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Sharks see Burns as a missing piece

by Eric Gilmore /
After losing for the second straight season in the Western Conference Finals, the San Jose Sharks are looking for a faster start and an even stronger finish this season as they continue their quest to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson, as usual, had a busy offseason, trying to build a roster that can solve the Stanley Cup puzzle. He made a blockbuster trade with Minnesota for defenseman Brent Burns, adding more muscle and offensive punch to his blue line but giving up goal-scorer Devin Setoguchi in the deal.

Wilson wasn't done. He shipped sharp-shooter Dany Heatley to the Wild for speedy forward Martin Havlat, signed a pair of experienced defensemen -- Jim Vandermeer and Colin White -- and added veteran center Michal Handzus.


j. thornton p. marleau m. havlat
r. clowe j. pavelski l. couture
j. mcginn m. handzus t. mitchell
j. sheppard b. ferriero t. wingels
a. murray
m.e. vlasic d. boyle
d. murray b. burns
c. white j. demers
j. vandermeer
a. niemi
a. nittymaki*
ones to watch
G thomas greiss
d justin braun
d nick petrecki
* injured
"We felt we had to make changes to get where we want to," Wilson said.

The Sharks gave up two dangerous offensive threats in Setoguchi and Heatley, but they believe they still have a long list of players who can put the puck in the net, as well as an improved defense.

"I do believe we do have plenty of firepower up front, but you're going to win, I think, by playing good defense," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We stressed that in the second half of the year and it kind of turned around our season. Yeah, we lost some firepower, but we gained some good players on the back end with Burns and Vandermeer and Colin White. They can play a lot of minutes, and hard minutes."

The initial goal is to avoid the type of sluggish start they had last season. Wilson said the Sharks had to work so hard to recover down the stretch that by the time they got deep in the playoffs, they ran out of gas against Vancouver in the conference final.

"You know, 12th place in the conference in mid-January, with this hockey team, that's beyond being unacceptable," Wilson said. "I think last year, our last 27 games, it was almost a record (winning) pace. I think we drained our tank."

They won't make the same mistake this season, coach Todd McLellan said.

"We have to hold them accountable," he said. "We have to make sure we're pushing probably earlier this year than we did last year. We let them off the hook a little bit too much," McLellan said.

Some of the supporting names have changed, but the Sharks' attack still revolves around Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who combined for 58 goals, 85 assists and 143 points last season. Thornton thrived in his new role as captain, and he was a key figure in the team's turnaround after its rocky start. Thornton had only 70 points, his lowest total since his 68-point season in 2001-02 with Boston, but he led the NHL with 114 takeaways and led by example with his commitment to defense. Marleau, still one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, led the Sharks in goals (37) and points (73).

Thornton and Marleau certainly won't have to carry the offensive load by themselves. Logan Couture is coming off a spectacular rookie season in which he scored 32 goals and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Ryane Clowe, an assistant captain, had career highs in goals (24) and points (62), and tied his career high for assists (38). The 6-foot-2, 225-pound power forward gives the Sharks some much-needed muscle and toughness, and he's developed into one of the team's leaders. Couture, Clowe and Havlat likely will form the second line.


IN: Brent Burns, D (trade, Wild); Michal Handzus, C (free agent, Kings); Martin Havlat, RW (trade, Wild); Andrew Murray, C (free agent, Blue Jackets); James Sheppard, C (trade, Wild); Jim Vandermeer, D (free agent, Oilers); Colin White, D (free agent, Devils)

OUT: Charlie Coyle, C (trade, Wild); Ben Eager, LW (free agent, Oilers); Dany Heatley, RW (trade, Wild); Kent Huskins, D (free agent, Blues); Jamal Mayers, RW (free agent, Blackhawks); Devin Setoguchi, RW (trade, Wild); Niclas Wallin, D (free agent, Lulea, Sweden); Kyle Wellwood, C (free agent, Jets);Ian White, D (free agent, Red Wings)
Joe Pavelski scored just 20 goals last season, but he had 46 assists and 66 points, both career highs, and has been skating on the top line with Thornton and Marleau. Torrey Mitchell is one of the fastest Sharks, and although that speed has yet to translate into significant offensive production, he's an energizer.

"There's a lot of competition for ice time and for roles within the team," Wilson said. "Even the way Logan Couture played, if he's with Ryane Clowe and Marty Havlat, they're going to push that first line to say we want to be out on the power play. And the way Todd is, it's based on performance and merit. It's not what you did for us last year, it's where are you today."

Adding Havlat makes up for some of the speed the Sharks lost by trading Setoguchi, although Havlat is more of a playmaker than a scorer. He had 22 goals and 40 assists last season with Minnesota. His best season came in 2008-09 with Chicago, when he had he had 29 goals and 48 assists.

Handzus isn't a great point producer, but he brings 844 games of experience to the Sharks. He's expected to center the third line and provide help to a penalty kill that dropped to 24th in the League last year. Last season with the Kings, he had 12 goals and 18 assists.
A host of up-and-coming youngsters -- Jamie McGinn, Benn Ferriero, Andrew Desjardins, Frazer McLaren, Tommy Wingels, John McCarthy and Brandon Mashinter -- are among the candidates for the fourth and possibly third lines.

It became clear throughout last season, and especially in the playoffs, that the Sharks needed an infusion of strength and skill on the blue line. So on the first night of the 2011 Entry Draft, Wilson sent Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle and a 2011 first-round draft pick to Minnesota for Burns and the Wild's second-round pick in 2012.  On Aug. 1, they signed Burns to a five-year, $28.8 million contract extension that runs through the 2016-17 season.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Burns is a physical defenseman who last season set career highs in goals (17), assists (29) and points (46), and also had 133 hits. Burns should give the Sharks' power play a boost, too -- he had 8 power-play goals last season, tying his career high.

"On the back end we got bigger and we got stronger," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "I think we lacked that a little bit last year. You'll probably see a little bit more of a physical back end than you did in the past."

Boyle and Burns give the Sharks two offensive-minded defensemen to pair with the ultra-physical Douglas Murray, who led the team with 203 hits, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Jason Demers, 23, gives the Sharks another defenseman who knows what to do with the puck in the offensive end. He had 24 points last season, second among Sharks defensemen, and was first on the team with a plus-19 rating. Justin Braun, just 24, could be ready to make a bigger contribution.

The Sharks did not re-sign Niclas Wallin, Ian White and Kent Huskins, but they added a pair of rugged, stay-at-home blueliners in  Vandermeer and White to one-year deals. Vandermeer has played 436 NHL games over eight seasons with five teams, and had 122 hits for Edmonton last season. White has played 743 games over 11 seasons, all with New Jersey. 

When last season opened, Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki shared the goaltending job after joining the Sharks as free agents. Niemi, who won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks two seasons ago, struggled early, but when Niittymaki was sidelined by a lower-body injury, he grabbed the starting job and never let go.

From Jan. 15 through April 4, Niemi started 34 consecutive games, going 25-4-4 with a 2.05 goals against average and a .929 saves percentage. The Sharks were so impressed they signed Niemi to a four-year, $15.2 million contract extension in March. Niemi, who underwent surgery to remove a cyst from an undisclosed body part just before camp opened, enters the season as the undisputed starter.

"Bringing two new goalies in last year at the same time was a difficult task," McLellan said. "We don't have to go through that again this year. I think we have a clearly defined No. 1, which we didn't necessarily have last year. So that settles things down a little bit, as well."

Niittymaki missed 17 games last season and underwent hip surgery in late September that should sideline him for 12 weeks. Thomas Greiss likely will fill the backup role until Niittymaki returns. Greiss, a 2004 third-round pick, played in Sweden last season but re-signed with San Jose in July. He has appeared in 19 NHL games with a 2.77 goals against average.
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