The San Jose Sharks begin the 2013-2014 season with everything it takes to succeed: a high-powered offense, talented defense and a cup-winning goaltender. They are led by coaches with 11 Stanley Cup rings, collectively.
With vital players entering their final contract year, a depleted prospect pool from years of aggressive trading and a fanbase growing tired of perennial playoff disappointment, the window for the Sharks is rapidly disappearing.
Yet the Sharks start the season with a positive outlook and renewed potential. The mix of youth and experience is enviable. The depth is among the league's best.
Skeptics have called for a dismantling, but after a tumultuous 2012-13, the San Jose Sharks are all-in for the 2013-14 season.
Here are five reasons to believe the Sharks will be playing for the Stanley Cup in June...
After a relatively slow integration into the Sharks on-ice plan, Burns seems to have finally found a fit, of all places, as a forward along side Joe Thornton.
Burns, who was originally drafted by the Minnesota Wild as a forward in 2003 but played most of his NHL career as a defenseman, was moved back to forward late last season by head coach Todd McLellan. The move looked to provide a spark to a then-anemic offense and give the Sharks some much-needed grit up front after trading power forward Ryane Clowe to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline.
Despite the initial shock of much of the Sharks fanbase, the move wasn't entirely out of left field. Burns and McLellan have a history together with the Houston Aeros, the Wild's former AHL affiliate, where McLellan coached Burns at both positions.
Now after two seasons with his new club, Burns is set to start the season on the Sharks' top line, alongside Thornton and Sharks prized rookie Tomas Hertl.
Despite the abrupt transition, Burns finished the season strong with 20 points in his final 24 games at forward. The Sharks will need the continued production from Burns on the top line if they want to break through and finally reach the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final.
In another controversial move in the midst of the Sharks' offensive struggles last season, McLellan relegated top-six forward Joe Pavelski to third-line center. The move proved to be a spark for the offense and created a level of depth few teams could match.
According to multiple sources, Pavelski will start the season as one of the league’s most expensive third-line centers, a role that will carry even more weight being flanked early-on by youngster Tommy Wingels and rookie Matt Nieto.
The Sharks will need this line to hold its own while they await the return of forwards Marty Havlat and Raffi Torres. Havlat’s return will likely mean help for Pavelski in the form of either Havlat himself, or the team’s only non-rookie newcomer, former Penguin and Stanley Cup winner Tyler Kennedy.
Should the Sharks get fully healthy, the team’s roster will boast nearly three full lines of players who would be considered top-six forwards on any number of teams. And after 82 games of tweaking and perfecting combinations and player chemistry, that has the potential to create lots of problems for teams down the road.
Last season, Chicago’s Brandon Saad had the good fortune of arguably the easiest transition into the NHL in recent memory. The Chicago rookie spent the majority of the season playing with two of the league’s best in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
This year’s recipient of that good fortune is Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl, who will join team captain Joe Thornton and Brent Burns on the Sharks' top line to start the season.
Hertl, who spent the last two seasons playing professionally in the Czech Republic, was drafted 17th overall in the 2012 NHL draft and has been playing with Thornton and Burns throughout the team’s training camp. Rarely do players break into the NHL with the preparedness needed for immediate success, but Hertl will have plenty of help from his linemates.
Undoubtedly all eyes will be on McLellan and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson if Hertl struggles early. His team-leading three goals in the preseason were an impressive start, but McLellan has not been shy about utilizing the media-coined “Worcester Shuttle” if players aren’t able to snap out of early struggles.
While no team is exempt from adversity, without any other roadblocks, the Sharks have a particularly difficult road to navigate this season.
The Sharks enter the season as the league’s third-oldest team, according to NHL.com, and have the worst travel schedule. Thanks to the league’s new alignment and scheduling format, the Sharks will travel a league-high 57,612 miles, per Dirk Hoag of ontheforecheck.com. For stat geeks, that’s over 16,000 miles more than the league average, and nearly twice as many as the Rangers (29,839) and Islanders (29,933).
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all enter the final year of their respective contracts. All have expressed a desire to return next year, but nothing is certain, and the media prognostications will undoubtedly follow the team throughout the course of the year.
As if that isn’t enough to deal with, the 2014 Winter Olympics will likely heavily impact the team. Thornton, Logan Couture, Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all appeared at Team Canada’s orientation camp in August. Joe Pavelski is a virtual lock to represent the United States, and Marty Havlat and Tomas Hertl could appear on the Czech Republic’s roster.
One stroke of luck throughout all of this could be the depth of goaltending for Finland, whose roster could very possibly exclude Sharks goalie Antti Niemi.
In the best-case scenario, Pavelski, Couture, Boyle and Vlasic represent their respective countries and the rest of the team uses the time to rest up and get healthy for the home stretch.
To some, the Sharks' window of championship opportunity has already passed.
It’s not that they’re worse, they’re just older and not much has changed relative to previously disappointing teams. They are, dare we say it, boring, when it comes to predicting their success.
So why will this mix of players allow the franchise to compete for its first Stanley Cup? Because the Sharks finally have an opportunity to fly (swim) under the radar.
The Sharks have never been a team that revels in the spotlight. They are led by a delightfully vanilla captain and a coach who knows what it takes to be the last one standing.
The team remains virtually intact from last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals. The team that appeared to have found its heart amidst a roller coaster of a season that almost saw the Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. The team that is stronger because of every storm the players have already weathered together.
Bovada's initial line on the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup was 18-1, even odds with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sharks are so far from being a favorite even in their own conference (five of the seven teams ahead of them are all in the Western Conference), making it the perfect opportunity to experience uncharted waters.