NHL 2014-15 preview: San Jose Sharks

Joe Thornton (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

San Jose is our eighth-ranked team.

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San Jose Sharks
Division: Pacific
2013-14 finish: 51-22-9, 111 points, 5th overall; lost in seven games to Los Angeles in first round of playoffs
Leading scorer: Joe Pavelski (79 points)
General manager: Doug Wilson
Head coach: Todd McLellan
Captain: TBD
Opening night starter: Antti Niemi
Key acquisitions: John Scott, Ty McGinn
Key departures: Dan Boyle, Martin Havlat, Brad Stuart, Drew Remenda

Off-season grade: F. It wasn’t that the Sharks lost key players or whiffed in free agency or at the draft. It was that they publicly insulted the two greatest players in franchise history. By attempting to shame all-time good guys Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau into waiving their no-trade clauses, not a year after giving the duo said clauses, the Sharks cost themselves respect around the league and in the public eye. Relieving long-time colour commentator Drew Remenda of his services was another colossal misstep with the fans.

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Greatest strengths: There’s no doubt this team can score; its offence finished sixth overall last season. But it’s how they score that’s important. The Sharks created the sixth-fewest shots off the rush in 2013-14—a sign that they killed it possession-wise—and were one of just three teams in the bottom 10 of that list to make the playoffs. They scored 2.6 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, which made up for a lacklustre, 20th-overall power play. Controlling the puck and setting up in the offensive zone to create scoring chances is a recipe for success, especially when you score as much as San Jose. The Sharks are also trending younger (hence the public shaming), and doing so with talented players. Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski all finished in the NHL’s top 40 in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (minimum 30 games played).

Greatest weaknesses: The defence corps leaves a lot to be desired. Dan Boyle is gone, and Brent Burns is moving back to the blue line. He will play second fiddle to Marc-Edouard Vlasic overall but will be counted on for scoring. After that, it gets pretty thin, with Justin Braun and Jason Demers slotting in next. Antti Niemi faced  real criticism in the Sharks’ shocking series loss to the Kings. Alex Stalock—who had better regular-season numbers—relieved him twice and started Game 6, although he didn’t fare any better.

Biggest story line to watch: There’s really only one thing people are waiting to find out: What happens with deposed captains Thornton and Marleau? (That’s right. Did you forget that Marleau wore the “C” from 2004 to ’09?) Will management get its way and be able to move them. And will Wilson and McLellan have the cojones to play their veterans less if it helps make that happen? If they do, San Jose is sunk, because while they’re on the downside, Jumbo Joe and Marsie (or whatever Marleau’s nickname in the room is) are still effective players who’d be top six on just about any team in the league.

A secondary story here is goaltending. If Stalock continues to push Niemi, who will end up the starter?

Finally, is Hertl the real deal? A possible Calder nomination was scuttled by injury last year, but he scored the fifth-most goals in the league per 60 5-on-5 minutes last season. Can the 20-year-old keep that kind of production up?

2014-15 prediction: Anaheim, Dallas, L.A., Minnesota and St. Louis will all be stronger this season, while Chicago remains a standard—that’s six Western teams better than San Jose. You do the math.

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