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Sharks X-Factors in the 2015-16 Season

by Eric Gilmore / San Jose Sharks

SAN JOSE - The San Jose Sharks had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 10 straight seasons before finishing fifth in the Pacific Division and 12th in the Western Conference with 89 points in 2014-15.

Coach Todd McLellan and the Sharks mutually parted ways on April 20, and Peter DeBoer was hired as McLellan's replacement on May 27.

Here are three X-factors that could help determine whether the Sharks return to the playoffs this season:

Spotlight on Tomas Hertl: Hertl, a first-round pick (No. 17) at the 2012 NHL Draft, scored 15 goals in his first 35 games two seasons ago as a rookie, including four on Oct. 8, 2013, against the New York Rangers. But he hasn't been able to match that productivity since sustaining a knee injury on Dec. 19 that season during a game against the Los Angeles Kings. He missed 45 games after having surgery.

Hertl had 13 goals in 82 games last season, in large part because his sore knee kept him from working out hard during the offseason. This past offseason was a different story.

"He's in tremendous shape," general manager Doug Wilson said. "He looks outstanding. He's lean. He's had a full summer of training without any setbacks. He looks really, really good. As we all know he's a very important player for us. He's got a big smile back on his face, but he looks really good."

If Hertl regains his form, he could wind up on the top line at left wing with center Joe Thornton and right wing Joe Pavelski. But if Hertl struggles, he could wind up as far down as the fourth line or even in the American Hockey League to get more seasoning.

Wilson has often said he believes Hertl will wind up as a center in the NHL. That might not happen this season, with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Chris Tierney and Ben Smith in the middle. But as the Sharks know after this offseason, change can happen quickly.

Health watch: Left wing Raffi Torres missed all of last season and most of the previous season because of serious knee injuries, but he hasn't given up hope of resuming his NHL career. If Torres can return, he'll give the Sharks some of the grit and physicality they've been missing.

"He's an important piece," general manager Doug Wilson said. "We missed him. The physicality, the energy. If there's a game where there's maybe a lack of energy, put him out on the ice. .. With everything he's been through, it's great to see him back. He's worked extremely hard, and I think the players are happy to see him back at this point too."

Torres was on the ice for opening of training camp.

"I'm really hungry and looking forward to coming back this year," he said.

Torres said he spent the offseason working on endurance and trying to prepare himself to play an entire season.

"I'm not going to set myself with crazy goals, but I've got to be able to play in every game," Torres said.

The Sharks also hope that fourth-line wing Mike Brown has fully recovered from a broken leg that cost him much of last season. Brown is best known as a player who's willing to drop the gloves and protect his teammates, but he's also a skilled skater and an energizer.

The Sharks lost enforcer John Scott as a free agent to the Arizona Coyotes, making Brown's role more important. Even if he's not a full-time starter, Brown would be a valuable player to have on the 23-man roster.

Barracuda sighting: The Sharks moved their AHL franchise from Worcester, Mass., to San Jose, and Wilson said he believes that decision should pay big dividends. The Sharks and San Jose Barracuda will play their games at SAP Center and practice at an expanded and upgraded Sharks Ice facility.

Logistically, moving players up or down will be much easier now with the AHL team in San Jose instead of on the East Coast. Wilson, coach Peter DeBoer and the front office and development staff will have an easier time tracking the progress of prospects.

"It's one of most important things we've done," Wilson said.

DeBoer said "a lot of NHL teams are trying to go to that model" of having their AHL and NHL teams play and practice in the same city.

"There's a reason for that," DeBoer said. "I think you want the American league guys close enough that they can taste it. But the big guys are in the building, so to speak, the coaches and GM of the NHL team. And also from a logistics point of view, just getting them in and out so they can help you on any given night, it's key. There's a lot of exciting things happening here."

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