After last season ended bitterly for the San Jose Sharks (losing their first-round series to the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks) three pressing issues were evident on Team Teal's roster.
1) They lacked a pure go-to goal scorer.
2) They were missing "sand paper" role players.
3) They were in need of better secondary scoring.
Fortunately for Sharks fans, General Manager Doug Wilson fixed two of those holes over the offseason.
Never afraid to make the big splash, Wilson acquired All-Star winger Dany Heatley in mid-September from the Ottawa Senators along with a fifth-round draft choice in exchange for forwards Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, and a second-round draft choice.
Heatley has gone on to have a tremendous season with San Jose, notching 39 goals and 82 points. Meanwhile, Michalek and Cheechoo have combined for just 48 points between them in Ottawa.
With the "Heater's" presence added to the club, the Sharks finally have that go-to goal scorer they were clearly lacking.
However, even though a popular phrase in the NHL states that a "team's best players have to be their best players when it matters most," every Cup-winning team also has third/fourth line players who perform superbly in checking roles.
Over this past offseason, Wilson knew this was yet another area in which he needed to improve the squad.
During the beginning of free agency, Wilson signed veterans Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer to one-year deals and later on he signed another veteran in Manny Malhotra after inviting him to Training Camp for a tryout.
So far this season, these three signings have proven to be smart moves. Each one of them is having a career year in points as well as contributing high energy every shift.
Not to mention, they are all detail-oriented players who do the little things to help their team win games.
Both Malhotra and Nichol are dominant in the faceoff circle, and Ortmeyer has been an effective forechecker, constantly causing havoc for opposing defenders.
The additions of these three forwards has filled the sandpaper roles Wilson was looking for as each of them are willing to get down and dirty, as well as scrap when necessary.
So there you have it: two holes filled before the season even began.
But what about that secondary scoring? Well, Wilson's impressive draft history has paid off again with the rise of rookie Logan Couture.
The first-round draft choice (ninth overall) from 2007 was an AHL All-Star this season and has recently locked down a spot on the Sharks playoff roster with impressive all-around play since being called up from the minors.
It's safe to say, the third hole from last season has been filled with Couture's call up to the "show."
By addressing each of their glaring needs from last season, this year's squad is even more dangerous than year's past.
They now have a better chance for a deep playoff run than any previous team in franchise history.
Now without further ado, here are five in-depth reasons why the Sharks are set for their best crack at a Stanley Cup victory.
Last season, the Sharks had the same top line together for the majority of the season. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Devin Setoguchi formed what was San Jose's only significant top line combination.
Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski, and Milan Michalek formed a second line that was also together for the vast majority of the year.
When injuries late in the season caused poor play down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Sharks had barely any backup combinations that had previously performed well together.
Therefore, chemistry was at a minimum and a spark in performance was surely not going to come from a change in lines.
However, with injuries hitting early on during this year's regular season, the Sharks have had to throw a lot of different lines together.
Fortunately, the added versatility from a guy like Manny Malhotra has given San Jose a large amount of possible line combinations, most of which have proven successful when thrown together.
Here are just a "few" that have demonstrated impressive chemistry this season:
Eleven different trios in particular have displayed significant success when playing together this season.
That is more than double the number of line combinations that demonstrated chemistry last season.
This new ability to mix and match with proven chemistry will be a huge advantage for Head Coach Todd McLellan in the playoffs.
Prior to last season, the highly touted Sharks teams of recent seasons had zero Stanley Cup rings in their locker room.
For example, the 2007-08 Sharks team (which finished No. 2 overall in the Western Conference) was definitely talented but there was nobody on the squad who truly knew what it took to win 16 playoff games in a single postseason.
Doug Wilson changed that by trading for Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich and signing Rob Blake prior to last season.
Lukowich is no longer around, but the two big dogs in Blake and Boyle are still present to lead this team in the direction they want to go.
Over the last nine games, the veteran cup winning defensemen have both been playing their best hockey.
Blake has nine points in his last eight games and Boyle has eight points in his last eight games.
17 points between them down the stretch.
Being on top of their respective games is exactly what San Jose needs from two of their biggest leaders heading into the playoffs.
Boyle and Blake have been there and done that. Their leadership and on ice play in the postseason will be crucial to San Jose's run to the Cup.
Let me make one thing clear: I have never been a huge supporter of Evgeni Nabokov.
But the facts are the facts.
Nabokov is having a career year this season, as his .921 save percentage has tied his career best from 2003-04.
The kicker this season is that Nabokov has faced a ton more shots this year than he did back in '03-'04, including many more of the difficult variety.
While he may let in questionable goals from time to time, Nabokov's presence in net, along with backup Thomas Greiss, combine for a better goaltending situation than that of the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.
Along with the Sharks, those two franchises make up the top three teams in terms of points this season.
Of the three, the Sharks have the best goaltending by far. Nabokov is on a role of late, with a 6-1-1 mark and a .926 save percentage in his last eight games.
Chicago on the other hand has struggled in nets, and neither Cristobal Huet (.895 save percentage) nor Antti Niemi (.914 save percentage) have performed adequately over the last month.
Both have struggled dearly over that span.
As for the league leading Capitals, both Jose Theodore (.911 save percentage) and Semyon Varlamov (.909 save percentage) leave a lot to be desired.
But the Sharks are set between the pipes. Nabokov has been solid all year long and Greiss has been stellar when given starting duties, posting a .918 save percentage in 11 starts.
Granted a few of the other playoff teams have better goaltending than San Jose, but the Sharks clearly have bigger advantages in other areas over said teams like Phoenix, Vancouver, Detroit and New Jersey.
As much as myself and other Sharks fans get frustrated over Nabokov's occasional gaffes, other playoff teams have much bigger questions between the pipes.
Every Stanley Cup-winning team has their fair share of super duper stars. And the Sharks have four players of this caliber who have already played and won under the most pressure imaginable.
(OK, I know Joe Thornton didn't have a great Olympics, but that is beside the point.)
Thornton, along with Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle won the Gold Medal in Men's hockey at the Vancouver Olympics this season as members of Team Canada.
Canada, the birthplace of hockey, was hosting this year's Olympics, and the host team was facing more pressure to win than any NHL team will ever face.
These four Sharks were playing for much more than just the hopes of Bay Area fans, they were playing for the hopes of an entire nation.
Over 80 percent of Canada was watching the Gold Medal matchup with Team USA.
There has never before been and will never again be more pressure on a single team in the history of team sports than the pressure that was on this year's Canadian Olympic team.
Yet, they delivered. The Sharks players, in particular, gave a tremendous showing.
And so far during this NHL season, the foursome has combined for a mind-boggling 117 goals, an amount that equals to over half the total number of goals scored by 23 teams in the league this season.
Despite playing on the same team, Heatley, Thornton, and Marleau are all in the top 14 in league scoring and Boyle is in the top-4 in scoring amongst defenseman.
These four make up the main dish that gives the Sharks their best opportunity for Stanley Cup glory.
As the phrase goes, "Your best players have to be your best players when it matters most" and these four are prime to be just that for the Sharks in the postseason.
Secondary scoring: It is arguably the most important factor in putting together a Stanley Cup winning team because when the playoffs roll around, the dirty goals become much more prevalent.
While it is true that the star players have to be the star players, playoff hockey is often dictated by the little-known players or the "bottom-six" role players.
In the postseason, it is these forwards who tend to come up with huge playoff goals time and time again.
Those pretty tic-tac-toe power play tallies are few and far between in the playoffs but those ugly goals off rebounds and scrums in the crease account for a much larger percentage.
Therefore, having talented offensive forwards on the third/fourth lines are critical come the postseason.
When the super duper stars are off their game, who is going to step up?
Last year, the Sharks had "bottom six" forwards consisting of Jeremy Roenick, Travis Moen, Mike Grier, and Marcel Goc, who all lacked offensive jump.
The only one with the offensive talent was Roenick who was running on fumes in the last games of his storied career.
Consequently, last year's Sharks had no reliable forwards to provide secondary scoring.
But wow have things changed.
Rookie Logan Couture and veteran forward Manny Malhotra headline this year's secondary scoring for San Jose.
Malhotra has had a career year in goals with 14, and Couture has been absolutely studly for a recently called-up rookie. Over his past eight games, Couture has four goals and six points.
Not to mention, fellow rookie Jamie McGinn has 10 goals in 58 games this season, showing the potential to be a future 20+goal scorer if given more minutes.
These three in particular, along with the speedy Torrey Mitchell, give the Sharks much improved scoring depth that will end up making a huge impact during the postseason.
As a group, these lesser known Sharks forwards combine their raw offensive talent with a nose for a net.
Because of their tenacity, they have demonstrated the ability to score the ugly rebound goals and deflection goals all season long.
Now sooner or later, the Sharks' top dogs will have an off game and in order for their playoff run to continue, they will need that secondary scoring to come through in the clutch.
This year, more than any other year, the Sharks have those reliable offensive weapons not named Thornton or Marleau.
And that alone is the biggest reason why Sharks fans should be hopeful that this year will be the year they make a deep postseason run.