Biggest Potential Problems for San Jose Sharks' 2013-14 Season

Brad Kurtzberg@@sealshockeyContributor IOctober 2, 2013

Biggest Potential Problems for San Jose Sharks' 2013-14 Season

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    The San Jose Sharks are set to begin the 2013-14 NHL season on Thursday when they take on the Vancouver Canucks.

    Like all NHL teams, the Sharks have reasons to be optimistic about the coming campaign, but there are also reasons for concern. Here are the five biggest potential problems facing San Jose as the new season gets under way.

    If the any of these five problems take place, it will hurt San Jose's chances of having a successful season and winning the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history. But if the club is able to avoid most or all of these pitfalls, it can once again be counted among the league's contenders.

5. Dan Boyle Shows His Age

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    Dan Boyle is the Sharks' best puck-moving defenseman.
    Dan Boyle is the Sharks' best puck-moving defenseman.Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Dan Boyle remains San Jose's top puck-moving defenseman.

    Last season, he remained effective, scoring seven goals and 20 points in 46 games. Five of those goals came on the power play.

    Only one other defenseman accumulated more than 10 points last season—Matt Irwin, who finished with 12.

    Boyle is 37 and in the final year of his contract. The Sharks are relying on him to once again be a productive puck mover and to quarterback their power play from the point.

    If he shows his age or misses significant time due to injuries, San Jose may have difficulty replacing the offensive skills he brings to the table.

4. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau Start to Decline

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    Marleau and Thornton are still important players for San Jose.
    Marleau and Thornton are still important players for San Jose.Graig Abel/Getty Images

    For years, the Sharks have been led by Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. They were the team's best players, and the club's fortunes were closely tied to them.

    Now, the Sharks are undergoing a transition. Players like Logan Couture, Antti Niemi and Joe Pavelski are taking center stage, while Marleau and Thornton are becoming supporting players rather than the top stars on the team.

    But don't be fooled. Marleau and Thornton are both 34 and should have several productive seasons left. The Sharks still need these two veterans to play at a high level if the team is to be successful.

    Both of these players are in the final year of their contracts. Their future in San Jose is up in the air. But if they start to slow down significantly, the Sharks will have trouble scoring enough goals to have consistent success this season.

3. The Sharks Cannot Replace Raffi Torres

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    The Sharks need to replace the grit Raffi Torres provides.
    The Sharks need to replace the grit Raffi Torres provides.Don Smith/Getty Images

    Raffi Torres will be out for the first few months of the new season, and that is a big loss for the Sharks.

    He was a hard-working grinder who made San Jose tougher to play against by making opponents wary of his presence and what his potential next move would be.

    How important was his presence? Logan Couture told David Pollak of The San Jose Mercury News, "We changed our style of play a little bit [after Torres arrived], got a little bit quicker--north-south more--and we're going to have to continue to play that way with or without Raffi."

    Rookies Freddie Hamilton and Matt Nieto will have the first crack at picking up the slack, but the team as a whole needs to maintain its more aggressive style of play until Torres returns to the lineup.

    San Jose doesn't have a lot of gritty forwards like Torres in its lineup, but it will have to find a way to get the job done.

2. The Sharks Fail to Score Enough at Even Strength

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    Joe Pavelski and company need to be more effective at even strength.
    Joe Pavelski and company need to be more effective at even strength.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The Sharks struggled last season at even strength.

    In 48 games last year, San Jose scored only 77 goals five-on-five and one goal four-on-four. Only the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils scored fewer goals at even strength.

    Strong special teams made up for the club's relative weakness at scoring goals when the sides were all even, but the club is counting on players like Tomas Hertl, Tyler Kennedy and Joe Pavelski to improve in this area. Another boost is possible when injured players like Martin Havlat and Raffi Torres return to the lineup.

    The Sharks reached the second round of the playoffs last year and narrowly lost to the Kings in seven games. But if they are more effective at even strength, they have a chance to go further this season. If they fail to improve, however, they may be hard pressed to duplicate last year's level of success. 

1. Antti Niemi Is Ineffective or Injured

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    The Sharks are leaning heavily on goalie Antti Niemi.
    The Sharks are leaning heavily on goalie Antti Niemi.Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Last season, San Jose relied on goalie Antti Niemi, and the Finnish netminder didn't disappoint. He started 43 of the club's 48 games in the lockout-shortened season and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie.

    It is easier to ride a goalie in a shorter season than it is over the course of a full 82-game campaign. If you pro-rate last year's statistics over a full season, he would start 73 games, a tall order for any player, especially in a season compressed a bit by the Olympic break in February.

    The backup goalie this season is Alex Stalock, a rookie who has appeared in three career NHL games at the age of 26.

    The Sharks would be in trouble if Niemi is injured for an extended time or if his performance falls off significantly. Who knows, maybe Stalock becomes the next great NHL goalie if he is pressed into a starting role, but the odds are against it.

    The bottom line is that the Sharks are counting on Niemi to help them reach the promised land this season. With him at the top of his game, they have a chance. Without strong play from their goalie, it could be a long year at the "Shark Tank."