The 2011-12 season is an extremely important one for not only the players on the roster but the entire franchise as a whole. Time is ticking on this team, the talent on it and the front office that have made all the right moves but have nothing to show for it.
The San Jose Sharks are at the brink of the Stanley Cup and are at the same time worried about how long this franchise can keep the players that have been most important to it.
They have made changes; for the better or worse, we will find out soon enough. But on the surface, this may be the most well-rounded team that San Jose has ever had, and they have had some good ones.
Speed, defense, talent—they have it all.
The pressure is on in San Jose, for all parties associated.
Here are the five players who are essential to the Sharks' Stanley Cup hopes.
It is no secret that last season's defeat to the Vancouver Canucks was due to the fact that the Sharks simply could not keep up.
General manager Doug Wilson has seen this in back-to-back seasons now, and he made a change to acquire Martin Havlat to fill that void and compete physically with the Western Conference elite.
With a healthy Havlat, the Sharks can keep up both in the talent department and speed department.
Without him, they are just a player away from clearing the hump into the Finals.
Dan Boyle's job with this team is twofold. He is there to be a leader as well as an offensive mind on defense, something he has been so good at over the years in San Jose.
Boyle needs to be a leader in the locker room, as there has been a void ever since captain Rob Blake retired. The Sharks lacked leadership last season and will need someone to step up, mainly Boyle, to give the team that veteran leadership they have lacked the past couple seasons.
The center of the first line will always be a very important player on any given team, but Thornton's job this season may be as important as ever.
The losses of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi this offseason were serious blows to the offensive prowess of this team, and no doubt that part of the game took a hit for the Sharks. But Thornton is the player who could step his game up even further.
He will most likely be playing with wingers Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski for the majority of the season. But with currently weak third and fourth lines, Thornton will need to make that first line produce on a consistent basis.
If he does not, the Sharks will have trouble scoring against the better defenses come playoff time.
The Sharks brought Brent Burns in for one reason and one reason only. That was to solidify a weary defense that has cost them several playoff games in the past few years.
Burns is essential to the progress of the Sharks' season because it is on him to both score in the offensive zone and play physical defense in the defensive zone.
He has so many jobs on this team this season that he is undoubtedly the player who will carry this defense.
If he does not, San Jose will again lack the defense needed to win a Stanley Cup.
It is not Antti Niemi as much as his health.
Niemi has been sparingly at practice so far this preseason, as he has had a cyst removed from an undisclosed part of his body. That may not be that important, or effect him down the line, but it is Niemi's overall health that the team needs.
Behind Niemi, there is nobody. Antero Niittymaki is out for 12 weeks and Thomas Greiss has shown signs of growing, but he is certainly not ready to bolster the load in the NHL.
Niemi is key to the Sharks after a rough start and impressive finish to the regular season. He again showed why he has such a reputation for playing big in big games, and he is essential to the Sharks in the playoffs.
Not worrying about a consistent goaltender in the playoffs is one less thing to worry about come that time of year.
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