided by one goal. Boyle says they easily could have started 3-1-0 instead of 1-3-0.

Do a few goals the other way mean you're jelling, or does it just make it seem that way?

"I'm not a big believer in that jelling stuff," Boyle said. "I think you've just got to find a way to get it done."

* * * * *

This is the dilemma, the dichotomy, of the San Jose Sharks and other Cup-or-bust teams. How do you focus on the little picture when you know all that matters is the big one? How do you get excited about how good your team looks on paper in the regular season when you know it comes down to what happens on the ice in the playoffs?

Here it’s about balance – a balanced approach, a balanced lineup. The Sharks want to show enough urgency early so they don't have to burn themselves out later, as they believe they did last season. They want to play at a higher level more consistently.

"Hopefully another year of going through a little bit of failure will show us how much harder we have to work to get to the ultimate goal," center Logan Couture(notes) said. "I think we learned a lot from two years ago and learned even more from last year, and hopefully we can take that into this year."

The Sharks do think they look good on paper – maybe better than ever before.

Up front, Dany Heatley(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes) are gone, but Handzus and Havlat are here. Handzus handles the role of the third-line centerman, bumping Joe Pavelski up to the right wing on the top line with left winger Patrick Marleau(notes) and center Joe Thornton(notes). Havlat is the right winger on the second line with left winger Ryane Clowe(notes) and center Logan Couture.

With Marleau and Havlat, each of the top two lines has a burner.

"Our top six is as good as it gets in the league," Boyle said. "Matchup-wise, there you go. If one line gets a certain matchup that night, the other line can do the damage."

Pavelski has taken immediate advantage. He and Thornton might be the Sharks' smartest players, and he has been finishing. Pavelski leads the Sharks in goals (six) and points (eight). "He has a nice, deceptive shot," Thornton said. "He just complements me and Patty really well. Early on we've been seeing each other real good."

Havlat has three assists in three games with his new linemates. "Clowie and I, we pride ourselves on being strong on the forecheck," Couture said. "We're not two of the quickest players, so to add Marty, he can get to any loose pucks that we create."

Remember that Havlat did not play any preseason games, so he has had to jump in with a new team at regular-season speed. He said he is still getting to know the guys, they are still getting to know him, and eventually "it's going to be much easier."

"I think Marty's a very good piece for them – the way he plays, his vision, his ability to hold onto a puck – and the other two are so familiar with each other that it's clicked real well, faster than I thought it would have," McLellan said. "We need them to maintain that level of play and even improve it so it takes a little pressure off the top line."

The bottom six – so important come playoff time – is a work in progress, but McLellan has been pleased so far. Handzus and fourth-line center Andrew Desjardins(notes) have two goals apiece.

On the back end, Boyle plays with Douglas Murray(notes), Brent Burns(notes) with Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes), Justin Braun(notes) with Jim Vandermeer(notes). Each pairing has an offensive guy with a stay-at-home guy. With Burns (6-foot-5, 219 pounds), Vandermeer (6-foot-1, 215) and Colin White(notes) (6-foot-4, 220), the defense not only has more balance, but more beef, too.

"I think we've added some toughness," Boyle said. "We got pushed around a little bit too much last year."

* * * * *

Have the Sharks found the right formula? I think so. But no one really knows.

While Boyle points out how one-goal games could go either way, Thornton, the captain, says the Sharks have been built specifically to make them go their way.

"I think before people thought maybe we were a highly explosive offensive team," Thornton said. "I think we've kind of changed. We've kind of evolved a little bit, just kind of more defensively, more 1-0 games, more 2-1 games, things like that, not blowing teams out 5-1 or 6-1. We're just kind of … We feel like we should win every night 2-1 or 1-0."

While it looks like Hanzdus fills the role once held by Manny Malhotra(notes) and Burns fills the role once held by Rob Blake(notes), McLellan says the Sharks must make sure they aren't spinning their wheels.

"I think that's a good way of looking at it," McLellan said. "When it all shook out, though, we didn't win with those guys, so we better be better than we were with that group. I don't think we've played enough as a team. I don't think we've played our game enough as a team yet. … Are we happy where we're at? I'm not yet. I don't think they are yet. And we might not know that for a while."

We might not know till June.

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