Predicting San Jose Sharks' Most Improved Players for 2014-15 Season
The San Jose Sharks will enter the 2014-15 season as a hungry and angry group on the heels of their embarrassing playoff collapse in April. They will be seeking their 11th consecutive playoff appearance and will try to make a run at the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
San Jose has put mostly the same team on the ice in recent seasons, and this offseason has seen very few changes so far.
We know what to expect from many Sharks. Joe Thornton will continue to be a playmaker and should be near the top of the league in the assists category. Patrick Marleau should remain a 30-goal sniper.
But who will have a breakout year for the Sharks this season? Tommy Wingels and rookie Matt Nieto come to mind as players who made names for themselves last year.
The following players are primed for big seasons this year as they look to supply the Sharks with that extra edge that is so crucial to distinguish the team from other Stanley Cup contenders.
Logan Couture is almost too good of a player to merit mention on this list. The 25-year-old has scored 20 or more goals in each of his first four full season in the NHL and has arguably become the Sharks' most well-rounded forward.
Nevertheless, there is room for improvement. Couture sat out 16 games in the middle of last season to have surgery on his hand. The injury may have held him back a bit, as his scoring production was down slightly compared to his first three seasons in the league.
A healthy and eager Couture should be able to take the next step in his production in 2014-15. He fits a lot of the cliches announcers like to utter: "Never takes a shift off," "Makes sacrifices for his team," etc.
The Sharks' playoff exit hit Couture hard, and he should be motivated to have his best season yet. Expect the ultra-competitive Couture to be a leader on and off the ice this season in San Jose.
It seemed last season would be Tomas Hertl's breakout year. But, alas, a knee injury all but ended his season.
The rookie phenom went on a tear to begin his NHL career, scoring 15 goals and 10 assists through his first 35 games before the injury. No one in San Jose will soon forget his four magical goals against the New York Rangers in just his third NHL game.
Hertl brings speed and a nice shot to Thornton's left wing. He can improve on the defensive end, but hey, he's only 20 years old.
Now that his knee is repaired, Hertl has the chance to be one of the Sharks' top scorers. If he can stay healthy, Hertl will look to pick up right where he left off and play a big role on the Sharks' top line.
James Sheppard emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to have a very solid second half of last season.
The 26-year-old former No. 9 overall draft choice has had a tough career, highlighted by an ATV accident that resulted in a serious injury.
But what's past is past, and Sheppard started to show signs of his potential last year with 20 points (four goals, 16 assists). He also was one of the Sharks' few brights spots in the playoffs, netting two goals and four assists in the seven-game series against L.A.
His late-season push earned him another shot, as San Jose re-signed him to a one-year contract.
Sheppard will likely play the third-line wing alongside Wingels as he did for much of last year. If he can continue improving, Sheppard is a key depth player for the Sharks.
General manager Doug Wilson put it best, telling CSN Bay Area's Kevin Kurz, “He certainly played well down the stretch and in the playoffs...[T]his is a very important summer for him to come in and take off at the beginning of next season right where he left off.”
There's been a lot of talk and speculation this offseason about Mirco Mueller, the Sharks' first-round pick in 2013.
The 19-year-old defenseman spent last season playing with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.
Mueller should have the best shot of any rookie to make the team's roster out of training camp, considering the Sharks' lack of depth on defense. Mueller has also taken Wilson's comments that younger players will get more opportunities this season to heart, according to NHL.com.
Mueller should be aided by newly promoted director of player development Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman in his own right who has provided good tutelage to players like Jason Demers.
Last summer, it was Hertl commanding much of the attention as a can't-miss prospect for the Sharks. Now it's Mueller, who has the chance to be a strong third-pairing defenseman in his rookie season.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com.