After a painful offseason in the wake of their stunning first-round meltdown against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the San Jose Sharks will try to regroup for 2014-15.
The Sharks, still in search of their first Stanley Cup championship, are no strangers to postseason disappointment. But they've never collapsed the way they did against the Kings last spring, when they dropped four straight after taking a 3-0 series lead. It was a historic loss which sent shockwaves throughout the organization.
Here are five key questions the Sharks face this season:
1. Who will be the captain? -- Joe Thornton's four-year reign as captain is all but officially over, as is Patrick Marleau's lengthy run as an alternate. The Sharks will enter training camp without a captain or any alternates, and coach Todd McLellan said he'll fill those jobs based on performance and merit. According to McLellan, Thornton wasn't "stripped" of his captaincy and could regain the role, but it appears much more likely that the Sharks will turn to younger players to fill the leadership positions.
Forward Joe Pavelski, coming off a career season, appears to be prime candidate to wear the "C." He led the team in goals (41) and points (79) and ranked second in assists (38). He's a no-nonsense, highly respected player with an off-the-charts hockey IQ.
Center Logan Couture and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic are two other likely candidates.
"We've got a lot of players that are just coming into the prime of their career, have a lot of experience," general manager Doug Wilson said. "They're ready to step up both on and off the ice involvement with this team. They're looking forward to it. They have to be willing to step up and do it. It just makes us a better team if they all do."
2. Will there be a new No. 1 goaltender? -- Antti Niemi has owned the starting job for the past four seasons, but he faces a huge challenge from backup Alex Stalock, who posted better numbers than Niemi in 2013-14. Stalock went 12-5-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Niemi was 39-17-7 with a 2.39 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
Niemi led the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 2010, but Stalock made a strong impression last season and was rewarded with a two-year contract, keeping him off the free-agent market. Niemi is in the final year of his contract.
"Alex has come up through our system, battled through adversity. We know what he's made of. He wants to compete for the net," Wilson said. "Antti Niemi has won a Cup and has been a very good goalie in this League. That's very healthy competition."
3. Can Logan Couture bounce back after an injury-plagued season? -- Couture's hopes of having a breakout season and making the Canadian team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics were derailed by a hand injury that required surgery in early January. He scored 23 goals in 65 games, two more goals than he had in the 48-game lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Wilson expects Couture to get back on track.
"The right type of people respond the right way and I think Logan will come back and have a tremendous year," Wilson said.
4. Will Tomas Hertl build on his promising rookie season? --
Center - SJS
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 25
SOG: 98 | +/-: 11
Hertl had six goals in his first three NHL games. He scored four times against the New York Rangers
, capping his highlight-reel night by scoring on a between-the-legs shot. He had 17 goals and 11 assists in 39 games before sustaining an injury to his right knee on Dec. 19 during a collision with Kings forward Dustin Brown
. Hertl had surgery to repair two ligaments and didn't return until two games remained in the regular season.
"I expect him to take off right from where he left off," Wilson said. "He's a talented player, great hockey sense, loves to play the game. He's a very important part of this team."
5. How will the Sharks respond after their stunning first-round loss? -- The Sharks were humiliated after losing four straight games to the Kings. Most likely, they'll use that meltdown as motivation.
"The way we ended was disappointing to say the least, but it's something that we're going to have to look into the mirror, each one of us, and look to each other and all start pushing in the same direction," defenseman Jason Demers said.
"I think we still have that team that can go all the way."