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Know Thy Enemy: San Jose Sharks

It should come as no surprise that this picture was taken in May.
It should come as no surprise that this picture was taken in May.

It's hard to objectively analyze the team that has ended your team's season 2 years in a row. There's a lot of anger and resentment that still lingers a few months after the Wings have been eliminated. That it was to the Sharks two years running means that the Wings were lacking something the Sharks had, so previewing what San Jose is proficient in is to admit a weakness in the Wings.

The Sharks have long had the reputation as playoff underachievers. They have won 4 straight Pacific Division titles and 1 President's Trophy, but that regular season success has led to exactly 1 win beyond the 2nd round in the playoffs. They are the only team to have advanced to consecutive Conference Finals, and despite their inability to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, they are a force in the Western Conference that is still a legitimate contender for a Cup.

Is this finally the Sharks' year? Or are they destined to once again be a bridesmaid, not a bride? Follow the jump as we take a look at the San Jose Sharks

Unlike in previous years, the Sharks struggled out of the gate, and it wasn't until after the All-Star break that the Sharks caught fire, winning 23 of their final 32 games to once again win the Pacific Division and earn the #2 seed in the Western Conference. After an up-and-down series against the Kings in the first round, they blazed out to a 3-0 series lead against the Wings, only to see the Wings roar back and force a Game 7. The Sharks earned a hard-fought series victory and faced the Canucks, but were unable to match the firepower of the Sedins and Co. It was another disappointing end to the season, and GM Doug Wilson made some significant changes in the offseason to try and shake things up.

Arrivals: Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Michal Handzus, Andrew Murray, Colin White, Jim Vandermeer
Departures: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ian White, Ben Eager, Jamal Mayers, Kyle Wellwood, Kent Huskins, Scott Nichol

Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
105 (5th NHL, 2nd West)
Goals For: 243 (6th NHL)
Goals Against: 208 (10th NHL)
Power Play: 23.5% (2nd NHL)
Penalty Kill: 79.6% (24th NHL)

Offense: For years, Joe Thornton has been the leader of a very potent Sharks offense. However, for the first time since Jonathan Cheechoo was relevant he did not lead the team in scoring, yielding to Patrick Marleau. Perhaps it was the 2 game suspension he received for a head shot to David Perron that cost him those 3 points he finished behind Marleau. However, Thornton and Marleau are not the only contributors. Little Joe Pavelski continues to develop as a legitimate first-line forward, registering his 3rd straight 20-goal season. Ryane "I like extra vowels" Clowe is a solid threat to score, coming up 1 goal short in his quest for 20.

However, the Sharks lost a few goals when they traded Heatley and Setoguchi to Minnesota for Havlat and Burns. The drop-off is not going to be that bad when one looks at the team as a whole, but sending a former 50-goal scorer away always leaves a team with question marks. Havlat is one of those question marks, but those surround his health, not his production. Havlat has shown that he's a consistent scorer when healthy, and he's played over 70 games for 3 straight seasons for the first time in his career. In 2 years with the Wild, he scored 40 goals, and playing with Thornton (if he ends up on that line) could see him get back to 30 for the first time since he was a Senator.

The addition of Burns gives the Sharks another very good puck-moving defenseman to replace White, and between him and Boyle the Sharks have a 1-2 punch from the blueline to provide depth scoring. Burns will likely see significant time on a power play that was very good last year, and will allow the Sharks to remain a top offensive team again.

Defense: The Sharks' blueline is going to look very different from the one that went through the handshake line against the Canucks. It's not often you see a team change half of their defense after making the conference finals, but the Sharks obviously felt that White and Huskins were not the answer, and brought in Burns, White and Vandermeer to make the team tougher to score against. While Burns adds a lot on the offensive side, his defensive game is not great, but his job won't be to shut down the other team. He and Boyle will be the scorers from the blueline, but the Sharks have made themselves a stingier team.

Douglas Murray provides a lot of muscle, and adding Jim Vandermeer only makes the Sharks that much more physical. Both are big men who are not afraid to throw their bodies around. Colin White is a veteran from playoff wars in New Jersey, and will provide depth and leadership. Jason Demers is likely to get the 6th spot, and he's a mix of offense and defense, but is still young and can be protected from playing in situations that he might not quite be ready for.

Goaltending: The addition last year of Antti Niemi, while hilarious for Wing fans who enjoy laughing at the Blackhawks, proved to be fruitful for the Sharks as he took over the starting job from Antero Nittymaki and ran with it. His regular season statistics were quite impressive (35-18-12, .920 SV%, 2.38 GAA), but in the playoffs he wasn't quite the same goalie, showing streaks of inconsistency and ultimately seeing both his SV% and GAA get significantly worse. However, the Sharks were not eliminated solely due to Niemi, and at 28 he is still the goalie of the foreseeable future in San Jose.

Backing up Niemi is Nittymaki, a former Flyers goalie who played one year in Tampa before joining the Sharks last year. He began the year splitting duties with Niemi, but lower body injuries midway through the season took him out of the running for the starting job. He was good in relief, and can easily give the Sharks 25-30 quality starts during the regular season.

Player to Watch: The departures of Heatley and Setoguchi opened up 2 top-6 forward spots on the Sharks' roster, and Logan Couture is a guy coming off a spectacular rookie season who could see even more ice time this year. He was the runner-up to Jeff Skinner for the Calder Trophy last season (despite being oh-so-close to losing his rookie status the year before), and hit 30 goals in his first full NHL campaign. In the playoffs, he had 14 points in 18 games, finishing 4th on the team in playoff scoring and tying for the team lead with 7 goals. He may get the second-line center position if Pavelski joins the top line, but where he plays is inconsequential at this point. Can he avoid the sophomore slump? I say yes, based on the talent around him.

Player With Something to Prove: Normally in this space I would talk about Joe Thornton and make fun of him for never playing in a Stanley Cup Final despite his oodles of skill and blah blah blah, but he's killed the Wings the last 2 playoff series and it's just too easy. I truly believe that for the Sharks, the main person who needs to prove himself is Doug Wilson. He attempted to build a Cup winner by loading up on offensive talent, but he has fallen short of his goal. This offseason, he made a lot of moves to completely change the look of the roster in an attempt to make his team better for the playoffs. Will it work? There's a lot of pressure on the players, but Wilson is the one who brings them in and puts them on the team.

Hell, I'll just go with a cop-out answer and say that the entire team has something to prove. Happy?

The Skinny: The Sharks are still one of the best teams in the NHL, and they have made themselves a tougher team to play against with the additions of White and Vandermeer. The Pacific is a good division, and they will have their hands full defending their division crown. But it's all about the Cup in San Jose, and anything less than a Finals appearance has got to feel like a failure for this team. Improving by one game every season is nice, but the window is going to start closing on this roster very soon, with many players (Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Murray, White) all on the wrong side of 30. They will easily make the playoffs, but the playoffs? It's a crapshoot. All I know is that the Wings will not lose to the Sharks for a 3rd straight time if they meet in the postseason. We have Ian White now.