NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the San Jose Sharks.
After the San Jose Sharks lost their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they are ready to make another run with essentially the same roster.
Fourth-line forwards Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus, third-pair defenseman Roman Polak, and backup goaltender James Reimer are gone, but the Sharks signed free agent forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman David Schlemko to a four-year contract. Those moves came one year after San Jose signed free agent forward Joel Ward and defenseman Paul Martin to a multiyear contract, and traded for goaltender Martin Jones.
Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:
1. Sharks are confident, hungry
One season after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Sharks proved to themselves and the rest of the NHL that they're a serious Cup contender. Now they want to prove they can win the Cup for the first time in their history.
"You want to get back," captain Joe Pavelski said. "You always wanted to get there, and now that you got there, you want to be back. You want to find that formula again to get there and hopefully finish it off the next time."
Forward Joe Thornton, 37, believes San Jose can make another run.
"We have a great group, we really do," Thornton said. "We all love being around each other. The coaches did a tremendous job. They were huge for us this year. Everybody is going to come back and we'll be hungrier. It will be an exciting year for us."
2. Faster start expected in coach Peter DeBoer's second season
The Sharks were 18-18-2 through 38 games but went 28-12-4 for the remainder of the season to finish 46-30-6 after adjusting to DeBoer's system. When they report to training camp, they'll know what to expect and what is expected of them.
"Each year is different, but definitely we'll have a much better understanding," Pavelski said. "We'll be able to come in right from the start and have an idea of how we want to play. That will definitely help."
3. Martin Jones more experienced
Jones came to the Sharks from the Boston Bruins in a trade for a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and prospect Sean Kuraly on June 30, 2015. He had appeared in 36 NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings, including two in the playoffs, and made 29 starts, all in the regular season, before arriving in San Jose.
General manager Doug Wilson expected Jones to be worth the high price he paid, and he was right. Jones went 37-23-4 with a 2.27 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and six shutouts in the regular season. He raised his game in the playoffs, going 14-10 with a 2.16 GAA, a .923 save percentage and three shutouts.
"Jones, he was unbelievable," center Logan Couture said. "That guy is a [heck] of a goaltender. We're lucky that we have him."
4. Brent Burns should make another run at Norris Trophy
Burns finished third in Norris Trophy voting last season when he established himself as one of the NHL's top defensemen. His combination of size, strength, speed and aggressiveness make him one of the League's most dangerous and unpredictable forces.
Burns thrived under DeBoer and assistant coach Bob Boughner, who encouraged him to attack and believed rewards from that approach outweighed the risks. The even-keeled, defensive-minded Martin turned out to be a perfect partner for Burns.
Burns had NHL career highs of 27 goals, 48 assists and 75 points. Among NHL defensemen, he ranked first in goals and second in points (Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: 82). He had seven goals, 17 assists and 24 points in the playoffs, leading defensemen in all three categories.
Here are three key questions facing the Sharks:
1. How will San Jose respond after the longest season in its history?
These are uncharted waters for the Sharks, who had never made it past the Western Conference Final before last season. They played 24 playoff games, and their season didn't end until June 12. What shaped up as a short offseason is even shorter for many of San Jose's top players, including Thornton, Pavelski, Burns and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who will take part in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in September.
"This has been a grueling year," DeBoer said. "Grueling number of games, grueling travel schedule. ... We'll have to come up with a plan coming out of the World Cup going into the season to make sure we monitor how they're feeling and where they're at."
2. Who will back up Martin Jones?
The Sharks began last season with Alex Stalock as their backup, but he struggled, so they acquired Reimer from the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. Reimer went 6-2-0 with a 1.62 GAA, a .938 save percentage and three shutouts as Jones' backup down the stretch. Reimer signed with the Florida Panthers as a free agent.
The Sharks haven't signed a veteran NHL goaltender to back up Jones but gave Aaron Dell, 27, who played 40 games with the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League last season, a two-year contract. Free agent Mantas Armalis, 23, who played 34 games last season for Djurgardens of the Swedish Hockey League, signed an entry-level contract.
Troy Grosenick, who played two games for the Sharks in 2014-15, also is under contract, but Dell outplayed him last season in the AHL and, barring the addition of a veteran, likely will open the season as Jones' backup. Dell went 17-16-6 with a 2.42 GAA and .922 save percentage with four shutouts for the Barracuda last season.
3. Can Joe Thornton continue to excel at age 37?
Thornton had 82 points last season, his highest total since 2009-10, when he had 89. Thornton seemed rejuvenated under DeBoer, who replaced Todd McLellan last season. It was McLellan who stripped Thornton of his captaincy shortly after the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead in a seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
Thornton had 19 goals, 63 assists and a plus-25 rating last season, the second highest of his NHL career behind a plus-31 in 2005-06. He's in the final season of a three-year contract but doesn't seem to be nearing retirement any time soon.