2011-2012 season preview: San Jose Sharks
2010-2011 record: 48-25-9, 105 points; 1st in Pacific, 2nd in West
Playoffs: Defeated Los Angeles 4-2 in Western quarterfinals, defeated Detroit 4-3 in Western semifinals, lost to Vancouver 4-1 in Western finals
Even though the Sharks are the only team to make the conference finals over the last two seasons, some people continue to hold onto the notion that they choke in the playoffs. Not anymore. The past two seasons, the Sharks have proven throughout the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs that they’re one of the elite teams in the league. Two years ago they fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and last year they lost to the stacked Vancouver Canucks. Now that they’ve proven they’re among the league’s elite, will they be able to take the next step?
The Sharks have high-end scoring forwards that most teams would kill to have in their lineup. Joe Thornton is still one of the premier playmakers in the league, Patrick Marleau can sleepwalk through a season and score 30-plus points and newcomer Martin Havlat should be able to reap the benefits of playing next to some highly-skilled forwards. Down the middle, the Sharks have the likes of Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture, underrated two-way veteran Michal Handzus, and Andrew Desjardins — not to mention guys like Torre Mitchell and Joe Pavelski who broke into the league as centermen. Wingers like Ryane Clowe and Jamie McGinn could mix in the needed grit to give the Sharks everything they could ever want up front.
The Sharks made a huge blockbuster trade on draft day to add a little more star power to their blue line. By trading away Devin Setoguchi, highly-touted prospect Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick, San Jose was able to land Minnesota defenseman Brent Burns (then they subsequently signed him to a multi-year contract extension). Burns will join Dan Boyle as the offensive catalysts from the blue line. Douglas Murray has evolved into a top-flight shutdown defenseman and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has proven that he’s a good stay-at-home defenseman as well. All in all, the Sharks have a solid defense that will get more respect with Burns’ arrival.
The Sharks were ready to go into the season with Antero Niittymaki as the No. 1 last season until Antti Niemi suddenly became available. Now, there’s no question that this is Niemi’s job. He showed with the Blackhawks that he can steal games in the playoffs and is capable of leading his team to a Stanley Cup. It’s probably the quality that most sold the Sharks organization on the Finnish goaltender in the first place. Niemi will have to be good early on in the season because Niittymaki will be out 2-3 months after hip surgery. Sharks fans shouldn’t worry — Niemi proved in the second half of last season that he thrives under pressure and a heavy workload.
All Todd McLellan has done since taking over in San Jose three years ago is win three Pacific crowns, averaged 112 points per season and made back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference finals. He’s managed to combine the high-skilled stars perfectly with the heart-and-soul two-way players. He has guys like Thornton, Couture and Marleau buying into a two-way game as well.
Is it really possible for a guy like Havlat to be considered a breakout player? Consider this: after a pair of relatively healthy seasons in Minnesota, he could be playing on a line with Thornton and Marleau. If you wonder what that can do for a guy’s statistics, just ask former linemates like Setoguchi or Jonathan Cheechoo. The last time Havlat played on a lineup with this much talent, he scored 29 goals and 77 points with Chicago. If he can stay healthy, Havlat could a sniper on one of the most dangerous lines in all of hockey.
Expectations are high in San Jose. The Sharks added an All-Star defenseman in Burns to their blue line who will be able to create offense on the power play and reduce the workload for Boyle. They added an All-Star sniper in Havlat to the right wing who will bring more speed and a better locker room presence than the departed Dany Heatley. Handzus can still kill penalties with the best of them — there’s no reason that fans in San Jose should shoot any lower than a Stanley Cup.
The Sharks will be in a dogfight for the Pacific title with much-improved Los Angeles. San Jose has proven over the last few seasons that it has very few weaknesses and only the elite teams can exploit those flaws. As usual, the Sharks will hit the 100 point mark and should be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. We think they’ll fall just short of the Kings in the standings — but will still earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.