5 Biggest Storylines for San Jose Sharks' 2013-14 Season
The Sharks have reached the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons, and this year should extend that impressive streak.
But they have also fallen short of winning the team's first Stanley Cup in each of those nine seasons despite being among the top contenders multiple times.
Some key players are in their contract years, and it will be interesting to see how that affects their play this season.
In the end, here's how things will look for San Jose in 2013-14.
Antti Niemi Will Shine Again in Goal
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Goalie Antti Niemi is 30 years old and in his prime. The native of Finland was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season after finishing with a 24-12-6 record, a goals-against average of just 2.16 and a .924 save percentage. The save percentage and GAA were career bests.
Niemi should be poised to have another fine season. The San Jose defense is strong and should prevent opposing teams from taking too many shots against Niemi. The Sharks also have solid depth up front and should score enough goals to win hockey games.
The only potential problem facing Niemi is his work load. The Sharks lack a proven backup, so Niemi will probably play at least 65-70 regular-season games and may see action for Finland at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. That could make for a tired goalie down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Joe Thornton Will Have Another Solid Season
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Let's face it, passers never get the same amount of credit that goal scorers get. Joe Thornton is no exception.
Joe Thornton remains one of the league's best passers, even at the age of 34. The London, Ontario, native may not be leading the league in points anymore, but he's still only a little bit below a point-per-game average despite the fact that his playing time dipped an average of a minute per game last season to 18:22.
Thornton will still see plenty of time on the power play and when the game is on the line, so expect "Jumbo Joe" to be on the ice in these critical situations to help set up his teammates.
Sure, Thornton is slowing down, but it's a very gradual decline.
This is the last season of Thornton's contract, so he has a little extra incentive to produce this year.
Patrick Marleau Will Bounce Back
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Like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau is in the final year of his contract in 2013-14.
Marleau has been frustrating to fans at times in recent years. He has been a very productive player over the course of his NHL career, but there is a nagging feeling that as good as Marleau has been, he could be even better.
Last season, Marleau started off the season on an amazing hot streak. He scored nine goals and 14 points in the first six games of the season. A lengthy slump followed, and Marleau finished with only 17 goals and 31 points for the season.
The urgency of an expiring contract plus the realization that this may be his last chance to win a Stanley Cup with San Jose will help Marleau raise his game.
Playing on a line with Logan Couture should only help Marleau, who should continue to see top-six forward minutes and plenty of ice time on the power play.
Tomas Hertl Will Make an Impact as a Rookie
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Tomas Hertl is the highest-ranked prospect in the Sharks' system right now. The 19-year-old rookie has a good chance of making the team this season after spending the past two seasons playing in the Czech Republic.
Hertl has a good combination of hands and vision, so he can beat opponents in a number of ways. If his skating was a bit better, he'd be an elite offensive threat.
This year, Hertl will have an impact while probably playing on the third line for San Jose. He will probably finish the season stronger than he starts. You have to expect that he'll need some time to adjust to the smaller NHL rinks and the more physical style of play here in North America.
The key for San Jose may be what Hertl can contribute in March, April and maybe even May. If he improves as the season goes on, it will add another dimension to the San Jose attack in the postseason.
The Sharks Will Make the Playoffs Again
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The Western Conference and the Pacific Division are going to be very competitive this season. The odds of making the playoffs are better in the Western Conference, however, as there are only 14 teams and eight of them will qualify for the postseason.
The Sharks should make the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season this year.
The problem Team Teal continues to face, however, is that the game gets more physical in the postseason, and the club lacks the grit to match teams like the Kings, Blues or Blackhawks over the course of a best-of-seven series.
The Sharks will again reach the second round of the playoffs this season before being eliminated.