San Jose Sharks' Top 15 Players: A Chain Is Only As Strong...
In Hockey, like all sports, great players can carry teams through difficult times. But in Hockey, more-so than any other sport, winning championships requires an abundance of depth. The San Jose Sharks have entered another season with only one thing in mind: The Stanley Cup. Anything short of going all the way will be considered a complete failure. The Sharks have finished first in the West two years running, and don't even have a single win in a conference finals game to show for it. They spent their off-season and pre-season modifying their roster and approach. This year, the goal is not to win the most games or rack up the most points between now and April. The goal is to win in May and June.
Depth in hockey is not simply defined as the players that aren't stars. A second line stud. An extra penalty killer. To win a Cup, a team needs at least three lines, two D-pairings, and one goalie to be playing at an extremely high level. Everything after that is depth, which the Sharks are confident they have in guys like Kent Huskins, Jamal Mayers, and Jamie McGinn. But these top 15 will need to come up big if San Jose is going to take the next step.
Here's a look at the guys the Sharks are relying on to lead them to five separate champagne showers this spring:
15. Jason Demers, D
Ability: Demers is a young defensemen who is still learning the NHL game but holds his own at both ends. One of the best Sharks at the point.
Role: The Sharks seem to be viewing Demers as the replacement for Rob Blake. Along with Dan Boyle, he's been the Sharks best special teams defenseman.
Question: Will the 22 year old, second year Demers be able to play at a high level on the PP and PK through the grind of four post-season series?
14. Scott Nichol, C
Ability: Nichol is a gritty, physical center who is strong on the defensive end and is an excellent checker.
Role: Nichol anchors San Jose's 4th line. He is one of their most physical forwards, and sees a lot of ice time in the second and third periods due to his ability to wear down the opposition.
Question: Nichol's physicality would be great to have on the 3rd line, but to find the ice more, he'll need to build on last year's career-high 15 assists.
13. Antti Niemi, G
Ability: Niemi played the best hockey of his young career in the playoffs for Chicago last year, namely in their four game sweep of San Jose. He is a streaky goalie--he can't be relied on to deliver every night, but can get hot like few others.
Role: The Sharks brought him in to do two things: 1) start a lot of games along with Antero Nittymakki, so that both will be fresh for the post-season, and 2) win in the playoffs. San Jose isn't looking for an all-star replacement for Evgeni Nabokov, they are looking for a better post-season net-minder.
Question: Was Niemi's red-hot, cup-winning play last year a fluke, or is he truly a big-game stud?
12. Torrey Mitchell, C
Ability: Mitchell is, quite simply, as fast a skater as you'll ever see. He has the ability to put a puck deep, skate around his defender, avoid contact, get to, and control the puck behind the goal-line.
Role: Mitchell's speed is an asset to any line, and because of this he can play any of the Shark's top three lines. He is among the team's best on the forcheck and backcheck.
Question: Mitchell scored 10 goals as a rookie, but a leg injury kept him out for his second season and limited him in his third to only two goals. Now that he seems to have his legs fully back, SJ is expecting point production, not just speed.
11. Devin Setoguchi, RW
Ability: Seto is a playmaking RW who can create scoring chances out of nothing. He is also a threat off the puck, with a solid one-timer.
Role: He should be able to thrive when surrounded by talent. His role on the second line is to control the puck behind the net as well as to screen the front end.
Question: Setoguchi scored 31 goals in his second year, and 20 in his third. He has one so far in his fourth, which is disconcerting to say the least.
10. Niclas Wallin, D
Ability: defensive-minded defenseman who can cut forwards off at the blue-line as well as recover when beat with great shot blocking and reach-around pokes.
Role: If Demers is supposed to fill Rob Blake's offensive void, then Wallin is supposed to fill the leadership void. He won a Cup in Carolina and plays the most fundamental game of any SJ Blue-liner besides maybe Dan Boyle.
Question: In his first two playoff runs, he put up 3 and 5 points, respectively, with a +4 followed by a +3. In his last 24 playoff games, he's put up no points and been a -2. San Jose absolutely NEEDS Wallin to get his playoff game back.
9. Logan Couture, C / RW
Ability: Couture is as good a rookie as there is in the NHL. He's got a sweet wrister, loves contact and plays like a future captain--standing up for teammates, scoring game-winners, and being accountable on D.
Role: Couture is quickly emerging as the future of the franchise. Right now he is the primary scorer on the Sharks 3rd line, although he recently filled in for Joe Thornton at C on the top line with success.
Question: Couture is doing everything right so far this season. But if Devin Setoguchi continues to struggle, he may be called on to play on the second line. If so, the Sharks need him to develop as a playmaker.
8. Antero Nittymakki, G
Ability: Nittymaki is extremely flexible in the crease, as he has the ability to make sensational pad and kick saves. He can also close the five hole up quickly and bounce right back up to face a high shot off the rebound.
Role: Antero was brought in to start, but Niemi's signing made it seem like he might be a backup. Nittymaki has proven that he is the #1, and it's his job as long as he keeps playing at a high level.
Question: Nittymaki has started 45 games or more three times, but only put up a .900+ save % in one of those seasons. The Sharks have a great backup in Niemi, but to win a cup, one guy must establish himself. Niemi has before, Nittymaki has not.
7. Ryane Clowe, LW
Ability: Very few players are as versatile as Ryane Clowe. He can score in front of the net and from the wing, he is one of the team's best setup men, he is possibly the Shark's best defensive forward, and fights well for good measure.
Role: Ryane Clowe is one of the true leaders of this team. Thornton wears the C, but Clowe leads by example as well as anyone, and is an exceptional presence on the bench and in the locker room.
Question: Clowe's only downside is the amount of time he spends in the box. The Shark's PK is great, but less time in the box is more time to get pucks deep and wear down the opponent no matter how you slice it.
6. Douglas Murray, D
Ability: Murray is an elite physical player in this league. He was 4th in the league in hits for a defenseman last year, and every hit he delivers is neutralizing. He was probably last in the league in times knocked over.
Role: While Boyle and Wallin seal off the blue-line, Murray plays physically when the opponent has the puck deep, making it very difficult for them to sustain offense. He also goes after anyone trying to screen the crease or look for a deflection.
Question: Murray broke out last year as a near top-tier defenseman. However, to be an unstoppable force, which the Sharks think he can be, he needs to skate harder more consistently.
5. Joe Pavelski, C
Ability: Like Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski does everything well, but is straight up dangerous in a few areas: shooting, on the forcheck, and on the boards. Joe plays a hard-nosed, gritty game at both ends, but he's at his best in the slot, where he hammers home one-timers and fires in wristers, both with equal force and precision.
Role: Joe is the Sharks best player on the forcheck, and has become a huge part of their power play. Although he's a C and a great passer, he's at his best playing with other playmakers who can get him the puck in the slot.
Question: While Joe plays exceptionally hard, he hasn't produced consistently enough this year. After last year's playoff tear, he is looking for goals rather than creating plays. He needs to re-establish himself as the anchor of a dangerous 2nd line.
4. Dany Heatley, LW
Ability: The Sharks are good. You have to be good if Dany Heatley is only your 4th best player. In 9 seasons, he has well over a point per game, and there is hardly anyone in the league who can score in as many ways as him. He can rifle the puck from distance with the best of them, but is also an elite player in front of the net, with a knack for tipping it home and inhaling rebounds.
Role: Patrick Marleau is a great scorer, and Heatley wasn't just brought in to be another great scorer, but to make Marleau better. his presence on the left wing has given the Sharks the best line in hockey (Heatley, Thornton, Marleau). But even playing with the league's best center and the greatest Shark of all-time, Heatley is still the guy the D has no choice but to key on when this team needs a goal.
Question: Heatley is a solid defensive player, but hurts the D too often with careless turnovers. He is a skilled passer, and because of this MUST cut down on lazy passes that lead to breaks the other way.
3. Patrick Marleau, C / RW
Ability: Marleau is among the best skaters in the NHL. He uses his speed and agility to create breaks, elude defenders and finish more often than anyone else. He has pinpoint accuracy as well, slapping home one timers from literally any spot on the ice. He is dangerous on the backcheck and is simply put a game-breaker.
Role: Marleau does everything. His ability to move with and without the puck make him deadly on the PP, and his backchecking and speed make him even better on the PK. He is the perfect compliment to Joe Thornton--the best passer in the game plus a guy that is always in perfect position equals lots and lots of goals.
Question: Patty Marleau is the toughest Shark to criticize, which means he's come a long way in the past year. He led the team in goals last year and was the best player in the post-season. The only thing stopping Marleau from being the best player on this team are his occasional lapses on D, he is too often caught out of position. He is so smart 95% of the time, but to win a Cup, everyone must improve.
2. Dan Boyle, D
Ability: Patrick Marleau may be the best skater on the Sharks, but Dan Boyle is the best skating defenseman in the NHL. He is also the best puck-handling D, and is as committed a defender as they come. After putting the puck in his own net to lose a playoff game to Colorado last year, he came back with a goal to start the next game, a diving save in front of an empty net to clinch the series, and a completely dominating performance in five games against Detroit, outplaying Niklas Lidstrom and shutting down Pavel Datsyuk. That's accountability.
Role: Boyle is the Shark's Chris Pronger--he leads the team in ice time, is involved in the majority of sustained attacks, and neutralizes other team's stars. He, more than anyone else, takes this team from talented & competitive to determined & dominant. And with a Cup under his belt, you can bet he feels responsible for taking this team yet another step further.
Question: Boyle plays essentially a perfect game. The only thing he could do is shoot the puck more, especially on the power play. One may question his age, but Danny will not slow down unless injury forces him to. He's still in his prime.
1. Joe Thornton, C
Ability: Joe is, plainly put, the best passer in hockey. He can put the puck on the blade of anyone's stick from behind the net, from the blue line, from the middle, on a no-look pass, on a carom, or a stretch. He can also use his massive frame to completely shield goaltenders, his uncanny puck-handling to manipulate and humiliate trailing defenders, and if a team tries to shut down hockey's John Stockton, then he'll put it in the back of the net himself.
Role: People don't realize it, but Thornton is as much of an offensive weapon as Ovechkin or Crosby. He can completely dominate games, and there is not one defensive scheme that can stop him if he's playing like he's capable of. He's captain of the Sharks, not just because he's the best player, but because the team has adopted his tough, physical, and border-line dirty style of play.
Question: Jumbo is one of maybe five guys in this league who can decide to win his team a game, and just do it. He finally did this in the post-season last year against Detroit. Can he do it all the way to a Cup? It's up to him.