The Sharks' season is just getting started, but already they are seeing themselves fall behind both in the conference and in the division. However, the season has only just begun, and the Sharks are just getting started. The road to the Pacific Division title will be long and require a lot of effort from the entire team, but these are five things that will lead the Sharks to victory.
This is perhaps the most important aspect for another Pacific Division title. The Kings have always been a talented hockey team, that is well known, and last year they put the Sharks through perhaps one of the most draining series in their post-season history.
They were a major source for the exhaustion that doomed last year's post-season attempt and they have only added more talent with their offensive additions of Simon Gagne from Tampa Bay and Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers. They also recently re-signed franchise defenseman Drew Doughty, putting their defensive end on par with the Sharks.
While they also have a very competitive team, it is imperative that the Sharks put out their best effort against their So-Cal rivals as they will likely be dueling for first place all season. Taking the lead in the series could be what gives San Jose the edge when spring approaches.
The Sharks are a team that often times has had issues with finding leadership. With a revolving door of captains, there has yet to be a player that truly provided that key role. That is, until last season, as Joe Thornton, the talented playmaker, stepped into the role left by the retiring Rob Blake and helped lead the Sharks through a mid-season slump to the second seed in conference and another Pacific Division title.
With his measurable improvement on the defensive end of his game, he was a leader for points in the post-season last year with a total of 14 assists and 17 points. Simply put, this team cannot afford for his performance to slip if it wants to be the division leader. His veteran experience along with strong playmaking ability are going to be key to the Sharks' effort's this season.
It is no secret that the main focus of GM Doug Wilson this season was to shore up the relatively weak blue line of the 2010-11 season. He promptly cleaned house, releasing Kyle Wellwood, Kent Huskins, Nicolas Wallin and Ian White while adding Brent Burns from Minnesota, Colin White from New Jersey and Jim Vandermeer from Edmonton.
On paper, this group of defensive players has the potential to be one of the most elite units in the league, but throughout these first few games, we've seen they are suffering in terms of their chemistry. It's understandable that on the defensive end with so many changes that cohesion hasn't been established yet and that their play will improve over time, but with talented teams like the Ducks and Kings competing for the division title, they cannot afford to waste time getting up to speed.
They must start performing to expectations or the Sharks can forget any chance of winning the division.
Michal Handzus was part of the talented power play and penalty unit in Los Angeles last year that successfully stalled the Sharks offense while powering the King's power play unit to a total of five goals in six games in the 2011 post-season.
He signed with the Sharks through free agency and is now providing his expertise to the Sharks already efficient power play unit and their ailing penalty kill unit. He has already shown up this season with two goals and an improved penalty kill performance.
In a year where the Pacific Division may be the most competitive in the National Hockey League, the performance of the special teams may be what tells the difference at the end of the season and the Sharks must see improvement to match their performance last year.
Antti Niemi is an accomplished goalie that cannot be denied. His solid performance between the pipes is part of what powered the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks past the Sharks in the Western Conference and eventually to a Stanley Cup. While his performance with the Sharks hasn't quite matched the effort of his Stanley Cup season, he provided a solid goaltending performance that helped the Sharks against the talented teams of Los Angeles and Detroit.
This in itself is no small feat, however, during the regular season there were times were his play faltered, and with the higher level of competition from division rivals this year, he simply cannot afford to falter in his output.
Antero Niittymaki is out for at least a few more months while recovering from groin surgery, and while Thomas Greiss has put forth a solid effort, he will not be able to match against more experienced goalies like Jonah Hiller and Jonathan Quick. If Niemi can keep up a solid record, especially in conference play, then the Sharks should be able to reclaim the Pacific Division title.