When the San Jose Sharks open their 2013-14 season Oct. 3 versus the Vancouver Canucks, they will look largely unchanged from the team that clinched a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for the ninth consecutive season in 2012-13.
However, that continuity doesn't mean it's been a quiet offseason in the Bay Area. Since the April 3 NHL Trade Deadline, which, if you're talking to general manager Doug Wilson, is when his preseason planning actually began, San Jose has added or converted four forwards, shored up its prospect pool, and locked up franchise faces Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski on extended contracts.
All of the moves were calculated steps in what San Jose calls its "reset/refresh" philosophy. No personnel or philosophy decisions are made without first analyzing what came previous. By late March of 2012-13, the analysis was grim. After a 7-0-0 start, the Sharks were struggling, scoring at a glacial pace and dropping out of postseason position. With the trade deadline looming, Wilson and coach Todd McLellan started the strategizing usually reserved for the offseason.
The resulting "reset/refresh" system hinged on the coaches' recommendation that San Jose recommit to a north-south, attacking philosophy. Longtime Sharks who didn't mesh with the style were shipped out, including forwards Ryan Clowe and Michal Handzus, and defenseman Douglas Murray. The Sharks added forward Raffi Torres and defenseman Scott Hannan, and moved Brent Burns from defense to the wing.
The moves paid dividends, especially the decision to bump Burns to forward for the first time in his NHL career, and San Jose clinched yet another postseason berth. Despite an impressive run as the Western Conference's sixth seed, taking the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the semifinals, Wilson knew the work was just beginning.
San Jose's first offseason moves showed confidence in its prospects, namely 19-year-old Czech phenom Tomas Hertl. The Sharks took him 17th in the 2012 NHL Draft, and the center is poised to make an impact in San Jose in 2013-14. Prognosticators have slotted Hertl to start on the second line alongside prodigious passer Joe Thornton and bruising Burns.
"This is a guy who's played in the World Juniors, he's played in a men's league (the Czech Extraliga) against men for several years, he's played in the World Championships," Wilson said. "He's 6-2, 210 already. We saw him in our development camp and we have very high expectations."
San Jose re-signed goaltending prospects Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri to one-year contracts. Wilson said he expects the pair, who split starts in Worcester of the American Hockey League last season, to compete in training camp to back up Antti Niemi.
"We've got a great history of developing goaltenders, and we feel very comfortable with our own guys we have in house, starting with Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri," Wilson said.
If little-used backup Thomas Greiss, who left this offseason for the Phoenix Coyotes, is an indicator, whoever eventually occupies the backup slot shouldn't expect too much playing time. That's because Niemi is quickly becoming one of the League's best goalies. The Finn started 43 of 48 regular-season games in 2012-13, clocking more ice time (2,580:46) than any NHL goaltender, and his 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage earned him his first Vezina Trophy nomination.
"To me, he's just coming into his prime," Wilson told NHL.com. "Believe it or not, he's still a young goalie in this League. … Last year was the first year he came into camp healthy and ready to go. He played outstanding hockey for us."
Niemi backstopped the League's sixth-best defense, a formidable combination of speed and strength, youthful energy and veteran savvy. The top pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, each 26, routinely shut down the best combinations opponents had to offer, and as a group the blue line killed penalties 85 percent of the time and conceded 2.33 goals per game.
"I think the inclusion of Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson to our coaching staff made us a much better team in our own zone, how we killed penalties and how we played," Wilson said, referring to the Sharks' improvement in overall defense from 2011-12 to 2012-13. "So I think it's a combination of, one, Antti finding his place and his game is only going to be better, but also how we played as a team around him."
SHARKS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
C Tyler Kennedy, D Rob Davison
C/RW TJ Galiardi, G Thomas Greiss
C Tomas Hertl, G Alex Stalock, D Matt Tennyson, C Travis Oleksuk
At the draft, Wilson moved to add the final piece to his forward puzzle, acquiring Tyler Kennedy from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for San Jose's second-round pick. The Sharks hope Kennedy, along with re-signed Torres, can bolster San Jose's attack-challenged lower lines.
"We acquired Raffi because he does play that north-south game," Wilson said. "Picking up Kennedy was the same thing: He played with high-end players, he can skate and he's got a competitive side.
"If you look at it from trade deadline on and playoffs, the four forwards that we've added to it, Torres, Kennedy, Burns and Hertl, gives you the depth of offensive attack that comes from rolling four lines."
Despite Wilson's insistence he's comfortable with that forward quartet heading into training camp, San Jose likely would have been more active in the free-agency window if not for Martin Havlat. The Czech forward had surgery this summer for a groin injury he sustained in the postseason and will be sidelined indefinitely. That means the Sharks weren't able to use one of two compliance buyouts on the final two years of his six-year, $30 million contract.
Without Havlat, big contributions from Couture and Pavelski will be vital to San Jose's success.
"They've established themselves as important players," Wilson said of the pair, who each signed a five-year, $30 million extension over the summer. "You know, they play all three zones, they do all the things needed to win. The most important thing we do is to try and make this a place players want to play. And for players to step up and commit to being with our team and allow us to keep the rest of the team together, we really appreciate that."
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