2013-14 Season Preview : San Jose Sharks

The first of two previews today focuses on the San Jose Sha-arks.

The San Jose Sharks have been a model of consistency the last 9 years. They are always a threat to win their division and, for the most part, have proven to be a tough out in the playoffs. Last year they swept the Canucks in the first round and took the Kings all the way to Game 7 before bowing out.

Doug Wilson and the Sharks had a relatively quiet summer. They acquired Tyler Kennedy from the Penguins draft picks and shipped T.J. Galiardi off to the Flames. Wilson handed out new contract extensions to Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and everybody's favorite bug eyed, turd burglar Raffi Torres.

Today we got Derek, or better known as The Neutral, from Fear The Fin to give us a better look at all things Sha-arks.

Doug Wilson has looked brilliant at times, like getting 5 picks for Douglas Murray and Ryan Clowe, but has also given multi year deals to Adam Burish and Raffi Torres. How do you rate the job good old number 24 has done?

My longtime distaste for Torres' antics aside, that particular deal struck me as a good bet. When he isn't suspended, Torres is an effective presence on the forecheck and a veritable lock for 15 goals a season with third-line even-strength minutes and zero power play time, pretty great value for just $2 million a year. There have certainly been other mistakes, however, including the four-year Burish contract, the addition of Handzus via free agency the offseason before that and deadline deals earlier in Wilson's managerial career that sold off first-round picks for washed up veterans like Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin. But, on the whole, there's no denying Wilson has done a spectacular job in San Jose. He took over a non-playoff team and has guided them to nine consecutive postseason berths. He brought in the likes of Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Dany Heatley via trade and pulled off particularly masterful moves to land Antti Niemi and Manny Malhotra on the cheap. He also helped draft much of the team's current core, including Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It hasn't been a flawless regime but, when compared to his peers, there are few GMs in the league with a better track record than Wilson in my eyes.

How big of a concern is the backup goalie position now that Thomas Greiss has moved on to the Coyotes?

It's mainly a concern in the sense that Antti Niemi will likely be tasked with upwards of 70 starts, which hopefully doesn't wear him out before the playoffs even roll around. Alex Stalock has a decent track record in the AHL but it's hard to see him being relied upon heavily in a backup role at the NHL level. Todd McLellan is notorious for riding his starters in the best of scenarios; with an untested backup in tow, that trend is bound to continue.

The move of Brent Burns to forward has freed up a spot for some of the younger defensemen to step up. Which defensive prospects are you excited about getting their shot?

The team's best defensive prospect, Mirco Mueller, is still a few years away. In the meantime, 23-year-old Matt Tennyson who grew up playing for the Jr. Sharks program here in San Jose has the best shot of making it into game action this season and, with Brad Stuart injured, likely starts the year as the team's 7th defenseman. Long-term, CHLers Mueller, Konrad Abeltshauser and Dylan DeMelo look to have bright futures.

Can the Sharks score at full strength this year?

In my mind, this is far and away the most important question they need to answer. The Sharks are sort of the bizarro-Blackhawks offensively; they're nearly automatic on the power play but can't score to save their lives five aside. Last season, only five teams in the league scored fewer 5-on-5 goals than the Sharks and while some of that appears to be bad luck--they converted just 6.7% of their even-strength shots--the fact that it was congruent with a five-year trend is a bit alarming. Ultimately, the Sharks need to find a way to score at even-strength if they intend to make some noise in the postseason; they scored just 14 even-strength goals in 11 playoff games last spring and while their power play and stingy defense allowed them to win seven of those games before eventually falling to the Kings, a 5-on-5 marker here or there may have had them facing Chicago in the Conference Final. The key is getting bounce-back even-strength seasons from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and hoping that Brent Burns, who was remarkably productive 5-on-5 in his 24-game stint up front, can prove to be more than a half-season wonder. Depth contributions from Torres, Havlat and Kennedy, who have all been effective even-strength threats in the past, would also be nice.

You've got some good point producers in Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski but where will the secondary scoring come from this year?

The Sharks are hoping they've finally added enough forward depth for that question to be answerable but injuries muddle things a bit. When they're healthy, Martin Havlat and Raffi Torres will be counted on to contribute at even-strength like they have in the past while rookie Tomas Hertl, offseason acquisition Tyler Kennedy and newfound winger Brent Burns will be the ones asked to pick up the slack in the meantime. If Hertl comes as advertised, if Kennedy has a bounce-back season, if Burns pots twenty-plus goals and if Havlat and Torres return to the lineup relatively quickly, San Jose should be fine in the depth scoring department. But that's a lot of ifs.

Is Todd McLellen in trouble if the Sharks endure another early playoff exit?

Considering the organization signed him to a contract extension this summer, I highly doubt it. Unless the Sharks stumble into draft lottery territory, which seems unlikely, McLellan is safe and rightfully so. He arguably saved last season by taking the risk of converting Brent Burns into a forward, moving Joe Pavelski back to third-line center and deploying Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture in tough defensive minutes, knowing they would be able to break even and thereby opening up space for the remainder of the lineup. What will be interesting to see is how the Sharks deal with Hall-of-Fame associate coach Larry Robinson's contract expiring at the end of this season; can they convince him to re-up with the club or will he prefer to become a head coach elsewhere?

Finally, are the Sharks the best team in California?

They're certainly better than the Ducks but whether or not they can best the Kings is a question that will probably have to be answered on the ice. L.A. has lost some forward depth, with Dustin Penner, Andrei Loktionov and Simon Gagne departing over the past year. Trade deadline acquisition Robyn Regehr also proved to be an anchor around Drew Doughty's legs throughout the postseason, and it sounds like Darryl Sutter intends to reunite that pairing. But the Kings still boast a formidable top six, three terrific defensemen in Doughty, Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell and a great goalie in Jonathan Quick. I think a healthy version of this year's Sharks could potentially be better than their Los Angeles counterparts but, for now, the Kings deserve the benefit of the doubt.

A big thank you to The Neutral for helping us out and answering my silly questions.  The Sharks will be in town on November 17th and January 5th. The Blackhawks will make the only trip to northern California on February 1st.