No team has had a more peculiar offseason than the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks were one victory from defeating the eventual Stanley Cup champions in a Western Conference First Round series. They won the first three games in that series, and the ensuing collapse against the Los Angeles Kings was a stunning ending for a franchise branded by postseason failure in the past decade.
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: SHARKS
Undervalued: Logan Couture -- Couture is the only player to eclipse 23-plus goals, a plus-20 rating or better and 200-plus shots on goal in 65 or fewer games played last season. He was tied for eighth among forwards with 68 blocked shots despite missing time with a hand injury. Joe Thornton is the No. 1 center, but Couture is a threat to post 30-plus goals, 60-plus points, 20-plus power-play points, a strong rating, and close to 300 shots on the second line with Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto if he stays healthy.
Overvalued: Brent Burns -- Owners who drafted Burns in Yahoo leagues last season were able to reap the benefits of a defenseman-eligible fantasy player who played right wing next to Thornton, the League's second-best assist man. But the Sharks are moving Burns back to the blue line, which will make it difficult for him to match his career highs in goals (22), points (48) and shots (245) from last season. He has plenty of experience on D and will see a spike in power-play and overall ice time with the change, but expect the wear and tear of anchoring the back end in the tough Western Conference to limit his offensive production. Hold off on drafting him until the 11th or 12th round depending on how quickly defensemen go off the board.
Sleeper: Alex Stalock -- Goalie Antti Niemi, fresh off the worst postseason of his career, is in a contract year; his backup, Stalock, has been extended for two seasons. Niemi has been among the League's top 10 in regular-season wins in each of his four years with the Sharks, indicating he has a chance to bounce back. But they will give Stalock a chance to win the job if Niemi struggles, making Stalock a potential late-round steal. The 27-year-old ranked third in goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.932) among goalies with a minimum of 20 games in 2013-14. Niemi is a borderline top-10 fantasy goalie entering the season, but his owners absolutely must handcuff Stalock in late rounds as a safety net.
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General manager Doug Wilson said the Sharks were a rebuilding team, but as the summer progressed little on the roster actually changed. Veteran defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart exited and no one was added to replace them, though defenseman-turned-forward Brent Burns will be moving back to his old position. There was no clear-cut starting goaltender at the end of the season, but both key figures are back.
The team did add more toughness in John Scott and Micheal Haley, but they seem out of place considering San Jose's skill-laden, puck-possession ways. The biggest change proved to be removing Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau from their leadership posts as captain and alternate captain, respectively.
Wilson said at the beginning of the summer that young players would be given a chance to play. The problem is the Sharks have one of the thinnest collections of prospects in the League, and players like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto have moved into full-time roles.
San Jose was one of the four or five best teams in the League last season. The Sharks are a solid defenseman and maybe a depth forward or two from remaining among the top teams.
The components of a Stanley Cup contender remain in place, but where this Sharks team goes in 2014-15 is a complete mystery. The roster looks a little bit worse than the previous one, though a huge season from Hertl and a smooth transition for Burns could make up the difference.
There has been so much focus on leadership and the dressing room and the like, but essentially the same group returns, minus two well-liked players in Boyle and Stuart.
Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Sharks:
Joe Pavelski's place is the biggest puzzle piece. He played a lot of left wing on the top line last season with Thornton and Burns, and he also centered the third line. Burns has been moved back to defense, and if Hertl ends up on the top line then Pavelski could slide to the right side.
The Sharks might be better with Pavelski at center, especially against deep teams like the Kings. But without Burns, lack of depth on the wings might prevent that.
Raffi Torres is expected to miss a significant chunk of the season after knee surgery, so the Sharks are short another forward. Tyler Kennedy was buried on the depth chart by the end of last season but could be back in a regular role. Freddie Hamilton is the one young player up front after Hertl and Nieto who could be in for a big step forward.
Wilson and coach Todd McLellan also hinted there could be changes in playing time, so basing anything off the end of last season could be completely wrong.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is no longer one of the most underrated players in the League. After playing well for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and with more acceptance of analytics in the sport, Vlasic now is considered one of the top defensemen in the NHL.
With Boyle gone, Burns will be expected to log a lot of minutes. Jason Demers and Justin Braun are solid, but a little step forward by either of them would help. Scott Hannan was brought back and could see a more regular role with Stuart gone.
Antti Niemi had a great start to the 2013-14 but slowly unraveled. Alex Stalock saw more playing time near the end of the regular season and then earned a start in Game 6 against Los Angeles after Niemi had been pulled in consecutive games.
Stalock had nice numbers in a small sample last season but never really was great at lower levels. Niemi has a proven track record, but will the Sharks trust him after how last season ended?
It is possible there will be an even split of ice time early in 2014-15 with the hope that someone takes control of the starting job.
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