On January 20, the San Jose Sharks season will finally begin.
Until then, the Sharks will finish up a condensed training camp. There are always questions surrounding this time of year, but never to this degree. The uncertainty that the lockout has created, along with the abnormal 48-game schedule has clouded the preseason picture for every NHL team.
On top of that, the crossroads that the San Jose Sharks appear to be at makes their picture especially hazy. While the following five questions will be asked many times during 2013 training camp, they will not be answered.
Nonetheless, here's a look at the most pressing topics surrounding the Sharks as we approach the start of the NHL season.
All stats courtesy of hockeyreference.com
There are two main schools of thought here.
Some believe that a shortened season (48 games instead of the standard 82) will benefit the experienced Sharks roster. The team's older players won't have to stay healthy and energetic for six months as usual, and the team could be fresher for it in the postseason.
Others believe that San Jose's age will hurt them, as the 48 games will be played over a 99-day span. That's a more concentrated schedule than normal: The 2013 Sharks will play a game every 2.06 days, while the 2011-12 team played every 2.22 days. The lack of rest between games could fatigue the relatively old Sharks.
Of course, there is no correct answer to this question. Both outcomes are possible, and it's also possible that San Jose's experience and lack of rookies and sophomores will make them more able to deal with a condensed schedule.
One thing is certain: After the hectic 48-game season comes to an end and the top 16 teams get to catch their breath, the 2013 playoffs will be less about fatigue and more about pure skill. Even if the eventual Stanley Cup winner plays four seven-game series, their season total will still come out to 76, less than three quarters of the games played by a Stanley Cup champion in a typical season.
In other words, the 2013 playoffs will likely play out differently than the playoffs usually do. For the perennial playoff losers that are the Sharks, any change is good change.
The uncertainty of the 2012-13 season's fate and the irregularity of having no NHL hockey from October through mid-January means that there was far more variance in how each individual player came into training camp than there would be otherwise.
Some players are better for it. Joe Thornton and Logan Couture played huge roles on their teams in the Swiss league, while Antti Niemi, Joe Pavelski, Douglas Murray, T.J. Galiardi and Tommy Wingels also spent the lockout playing in Europe.
Those seven should hit the ground running, which will be great for San Jose considering this group includes three of their top four scorers, their goalie, an injury-induced top-four defenseman and two key third-liners.
However, the break didn't help across the board. Key defensemen Jason Demers and Justin Braun both suffered injuries, and a large number of players didn't stay in game shape. A shortened training camp will also make it very difficult for key players such as Dan Boyle, Patrick Marleau and Martin Havlat to get their 30-something-year-old bodies going.
More troubling yet, top blue liner Brent Burns apparently underwent surgery last May and may not be ready for some time despite the lengthy lockout.
One of the biggest criticisms of coach Todd McLellan during the 2011-12 season was his refusal to give starting goaltender Antti Niemi rest, despite him suffering through the worst prolonged stretch of his NHL career.
Niemi posted an .894 save percentage from February 16 through March 14, and San Jose went an atrocious 3-9-4 during the stretch. Despite this, McLellan gave Greiss only two starts during this stretch.
By season's end, Niemi and Greiss finished with an identical save percentage of .915, but the latter only made 14 starts to the former's 68. McLellan should not be faulted for trusting the playoff-proven Finn, but more rest for Niemi and more playing time for Greiss could potentially raise both goaltenders' numbers.
In the 2013 season, McLellan may have to take a different approach.
On the surface, Niemi should be able to play every night (48 games would be 20 less than his total from last year). However, the condensed schedule features nine back-to-backs, zero three-day stretches without a game after February and only three back-to-back off-days during the season's second half.
At the absolute least, Greiss should make nine starts this season, which would be the equivalent to 15 during an 82-game season.
Despite a resoundingly disappointing 2011-12 season, the Sharks kept their roster intact over the summer. Rather than breaking up what on paper is an elite group of players, the Sharks decided to make their mark by grabbing the top coaches on the market.
Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson will not count against the salary cap and did not require the loss of draft picks or prospects to acquire, but their defensive expertise, particularly on the penalty kill, may make more of an impact than any trade could have.
This would be true—had the season started on time.
While Robinson and Johnson still have the chance to improve San Jose as a team, it will be incredibly difficult to fully implement a new culture of defense and a new penalty-killing strategy in a one-week training camp.
The bright side of this is that having such quality personnel behind the bench may help the Sharks adjust on the fly to curveballs that the abnormal season throws at them. Still, the Sharks may not reap the full benefits of their coaching acquisitions this season.
Like most die-hard sports fans, my mind has drifted from hockey since the lockout. The incredible late-September/early-October play of the Oakland Athletics helped distract me early on, while the excellent early-season play of the Golden State Warriors carried me all the way to the unexpected announcement that there will in fact be an NHL season.
Hockey is back, and us sports fans and sportswriters need to prepare just as quickly as the players do.
So, where do the Sharks stand? Last season, the team finished with the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and were dominated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round.
The team's weaknesses appeared to be penalty-killing, depth, age, health and coaching. Depth was addressed on the blue line (Brad Stuart), but not so much up front (Adam Burish). Those two signings did help improve the penalty kill, as did the additions of assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson.
Still not checked off the list is forward depth, age and health. The improved penalty-kill, blue line and coaching staff should move the Sharks back into the top four of the Western Conference and give them a chance at a deep playoff run. Still, the team appears to be missing the third-line scoring needed to win a Cup, and is one Martin Havlat injury away from falling back onto the playoff bubble.