Last season, the San Jose Sharks clinched their ninth consecutive berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the sailing was not always smooth. After a scorching January, the Sharks hit an offensive rough patch that threatened their postseason chances. The slump was so severe management was forced to shuffle the lineup and address long-term questions during the busiest point of the season.
This offseason, general manager Doug Wilson has continued implementing his "reset/refresh" philosophy in an attempt to avoid the emergency surgery of last season. Has Wilson done enough to steer the Sharks toward running their playoff streak to 10 in 2013-14?
According to the website OnTheForecheck.com, the Sharks will cover more miles than any team in the NHL competing in a realigned Pacific Division. Their goaltender, Antti Niemi, is world-class, but he's looking for a backup. The Sharks shone on special teams last season but struggled at full strength, and the defense again may be asked to carry a big load.
Here is a look at the six biggest questions facing San Jose as it enters 2013-14:
1. Who will back up Antti Niemi? -- San Jose relied heavily on Niemi last season in goal; the Finn started 43 of 48 games and earned his first Vezina Trophy nomination. But he will be in more need of relief over an 82-game season, and his backup the past two seasons, Thomas Greiss, was picked up by the Phoenix Coyotes in free agency.
That leaves the competition for the spot open, with Alex Stalock the most likely candidate. San Jose drafted Stalock in 2005, and he was off to a promising start before a skate blade sliced a nerve behind his knee in early 2011. Stalock missed an entire year but has made a full recovery, and his strong season in 2012-13 with Worcester of the American Hockey League earned him a one-year, two-way contract this summer.
The Minnesota-Duluth product will have some familiar competition, Finnish goalie Harri Sateri. The pair split time in Worcester -- Sateri played in 39 games to Stalock's 38 -- and though Stalock's numbers were better, some argue Sateri possesses more natural ability. Wilson made it clear these would be the two battling for the backup job when training camp opens in September.
2. Can the Sharks produce in 5-on-5 situations? -- Despite San Jose's offensive struggles last season -- the Sharks were 24th in the League with 2.42 goals per game -- the team ranked among the NHL's best on special teams. The Sharks converted on the power play 20.1 percent of the time and killed penalties at 85.0 percent -- each in the top seven League-wide -- thanks to a suffocating forecheck and gifted scorers Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. That man-advantage prowess only served to emphasize San Jose's even-strength futility. The Sharks were 18th in the League in 5-on-5 goals for/against, conceding a goal for every one scored at full-strength.
Wilson was determined to address this problem during the offseason, and believes he did so by re-signing Raffi Torres and trading for Tyler Kennedy. Wilson said those two, as well as prospect Tomas Hertl, can inject some offense into the lower forward lines.
"Our capability in scoring a lot of goals and getting offense from the back end, we'll hopefully start how we finished the season," Wilson said. "We should be a very good 5-on-5 team, we should get offense from a lot of different lines, so yes, that's something we're conscious of building."
3. Can the Sharks reclaim their Pacific Division title? -- For four consecutive seasons, from 2007-08 to 2010-11, the Sharks finished atop the Pacific standings. Now, with the division growing increasingly competitive, it's been two straight seasons out of the top spot. In 2011-12, when the Sharks finished second to the Phoenix Coyotes, the third-place Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup. Last season, the Sharks experienced their worst divisional finish since 2002-03, when they were third, behind the Anaheim Ducks and Kings.
With realignment adding the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks to the Pacific and subtracting the Dallas Stars, the climb becomes more treacherous for the Sharks. Niemi has won a Stanley Cup, coach Todd McLellan has proven he can scale that mountain, and Couture and Pavelski likely will earn their big contracts. But the Sharks were top-heavy on offense last season -- when they were effective at all -- and questions remain about Wilson's quartet of new forwards. San Jose certainly is a postseason player, but conquering a seven-team division will be a different beast.
4. Is Raffi Torres worth the risk? -- Though many around the League might disagree, for Wilson the answer to this question is a resounding yes. Wilson brought Torres, considered by many a liability for his history of penalties and suspensions, in at the NHL Trade Deadline. He scored twice and had four assists in 11 regular-season games, showing glimpses of the offensive ability that made him the fifth pick in the 2000 NHL Draft. He fit well into the Sharks' attacking style with his aggressive forechecking, and Wilson said he jelled immediately with teammates off the ice.
In the postseason, Torres received a suspension in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals for an illegal hit to the head of Kings forward Jarret Stoll. Wilson remained undeterred, however, and re-signed Torres to a three-year, $6 million contract and touted him to NHL.com as a key part of his "reset/refresh" philosophy.
"We've gone through the process of determining what's acceptable and what's not acceptable," Wilson said. "He made a big difference in our hockey team. He played extremely well, and when we lost him in the L.A. series it had a big impact on us."
5. Can San Jose maintain the pace at SAP Center? -- Last season the Sharks had a 17-2-5 home record, third-best in the League, at HP Pavilion, now known as SAP Center at San Jose. A key turning point in the season came from March 27-April 5, when San Jose went undefeated in a season-long six-game homestand.
San Jose's dominance on home ice played a significant role in its ninth straight postseason berth. The Sharks went unbeaten at home in the playoffs, using Niemi and a smothering defense to hold opponents to nine goals while posting a 5-0-0 record. In a 2013-14 season during which realignment will force San Jose to travel 57,612 miles -- by far the most in the League -- taking care of business at home will be paramount.
"It's really important, even with our playoff success, how strong we are at home," Wilson said. "We have a great fan base, the building is sold out and the energy in this building -- you want to make sure you control your own turf."
6. Can San Jose’s defense continue to shut down opponents? -- In March, Wilson and McLellan decided to move Brent Burns from defense to forward. The move shook up the blue line and removed perhaps San Jose's most dynamic defenseman, but the Sharks plugged Matt Irwin into Burns' position and continued as if nothing happened. San Jose was sixth in goals-allowed per game last season, and the penalty kill improved from second-worst in 2011-12 to sixth-best in 2012-13.
At 25, Irwin is one piece of the youth movement taking place on the blue line. The Sharks' top pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, which most recently shut down the Sedin twins in San Jose's sweep of the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, are each just 26. Jason Demers, who played 22 games last season as San Jose's seventh defensemen, is 25. And it is likely more young players, NHL-ready prospects Nick Petrecki, Matt Tennyson and Taylor Doherty, will see time on the third pairing or as seventh defensemen in 2013-14. With a deep, talented stable of defensemen and a star goalie, San Jose should remain among the League's elite units.
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