The San Jose Sharks are coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory after having their high hopes dashed in a first-round exit from the playoffs.
With a shortened season resulting from the NHL lockout, realistically anything can happen. Any team can make the playoffs, and any player can have a 48-game slate to remember.
A shortened schedule can give the Sharks all the hope in the world to bounce back from a forgettable 2011-12 year despite not making any key offseason additions to the team.
However, there are some rather large issues to keep an eye out for as the season starts, some that could alter the team's success.
Here are the main story lines to keep an eye on as the Sharks get underway January 20th against the Calgary Flames.
The Sharks' penalty kill was an obvious and consistent weakness of the team last season, and a definite reason for a lackluster regular season.
The team did something about it, though, bringing in assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson to restructure the penalty kill. It will be something to keep an eye on in the first few games of the season as the Sharks become more comfortable with the change.
Brent Burns is recovering from offseason surgery that will likely sideline him for the first few games of the regular season, although it could be longer.
Burns is a key part of the Sharks' defense in nearly every facet, and losing him would be a serious blow. Also, with the change in defense, it is important for Burns to be learning with the rest of the squad. His large slap shot and offensive awareness will also provide a boost once he returns.
Martin Havlat played in only 39 games for the Sharks last season, and hasn't managed to stay healthy ever since he was traded to San Jose in the summer of 2011.
Havlat showed signs of being an important player to the Sharks when he was on the ice, however, and being put on a line with Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture only furthered that production.
It is likely he will appear on that same line this season, and the Sharks can only hope he can stay healthy throughout the year.
Antti Niemi is the No. 1 goalie for the Sharks heading into this season, but he'll be on a very short leash.
Thomas Greiss was fairly serviceable in Niemi's absence last season, averaging a .915 save percentage in 19 games (equal to Nemo's save percentage in 68 games).
If the going gets tough for Niemi, we could see McLellan play the "hot hand" more often than not.
Also, the Sharks still have their eye on Alex Stalock in Worcester, who has bounced back wonderfully from injury to post decent numbers in the AHL. Although he may still be one to two years away, he is clearly a big part of the team's future.
For now, it appears like the Sharks' faith in Sheppard has paid off, as he has recovered nicely from a career-threatening injury to compete for a roster spot in the NHL.
Whether or not he makes the team to start the season, he will be in San Jose at some point this year, as McLellan likes to tinker with the rosters in San Jose and Worcester.
Ryane Clowe will be a free agent after this season, and will likely draw serious interest from many teams around the NHL if he does not re-sign with the Sharks.
Clowe has been a leader both on the ice and in the locker room, and losing him would be quite the blow to the team. But he is coming off a rather disappointing year, and San Jose does not have the cap room to give a huge contract to the 30-year-old who is a key part of the team's offense as well as their unofficial enforcer.
Clowe will need a big season for the Sharks if he is to earn such a large contract from the team. If not, then we may be seeing the last of Clowe in teal.
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