Back-to-back trips to the conference finals would likely convince most general managers they only need a tweak or two to win the Stanley Cup. For San Jose's Doug Wilson, it was a sign that a major shakeup was necessary if the Sharks were to win the title that has eluded them in the franchise's first 20 years in the NHL.
Interesting fact: Last season, Logan Couture’s 22 road goals ranked fourth in the NHL and second-most in Sharks franchise history. Perhaps more impressive? Couture became just the 23rd rookie ever to score 20-plus road goals in a season.
Wilson shook up his team with a pair of significant deals, both with the Minnesota Wild. On draft night, he dealt young forward Devin Setoguchi -- a player he had signed to a three-year contract one day earlier -- along with 2010 first-round pick Charlie Coyle and his 2011 first-round choice for defenseman Brent Burns. Less than two weeks later, he sent two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley to the Wild for forward Martin Havlat.
That’s a pretty major makeover for a team that has owned the Pacific Division for the past four seasons and hasn't finished with less than 99 points since 2002-03, the last time San Jose missed the playoffs.
Wilson feels the deals should help provide better balance up front, where the big line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Heatley was often counted on to carry too much of the offensive load. Havlat also provides speed for a club that needed some. Burns, who signed a five-year contract, should join Dan Boyle to give the Sharks more offense from the blue line, where San Jose felt the effects of Rob Blake's retirement in the summer of 2010.
SHARKS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. Can Martin Havlat replace Dany Heatley's offensive production? Probably not. Havlat has recahed 30 goals just once in his career. Heatley, meanwhile, has scored 50 goals twicer. But while Havlat might be a downgrade in the goal-scoring department, he brings the Sharks other advantages, including speed, defensive prowess, a history of elevating his game in the postseason and a more salary cap-friendly contract.
2. Are the Sharks a better team than they were in 2010-11? Yes. General Manager Doug Wilson made several tweaks to an already strong team this offseason. He added an elite, mobile defenseman (Brent Burns), a quick, play-making winger (Martin Havlat), a physical defenseman who will be strong on the penalty kill (Jim Vandermeer) and a defensive forward (Michal Handzus). Together, they make the Sharks an even bigger threat in the Western Conference race.
3. Will Logan Couture suffer through a sophomore slump? Couture was a Calder Trophy finalist last season and helped lead the Sharks to another Pacific Division title. His 32 goals were second on the team, and his 56 points were second among all NHL rookies. It will be interesting to see if he can do it again for a franchise in search of what has been an elusive Stanley Cup championship.
-- Emily Kaplan
Despite making the NHL's final four in each of the past two seasons, the Sharks are regarded by many as underachievers at playoff time. Wilson hopes this summer's moves will help his team get over the hump and win the Cup that fans in Northern California have been yearning for.
Heatley slumped to 26 goals last season while battling some injuries, and Wilson decided it was time to pull the plug on the 30-year-old, whose lack of speed had become noticeable. With a raft of young forwards and a need on defense, Wilson also felt he could deal Setoguchi, who has 20 and 22 goals in the past two seasons after getting 31 in 2008-09. Setoguchi did score seven times in the playoffs and at 24 appears to have plenty of upside.
But Heatley and Setoguchi weren't the only departures from San Jose.
Wilson also opted not to re-sign a pair of useful defensemen, Ian White and Kent Huskins, as well as forwards Ben Eager, Jamal Mayers, Kyle Wellwood and Scott Nichol. Of those six, the only one who saw major minutes was White, who was a top-four defenseman after coming from Carolina in a midseason deal. Not that the others didn't have their uses -- Mayers and Eager provided a lot of muscle up front, Nichol was an excellent checker, faceoff man and veteran presence, and Wellwood and Huskins provided depth.
The arrival of Burns is welcome news for Boyle, who was the Sharks' lone offensive threat from the blue line last season. Burns is coming off career highs of 17 goals and 46 points despite playing with the offensively challenged Wild. At age 26, he should be poised for a career season as he moves to a club with a lot more offensive talent.
Havlat doesn't have Heatley's resume as a goal-scorer -- his career high is 29 in 2008-09 -- but he's faster and regarded as a better playmaker. Havlat will fit in somewhere on the first two lines as coach Todd McLellan juggles Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture, among others.
The play of the Sharks' third and fourth lines has been spotty, so Wilson opted to bring in veteran Michal Handzus as his No. 3 center. Handzus, who wasn't re-signed by Los Angeles, has size and some skill, and he's solid in the faceoff circle -- a big consideration in McLellan's puck-possession attack.
3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Logan Couture, C -- The 22-year-old center was a revelation as a rookie, piling up 32 goals (including eight game-winners) in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs. The Sharks could move him to the wing and slot Pavelski in the middle, or let him stay as their No. 2 center.
Brent Burns, D -- Wilson paid a huge price for Burns, who's expected to form one of the NHL's best point duos with Boyle. Burns is big, strong, fast and has an excellent shot. Getting to play with one of the NHL's most talented groups of forwards should boost his offensive numbers.
Martin Havlat, RW -- The Sharks' other big acquisition is a completely different kind of player than Heatley, the man he replaced. He's likely to get first crack at filling Heatley's old slot on Thornton's line, which could mean a career year offensively.
San Jose also brought in checking center Andrew Murray, who could slot in on the fourth line, as well as veteran defensemen Colin White and Jim Vandermeer -- White, a two-time Cup-winner with New Jersey, adds size and leadership. Former backup goaltender Thomas Greiss is also back after a season in Germany.
The Sharks have won the Pacific Division in each of the past four seasons, though their road to the title was a lot bumpier in 2010-11 -- they struggled through the first half of the season before catching fire after the All-Star break. But the fans who pack the Shark Tank every night are no longer satisfied with division titles and winning a couple of rounds in the playoffs.
Making the playoffs shouldn't be a concern. Antti Niemi gave the Sharks solid work in goal down the stretch, and Antero Niittymaki is a more-than-capable backup. Burns fills a major need on defense and lets stay-at-home defensemen like Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic fill the roles they are more comfortable with.
Up front, Thornton is among the NHL's best playmakers, Marleau has 119 goals in the past three seasons, Clowe is coming off career-highs of 24 goals and 62 points, Couture had 32 goals in his first full NHL season and Pavelski can be counted on for at least 20 goals and 50-60 points. Add in Havlat, and that's a lot of offensive talent.
McLellan's biggest task during camp will be to figure out who plays with whom on his top two lines and which young players will slot in where on the third and fourth lines.
Wilson rolled the dice this summer, making major alterations to the only team in the NHL to make the conference finals in each of the past two seasons. Anything less than the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup Final may well be regarded as a failure in Northern California.