A perennial regular season favorite, and a playoff frustration just as often, the San Jose Sharks again hope to buck the trend this year.
Yet, as they've created a high-scoring offense, augmented by a top puck-moving defender and a variety of pieces around him, they'll enter this season with their biggest question mark in net.
Say what you want about Evgeni Nabokov, whether he was over-rated, soft, or not worth his asking price (or eventually got from the KHL), you knew what you were getting.
With a selection of Antero Niittymaki, Antti Niemi, and Thomas Greiss between the pipes, the Sharks are in more of a "wait and see" period, while hoping someone steps up.
Niittymaki is untested through the rigors of a full NHL season. He's played more than 50 games just once (with two 40-game seasons), and while the stats are good, it will be interesting to see him adjust to the run-and-gun style of the Sharks, a team that allowed the eleventh-most shots against last year (Playing for Tampa Bay was a good warmup, as they were eighth-worst in that category).
The transition may be even more awkward for Niemi. Chicago allowed the fewest shots against per game last year, but aside from that, he's had the equivalent of one full season of action, if you combine his regular season numbers and playoff stats. The relatively untested tender was also too rich for the 'Hawks blood, which is a curious sidenote. If he was that darn good, wouldn't they make room?
Greiss may be in the best position of all the goalies. He's good, he's young, and he's experienced in San Jose's system. Sure 19 games in two years isn't much, but it's at least seniority with the team.
So let's start with the goalies shall we?
1) Antti Niemi wins the most games out of the three goalies, but Greiss has the best stats
When Thomas Greiss gets a chance, he shines. He won't, however, get the opportunity to win a lot of games in a row, because there's no need to rush his development, and the NHL resumes of the other two take precedent. Niemi is the more likely of the two (himself and Niittymaki) to roll out a few wins because...
2) Antero Niittymaki loses the goalie battle
Niemi's one-year deal makes him attractive to other teams, but if he gets on a roll, fat chance San Jose trades him. Along with that, if Greiss is out-performing the vet, I can't see where Todd McLellan would take away minutes from the youngster.
3) Dany Heatley leads the league in power play goals
If 39 goals is a down year for Heatley (18 of them on the power play), I'd hate to see what he does now that he's had a season to get acclimated to San Jose. He was six goals off of the league lead, held by Steven Stamkos, which isn't too big of a hurdle to jump.
4) Niclas Wallin scores game winners; one in overtime
This one has a flair for the dramatic. Just for kicks, I hope this happens.
5) The Sharks goal-scoring finishes: Heatley, Pavelski, Marleau
We've established that Heatley had a down year last year, so he takes over the team lead. With that, Thornton may bump up his goal-scoring just a bit, and between those two, it means more assist opportunities for Marleau. Meanwhile, Joe Pavelski scored 25 goals in 67 games, and 25 in the full season before. He improves this year and jumps ahead of Marleau.
6) The big three hits 260 combined points
Each of them had 80-point years last year, culminating in 254 combined points. Six points? That's gravy.
7) No one finishes with more than 100 penalty minutes on the Sharks
Last year Ryan Clowe finished with 131 penalty minutes, but his time spent in the box fluctuated, as it seems to depend on the season (He had one 65+ penalty minute season in junior, while both AHL seasons he's been over 90, and over 50 twice in four NHL years). Their other 100-PIM man, Brad Staubitz, now calls Minnesota home. Defensively Mike Moore could be that guy and Jamal Mayers has an outside shot at it, if he plays the way he did in Calgary last year (53 PIM in 27 games), but I don't think anyone crossed the century mark.
8) Marc-Edouard Vlasic rebounds offensively
When you look at the Sharks blue line and who's going to step up and chip in some offense behind Dan Boyle, Vlasic may slip behind players like Jason Demers or even Douglas Murray because of last season, but Vlasic should become the number two option offensively. His first four years have been up-and-down, but with the talent up front he has to work the puck to and the ice time vacated by Rob Blake, Vlasic should be one to watch.
9) Logan Couture nets 35 points in his first full NHL campaign
He may be a dark horse for the Calder Trophy this year because he has what many of the other candidates don't: 25 games of regular season NHL experience and 15 games in the playoffs. He's probably going to get buried a little bit on such a talent-laden squad, but he'll chip in with some timely production.
10) The Sharks don't make it three-straight years with 50 wins
At times the goalie situation might become clouded (there are very few cities where this won't happen), which may cost the Sharks, and the boost in ice time is something that guys like Kent Huskins and Jason Demers will have to get used to. San Jose will undoubtedly be competing for the West title, but it'll be tough this year.
The Stretch (Remember you're supposed to laugh): The Sharks, in hopes of shoring up their goaltending, acquire Martin Brodeur from the New Jersey Devils. Unfortunately, it costs them two of their big three and Sharkie the mascot. This sends the team into a tailspin of depression and they miss the playoffs...because they miss Sharkie.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.