SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - There was a far different mindset surrounding the San Jose Sharks as they prepared to open this season.
After spending the past few years doing their best to forget about the previous season's playoff disappointment, the Sharks enter this season looking to build on a run to the Western Conference final and finally get to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
"I used the analogy of us driving a car up a hill and it got to the point where it stalled last year," coach Todd McLellan said. "We're there right now. We can either grow and get that momentum going again and try to keep climbing. Or if we let that momentum slip, the car will start rolling down the hill and it's going to be a tough one to stop. We need growth."
McLellan, entering his third season at the helm in San Jose, emphasized that the growth needs to come from well-established veterans like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle; emerging young stars like Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi; and promising young players like Jason Demers and Logan Couture.
"I really believe once you stop growing you start decaying," McLellan said. "Let's not go there as a group or an individual."
Last season's playoff run was a case of growth for a franchise that has endured so much early postseason disappointment in recent years.
After getting knocked out in the second round in the first three seasons after the lockout, the tag of playoff underachievers became even heavier when the best record in the NHL in 2008-09 was spoiled by a first-round loss at Anaheim in the playoffs.
The Sharks once again earned the top seed in the Western Conference a year ago and managed to break through by knocking out Colorado and Detroit in the first two rounds.
Then they were swept in the Western Conference final by the speedier Chicago Blackhawks, who won three tight games on their way to the Stanley Cup championship.
"To build upon last year is a positive thing," general manager Doug Wilson said. "We're all products of experiential learning. They got a taste of it. They want to get to that next level. It's an incremental increase. Todd uses the term growth. Whether it's 1 or 2 percent better, every one of these guys has to get better and that makes us a better team."
While the measurement of that growth won't come until after the playoffs are over, the work began in informal summer practices and continued through training camp.
Now the Sharks need to show that growth on the ice, beginning when their regular season opens Friday in Sweden against Columbus.
"The worst thing that can happen here is everybody expects this team to be a playoff team," Boyle said. "We have 82 games to get there. We can't just assume that we're going to be there. I don't want guys to assume that, yeah we're a good hockey team and we're going to be in the playoffs. We have to work and earn it."
There have been some key personnel changes from a year ago, most notably in goal. Longtime starter Evgeni Nabokov was allowed to leave as a free agent to play in Russia as the Sharks looked for a lower-cost option in net.
Wilson then signed Antero Niittymaki to a $4 million, two-year contract on the first day of free agency but didn't stop there. After Antti Niemi was let go by the Blackhawks in a salary cap move, the Sharks signed their former nemesis to a one-year, $2 million deal in August. That created a crowded goalie position that still includes last year's backup, Thomas Greiss.
After starting Nabokov an average of 70 games over the past three seasons, the Sharks figure to have a more equitable distribution of the playing time this season.
"I need to find more out about these individuals, find out how they respond to back-to-back games, how their teammates will play in front of them," McLellan said. "For me to sit here and say they're going to be 50-50 and alternate games, I'd be lying to you. I don't know what we're going to do yet."
The other major departure came when captain Rob Blake announced his retirement. Blake had been a key member of the defense the past two years and took over the captaincy last year from Marleau, a move that paid in better production from Marleau and strong leadership from Blake.
McLellan had not named a new captain before the team left for Europe, but the players believe it will take a team effort to fill that leadership role.
"Ever since I've been here Patty was not just the captain, Rob was not just the captain," Thornton said. "The coaching staff and Doug have six or seven guys who are the leadership group. It really hasn't mattered who wore the C the last four or five years. They just bring together a leadership group and everyone has a say of what's going on."