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Fueled by painful memory, Sharks start chase anew

by Eric Gilmore / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

The San Jose Sharks are used to bouncing back after coming up short in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they've never had to rebound from as painful or humiliating of a loss as they sustained last season in the Western Conference First Round against the Los Angeles Kings.

After winning the first three games of the series, the Sharks lost four straight to the Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Sharks had a long, painful and, at times, dysfunctional offseason as Joe Thornton was stripped of his captaincy and alternate captain Patrick Marleau had his "A" removed as well.

"I think our minds still take us back to the playoffs, and they should, although I'd like us to eventually not forget about it but move on," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "But certainly, starting camp, there's a reflection period where we start thinking about how we finished the season and how the level of play that we competed in the last four games wasn't where it needed to be, and that's still there."

The Sharks, still chasing their first Stanley Cup championship after 17 trips to the postseason, finished with 111 points last season. That was good for second place in the Pacific Division, five points behind the Anaheim Ducks and one ahead of the Kings.

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
T. Hertl J. Thornton J. Pavelski
P. Marleau L. Couture M. Nieto
T. Wingels F. Hamilton T. McGinn
A. Burish A. Desjardins M. Brown
Extras: J. Scott T. Kennedy
DEFENSEMEN
M. Vlasic J. Braun
S. Hannan B. Burns
M. Irwin J. Demers
Extras: M. Mueller
GOALIES
A. Stalock
A. Niemi

There was plenty of talk by general manager Doug Wilson early in the offseason about the Sharks rebuilding and taking one step back in order to move two steps forward. But the team returned largely intact, and Wilson did an about-face from his dire predictions. As training camp neared, he said the Sharks were poised to make a deep run in the playoffs, much as they did when they reached the Western Conference Final with a young team in 2004.

"I told our players and the group at the opening meeting that we're all hired -- coaches, trainers, players -- to win hockey games, and that's what we're doing," McLellan said. "We're going to win as many hockey games as we possibly can, and that would be the goal for the season."

Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan, who played for the 2003-04 team, said his expectations haven't changed.

"I think we've got one goal, and that's to win the Stanley Cup," Hannan said. "Every team has things change over the summer, and retooling and adding new dimensions to your lineup. I think the young guys are going to push the vets for playing time this year, which is always a good thing. We want to ice the best team we can out there. We got great players, we got guys that are potential future Hall of Famers, and we got some great young players pushing. We expect a lot from our group this year. I don't think that expectations change at all."

The Sharks still boast plenty of offensive weapons in a group that includes Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels, but depth will be a major issue.

SHARKS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

Below are San Jose Sharks players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

21. Joe Pavelski, LW/C (Top 50 breakdown)

32. Logan Couture, LW/C (Cubeta's breakout)

45. Joe Thornton, C (Top 50 breakdown)

47. Patrick Marleau, LW/C (Top 50 breakdown)

66. Antti Niemi, G (Fantasy Spin blog)

119. Tomas Hertl, LW

135. Brent Burns, RW/D (Mock draft analysis)

191. Alex Stalock, G (Fantasy Spin blog)

220. Matt Nieto, LW

271. Jason Demers, D

Brent Burns, who spent the last season-plus skating on Thornton's line, has returned to defense this year, filling a void on the blue line created when the Sharks decided not to re-sign Dan Boyle, but also creating a hole on offense.

Raffi Torres is sidelined indefinitely because of an infection in his surgically-repaired knee that will likely require another major surgery. James Sheppard, who showed promise as a third-line center late last season, underwent offseason knee surgery and was sidelined at the start of training camp. Marty Havlat had his contract bought out after three disappointing and injury-plagued seasons in San Jose.

When training camp opened, Thornton was centering a line with Pavelski and Hertl, while Couture was in the middle of Marleau and Matt Nieto.

Pavelski led the Sharks last season with a career-high 41 goals and had 79 points, another team best, doing most of this damage as a wing on Thornton's line. But there's still a good chance Pavelski will spend some and possibly much of his ice time as the Sharks' third-line center this season. That would give the Sharks one of the NHL's deepest group of centers and help them match up better against a Kings team that's extremely strong down the middle.

"We think we're very strong in the center position with Couture, Thornton and Pavelski, which allows you to integrate wingers such as the Hertls and Nietos and Wingels, etc.," Wilson said. "So that's been part of our thought process."

If Pavelski remains on Thornton's line, the Sharks have a long list of candidates to fill the third-line center job, but none as skilled as Pavelski.

"Do you graduate an Adam Burish or an Andrew Desjardins?" McLellan asked, referring to a pair of fourth-line forwards. "Hopefully. Does somebody young come in, a (Melker) Karlsson, a (Chris) Tierney, (Travis) Oleksuk, (Freddie) Hamilton? Does somebody like that come in and take that job? You never know. There's such a wide range of players we could put in that spot."

Tye McGinn could land a job as a wing on the third line, giving the Sharks some of the energy and physicality they're missing without Torres. San Jose acquired McGinn, a younger brother of former Sharks forward Jamie McGinn, from the Philadelphia Flyers for a third-round draft pick. He played 18 games for the Flyers last season, scoring four goals.

"I hope he can," McLellan said of McGinn filling Torres' role. "He knows he's in a dogfight with a number of other wingers in that situation. We know that he's been able to come up and produce at the NHL level. I think he'll have a great opportunity to grasp a job and go with it."

"It's never good losing a good player," McGinn said of Torres. "I guess you can look at it like there's an opportunity for other players. It's a role I'd like to play. He's definitely a hard worker and gets to the dirty areas. I like to see myself as that. If I could help the team like that, I'd gladly accept that role."

If opponents try to get rough with any of the young Sharks this season, they'll have to deal with 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward John Scott, a former Buffalo Sabres enforcer and Wilson's only notable free-agent signing.

"He brings an element of security," McLellan said.

The Sharks parted ways with Boyle and fellow veteran Brad Stuart, but Burns is back on the blue line to further solidify an already dependable young core.

Burns was an All-Star defenseman in 2011 for the Minnesota Wild, scoring 17 goals. He scored 22 goals last season, but Thornton believes the 6-5, 230-pound Burns could become the NHL's top defenseman.

"I think he has the potential to win the Norris (Trophy), to be honest with you," Thornton said. "He's that talented. It kind of [stinks] for the forwards that we're going to lose him, but he's going to really solidify our D end."

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: LW John Scott (free agent, Sabres), F Tye McGinn (trade, Flyers), D Taylor Fedun (free agent, Oilers), LW Bryan Lerg (free agent, Avalanche), C Micheal Haley (free agent, Rangers)

SUBTRACTIONS: D Dan Boyle (free agent, Rangers), D Brad Stuart (trade, Avalanche), RW Marty Havlat (buyout, Devils)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Matt Tennyson, D Taylor Doherty, D Taylor Fedun, RW Eriah Hayes, F Chris Tierney, C Micheal Haley, LW Bryan Lerg, LW Daniil Tarasov, LW Nikolay Goldobin, C Melker Karlsson, C Travis Oleksuk

Burns said he had mixed emotions about leaving Thornton's line and returning to his defensive roots.

"I feel confident I could get 30 goals playing forward, but I also love the challenge of playing D and playing more than 20 minutes a game," Burns said. "I love that, I love that challenge. I love being on the ice more. I think you control the game more as a defenseman than you do as a forward. I like both. Obviously I had fun playing forward too. You get to play with a guy like Joe, it's hard to pass up."

Burns will take over Boyle's role as a puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman, but he is much bigger and stronger. He'll also fill Boyle's role on the power play at the point, where his rocket shot will be put to good use.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who won gold as a member of Canada's team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, returns for his ninth season and is still just 27. In Vlasic, the Sharks have one of the NHL's most reliable, shutdown defenders.

Vlasic has four years left on his contract, Burns has three, and Justin Braun, coming off his best season, was rewarded with a five-year contract extension, which kicks in next season. The Sharks re-signed Jason Demers for two years and brought back Hannan on a one-year contract. Matt Irwin, who took a step backward last season, returns for the final season of his current contract with much to prove.

"It's a good core of guys back there signed long term," Vlasic said.

At least one young defenseman will make the Sharks from a group of contenders that includes Mirco Mueller, San Jose's top draft pick in 2013, Matt Tennyson, Taylor Doherty and Taylor Fedun.

Mueller, 6-3, 210, has added 15 pounds of muscle since last season, giving him a better chance to win an NHL job at the age of 19.

"You're just stronger," Mueller, ranked No. 29 on NHL.com's list of the Top 60 Prospects, said. "You feel how that extra weight helps you win those little battles along the wall."

For the first time since securing the No. 1 job in net for the Sharks midway through the 2010-11 season, Antti Niemi faces a serious challenger in Alex Stalock, his backup last season.

Wilson and McLellan have made it clear the No. 1 goaltender's job is wide open.

Stalock forced his way into contention last season with some dazzling numbers. He went 12-5-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He set a Sharks franchise record for the longest shutout streak, a stretch of 178 minutes and 55 seconds.

Niemi went 39-17-7 with a 2.39 GAA and a .913 save percentage.

Stalock has battled back from a career-threatening injury he sustained with Worcester of the American Hockey League on Feb. 4, 2011, when a nerve behind his knee was lacerated by an opponent's skate. He missed the rest of that season and most of the next.

Niemi has much more experience than Stalock and won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. He's also bigger. But Stalock is more athletic and a much better passer able to ignite the rush.

Wilson called the Niemi-Stalock battle "extremely competitive," and McLellan hinted that the competition could last well beyond the end of training camp.

Niemi is in the final of his contract. The Sharks signed Stalock to a new two-year contract, keeping him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

"Obviously we're playing in front of two good goalies, two elite goalies," Demers said.

Wilson said he feels good about the Sharks goaltending tandem.

"And we have another player, Troy Grosenick, that we feel is not far away, that we expect to have a dominant year in Worcester this year also, and he'll be pushing them too," Wilson said.

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