Antti Niemi may well be the player who finally puts San Jose over the top.
Key Additions: G Antero Niittymaki, G Antti Niemi, RW Jamal Mayers.
Key Subtractions: G Evgeni Nabokov, RW Brad Staubitz, C Manny Maholtra, Rob Blake.
It would be hard to write a preview about the San Jose Sharks without talking about the obvious elephant in the room. The Sharks, a dominant regular season franchise for the better part of the last decade, cannot seem to climb over the hill and make it to the Stanley Cup finals, much less win the whole thing.
Five division titles in the past nine years have yielded only two appearances in even the conference finals, the most recent being a heartbreaking sweep against the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
It wasn’t as if the Sharks were playing poorly or had pulled their typical choke. The fact of the matter was, that in four closely contested games, the Blackhawks were the better team and came out on top.
Recognizing that their window may be shutting, San Jose didn’t pull a massive overhaul on offense as they had in years past, nor did they do it on defense. The Sharks' biggest moves to improve this offseason were in net, and boy did they make waves.
With Evgeni Nabokov’s time having expired not only in San Jose but the entire NHL, the Sharks went fishing for a suitable No. 1 goalie.
While fans were underwhelmed, yet hopeful for the signing of Antero Niittymaki, San Jose concocted an even bigger plan by swooping in to sign fresh, Cup-winning tender Antti Niemi as a viable option.
With one last change to the structure, it may be now or never for the Sharks.
There is no doubt that the Sharks boast one of the best top lines in the NHL, if not NHL history. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley are the kind of frightening connection defenses dread playing against. Each has their own unique abilities that make them force defenses to contour accordingly.
Marleau’s surprising 44 goals last year accompanied another big season for Heatley. For the first time in franchise history, the Sharks boast not one but two potential 50-goal talents on a roster that can still develop youth into scoring.
Heatley’s style of crashing the net, picking up loose garbage and scoring clutch goals is one of the best all around. Marleau, on the other hand, still keeps a certain reserve and poise that made him an unlikely candidate for the team lead in goals.
Their center, captain Joe Thornton, has his fair share of criticism every year. We’ve heard the talk that Thornton doesn’t show up in the playoffs and simply doesn’t shoot enough, yet somehow he thrives despite it all.
Thornton’s soft hands and passing vision make him just as lethal as he would be if he took more chances with the puck on his stick. He’s about to join the 1,000-point club and yet people still believe he’s a choke artist.
With all the attention provided to these big three, the Sharks second tier has found a way to be just as impressive. Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe are two homegrown talents that are evolving into their true form as star players with each passing game. Pavelski is coming off back-to-back 25-goal seasons while Clowe is mastering both sides of his offensive game with a career high 38 assists and 57 points.
The third member of this B-squad, Devin Setoguchi, isn’t exactly pleased after a dismal season. Setoguchi hit the ground running in 2008-09 with 31 goals and 65 points. The following year, Setoguchi had only 20 goals with 36 points.
Some of this can be attributed to less ice time and power-play time. Center Joe Thornton also had a bit of a letdown despite the strong play of Clowe and Pavelski. Look for a reversal of fortunes in the 50-point range this year for Setoguchi.
The Sharks also remain deep on potential stars for their third and fourth lines. Who knows if this will be the year that one or more of the players like Logan Couture, Jamie McGinn, or Torrey Mitchell show their true power?
Back on defense, the Sharks are adjusting to life without Rob Blake. Since his retirement, San Jose made attempts to steal Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago was unsuccessful, so the Sharks will wing it with what they’ve got.
At age 34, Dan Boyle is proving you don’t have to be young to be a great offensive defenseman in the NHL. Boyle remains a force for the power play while keeping his numbers right where they were when he had a career year with the Lightning in 2006-07. He takes more chances than he used to and, while he may sit in the penalty box a few too many times, he’ll more than make up for it.
Boyle has great support on the blue line from, you guessed it, more homegrown talents like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray. Vlasic is a "silent but deadly" style player that has the offensive capabilities to jump in on the rush. Murray, is the opposite: a bone-rattling big man who can amp up the game with a big-time collision.
One Shark to keep a watchful eye on this year is defenseman Jason Demers, who emerged early as a rookie last year before bouncing back and forth to the AHL.
Demers has officially been promoted to the big league squad, meaning he’ll have a lot to prove going forward. All likelihood is that Demers will see second-unit power-play time as the point man, giving him ample time to shine… or simmer.
Then, of course, we have the aforementioned goaltending situation.
After a decade of noble, dependable service, Evgeni Nabokov was given his walking papers and dismissed from the San Jose organization. The Sharks had already seen one prospect of theirs make it to the finals (Miikka Kiprusoff) in the time Nabokov wasn’t achieving, leaving new options to be pursued.
Assuming they'll play the logical choice, Antti Niemi will start the season in net for San Jose. Niemi went 26-7 last year and was a heroic figure in Chicago’s Cup run. The questions about Niemi’s abilities come in when you consider that at 27, he’s already behind several other goalies in experience and he hasn’t yet played a full season.
All that said, Niemi did win the Stanley Cup, starting all 22 of Chicago’s playoff games. If we were to assume that his brief season and total playoff run amassed to one entire year, that’s a record of 42-13. Absolutely stellar, in other words.
In a familiar position, Antero Niittymaki was also brought in to fill the void left by Nabokov. But Niittymaki has never truly lived up to his potential at the NHL level. His best season remains his first, where he won 23 games despite an inflated goals against average and save percentage. It also marks the only time he’s seen playoff action, leaving little doubt as to which goalie the Sharks should roll with come game time.
Thanks to the NHL’s rules on the Calder Trophy, forward Benn Ferriero makes the cut to be a rookie once more having only played 24 games last year (the cutoff is 25). The 23-year-old wasn’t given many opportunities last year but could find a hole in the lineup and develop into a 20-goal scorer by the end of the year with some strong play. Ultimately he’s still something of a long-term project.
The Sharks are literally in sink or swim position this year, which may well bring out the very best they have to offer. First in the Pacific, third in the Western Conference.