The Sharks have cultivated a significant home ice advantage at the cozy Shark Tank, posting an impressive 22-2-5 record in the South Bay last season and there’s no reason to think it will lessen with the same cast of characters returning.
Expect to them to be skate-to-skate all season with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks for the Pacific Division crown and it would be no surprise if they finally secured a Stanley Cup berth in June.
Despite the presence of big names in the lineup every night, the Sharks ranked 24th in offense last season. The 1-2 punch of Thornton and Couture can compete with any in the Westm but with Hertl and Burns likely the second line wingers on opening night, the Sharks may still be goal-challenged through the early weeks of the season.
The bottom six is solid, though Raffi Torres' injury hurts, as Tyler Kennedy and Adam Burish are reliable veterans and Tommy Wingels emerged last season as a regular. Wingels is yet another production of the Sharks’ development machine, as they struck gold with a former 2008 sixth round selection. Hertl is the Sharks future but asking a 19 year old to graduate from the Czech league to a top six NHL role is a stretch.
Joe Thornton -- Despite the organization has commenced the leadership transition to Couture, Jumbo Joe still wears the C and was the team’s leading scorer in 2013. Though he’s at the advanced hockey age of 34, Thornton is effective and productive; his faceoff win percentage in the regular season was 58.5%, was a plus 6 and tied for 12th in assists last season. Though the regular season production is still solid, his legacy will be tied to getting the Sharks to the Cup Final. He’s well liked and respect in the room but this could be his last ride in Northern California.
Logan Couture -- He’s gone from heir apparent to the present of the franchise. Entering his fifth season, he’s shown his ability to perform in the clutch, potting five game winners in the regular season and three more in the playoffs with the most memorable one an overtime winner against Los Angeles after he returned from an in-game injury. His effectiveness in the faceoff circle was average in the regular season, Logan took note and improved it to over 60% for the post season. His $30 million, five year deal signed over the summer places him in the “untouchable” category and the expected progression in his game could put him in the Hart Trophy discussion sooner than later.
Joe Pavelski -- There’s not been a better seventh round selection over the past decade. Joe’s the exacta entry in the leadership transition along with Couture by virtue of a likewise $30 million, five year deal that ties their short term fates together. It’s a smart move by Wilson as the Big Pavelski has developed into a 30 goal scorer over the past two campaigns and his ability to play both the pivot and right wing makes him invaluable to the franchise. He’s reliable and sturdy, Joe hasn’t missed a game since the 2010-’11 season.
No Shark receive a vote for the Norris Trophy yet San Jose finished sixth overall in goals against last season and only allowed 22 goals in 11 post season matches. As a group they play a smart, low risk game that limits opportunities in front of Vezina Trophy finalist Antti Niemi. The cost for this type of game is little offensive support from the blue line, only Boyle and Matt Irwin registered double digit point totals last season and with Burns likely playing forward all season, the production won’t improve significantly.
Dan Boyle -- One of the team’s emotional leaders, Boyle had a solid fifth season in Teal but at 37, this could be his swan song. Though his wish is to retire a Shark, he must deliver another productive season to earn final multi-year deal of his career from Wilson. If his output falters, there’s no one on the roster that can replace it.
Matt Irwin -- The free agent find out of British Columbia emerged last season and filled the gap with the Burns move to forward and should secure a spot in the Sharks top-four blueliners this season. He finished second to Boyle in goals by Sharks defensemen and he is the youngest of the group.
Antti Niemi put to rest the questions that nagged him since he won the Stanley Cup in Chicago with a superior Blackhawks team in front of him. He won the team MVP and was noticed by league GMs by virtue of a Vezina Trophy finalist nomination. The statistics are sterling, he’s 60 games over .500 in the regular season for his career and his 1.87 GAA and .930 save percentage in the 2013 playoffs is a clear sign that their failure to emerge for this second round wasn’t due to goaltending. Niemi has reached the level of his divisional peers like Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith, so the only question between the pipes is if Alex Stalock is the guy to handle the twelve to fifteen starts in support of a healthy starter.
Expect more of the same from McLellan and Company this season on special teams, they were top ten in the NHL in both categories. With the extra man they have superior distributors in Thornton and Couture and strong finishers in Marleau and Pavelski. An area of opportunity is their execution on their road power play, ranking 18th overall with a 14.8% success rate over 48 regular season games. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and rapidly developing Justin Braun provide smart positional play on the penalty kill. The team’s overall high hockey IQ led to less shorthanded situations, San Jose ranked 7th in the number of power play opportunities and had the lowest amount of home penalty kill time in the league during the regular season.
The Sharks are a shade behind the Kings in most prognostications for the Pacific Division title, but it would surprise no one if they emerged with the crown. San Jose is a smart team that doesn’t beat itself and maximizes its home ice advantage. They were the equal of Los Angeles last season and with a little better fortune, they would have faced Chicago in the Conference Finals.
If age hasn’t caught up with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, they are one of a few teams that can provide a threat to the Blackhawks’ defense of their title but will need some bolstering offensively by Wilson at the trade deadline if they are to emerge from the West.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period.