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2011 Sharks Team Preview: Sharks Tightening Up the Defense

Mike Gay

Mike Gay

Mike Gay writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

OUTLOOK

Last season marked the sixth consecutive campaign since the 2004-05 lockout that the San Jose Sharks circled around the Stanley Cup, only to exit the postseason without the NHL's most coveted piece of hardware. One of the heavyweights in the Western Conference, the Sharks trumped the Kings in the first round of the playoffs, barely wiggled past the semifinal round after seven arduous games against the Red Wings, and fatefully fell flat for a 4-1 series loss to the Canucks, winners of the Western Conference.

Despite the shortcoming, the Finned Teal can build upon a highly successful regular season, having claimed the Pacific Division with a record of 48-25-9 and 105 points. Captain Joe Thornton added a team-high 33 points (9 G, 24 A) to a power-play unit that ranked second in the league with a conversion rate of 23.5 percent. The past campaign also featured the emergence of 22-year-old phenom Logan Couture, who dropped 32 goals, 24 assists and a plus-18 rating in his first full season at the NHL level. Better yet, the Sharks had eight skaters cap off the regular season with at least 40 points. Even after trading big-name scorers in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to the Wild, the Sharks have an abundance of noteworthy fantasy options, including newcomer Martin Havlat, veteran Patrick Marleau and rising stars in Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe.

Apparently fed up with his team's inability to secure Lord Stanley, GM Doug Wilson acquired Brent Burns from Minnesota to provide an offensive spark from the blue line and health permitting, he figures to do just that in conjunction with Dan Boyle, the team's chief power-play quarterback. Coach Todd McLellan could opt to couple the two defensemen for an offensive-laden first pairing, but the bench boss also has the luxury of uniting either one of them with a shutdown rearguard in Douglas Murray. The serviceable Ian White was lost to Detroit via free agency, Niclas Wallin is expected to play in Sweden, and Kent Huskins now sports a Blues jersey. This opens the door for young defensemen like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers, and Justin Braun to assume more responsibility with the club, making sleeper candidates out of each player in the fantasy hockey realm. Should a rash of injuries deplete the defense, prospect Nick Petrecki could have his name called at some point in the 2011-12 season.

Even though Burns could invigorate the blueline corps, the NHL won't witness a full-blown Shark attack until the team improves defensively. Sure, 20 teams averaged more goals-against than San Jose (2.54) last season, but the penalty kill was a liability for the Sharks as the team posted a 79.6-percent success rate when opponents had a power play in 2010-11 - sixth worst in the league. Consequently, the offseason featured a significant shakeup on the lower lines. Gone are the likes of Scott Nichol (Blues), Ben Eager (Oilers), and Jamal Mayers (Blackhawks). However, faceoffs, hits and grit should be salvaged by newcomers Michal Handzus and Andrew Murray, plus a bevy of youngsters expected to fight for jobs in training camp. Forwards Jamie McGinn, Andrew Desjardins, and Benn Ferriero all have a legitimate chance of cementing themselves on the third and fourth lines this season.

Assuming Team Teal stacks the lower lines with solid two-way forwards and improves the penalty kill, No. 1 goalie Antti Niemi could be looking at a huge year in 2011-12. The Finn racked up 35 wins last season, despite sharing the workload with fellow countryman Antero Niittymaki in the first half of the season. Niemi is just 27 years old, but a championship campaign with the Blackhawks two years ago has catapulted his value toward the top of the goalie ranks. One can expect him to hover around his career averages consisting of a 2.36 goals-against average and .916 save percentage, with 40 wins certainly attainable. Unfortunately, Niittymaki, a backup goalie who chronically battled groin and lower-body injuries last season, suffered a setback in mid-September and is expected to be out for close to three months. But opportunity knocks for Thomas Greiss, a German twine tender who will be looking to reprise his role as a backup after a one-year stint with Brynas of the Swedish Elite League.

Overall, there is no evidence to suggest the Sharks won't enjoy another successful regular season. But to finally jaw on the Stanley Cup, the team needs continued leadership from captain Joe Thornton, a better penalty kill, the Brent Burns experiment to work out as planned and Antti Niemi to be Antti Niemi.

THE BIG GUNS

Joe Thornton (C) - The Sharks swam away from the past regular season with six forwards having notched 50 points or more. And while the casual hockey fan could have expected Thornton (21 G, 49 A) to be in that mix, those point totals actually represent the captain's lowest output in six seasons as a Shark. To be fair, the bulky center seemed to have more of his focus on the defensive aspect of the game, as he was tops in the NHL with 114 takeaways. During the playoffs, Thornton morphed back to Jumbo Joe and went on to record three goals and 14 assists in 18 contests, a career-high mark for the skilled passer. He's a safe pick in the early rounds of most fantasy drafts, and should fall within the 70-80 point range with another full schedule on tap.

Patrick Marleau (C) - Last season the inscrutable Marleau reached the 1,000 games milestone at the age of 31. His entire 13-year NHL career has been spent exclusively with the Sharks, and the veteran has 766 points (357 G, 409 A) with three All-Star appearances to boot. But it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Marleau in the Bay Area, as he lost his captaincy following the 2008-09 season, and seems to have developed a habit of testing the nerves of Sharks fans with inconsistent play in the postseason. For example, in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, Marleau was held without a point for the first six games of the Western Conference semifinal series against the Red Wings before silencing some critics with the game-winning goal in Game 7. His next series? Eight points in six games against the Canucks, cracking the box score in each contest. Everything considered, Marleau is a very good fantasy option if you can look past his enigmatic ways.

Antti Niemi (G) - A few months after his Stanley Cup win with the Blackhawks, Niemi brought his talents to the Bay Area by signing a one-year, $2 million contract with the Sharks. It was a curious move, as the team had already signed fellow Finnish netminder, Antero Niittymaki, to a two-year contract earlier in the offseason. What started as an evenly distributed workload eventually rolled in Niemi's favor as his fellow countryman sustained a groin injury in January that opened the door for Niemi to become the No. 1 choice for starts. Niemi never looked back and remained the undisputed starter through the end of the postseason. His numbers were rock solid in the end, as he posted a 35-18-6 record, 2.38 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and six shutouts. The team re-upped with Niemi in March of 2011, extending his contract for four years and $15.2 million. There is no denying Niemi's importance to the Sharks, and fantasy owners should be happy with his gaudy win totals and peripheral stats for years to come.

Honorable mentions: Martin Havlat (RW), Dan Boyle (D)

ON THE RISE

Joe Pavelski (C) - Nobody who donned a teal sweater sent more shots on goal than Pavelski (282) last season, though it did result in the worst shooting percentage of his five-year career. Still, he ended up with 20 goals and often created mismatches as Team Teal's superior depth allowed him to spend plenty of time on the third line, a spot typically reserved for checking specialists. Pavelski is a smart player capable of sparking different lines, though he's expected to re-join the top-6 with Devin Setoguchi now playing for Minnesota. After setting career-highs in assists (46), points (66), and power-play goals (11), the Big Pavelski's fantasy value has never been higher.

Ryane Clowe (RW) - Clowe is a brawny winger with a knack for setting up scores. In fact, he's posted at least 30 assists in each of the past three seasons. It doesn't hurt that he plays on a team loaded with prolific scorers up front, but it's the combination of toughness - he's had 231 PIMs in the past two seasons combined - and playmaking ability that makes Clowe a unique talent. He'll help you out in a number of key offensive categories, and makes for a sneaky selection in fantasy drafts as he must share the spotlight with the likes of star teammates Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, just to name a few.

Logan Couture (C) - Couture had the breakout year that many fantasy hockey pundits expected he would, notching 32 goals and 24 assists in his first full season of NHL action. The 22-year-old was an impact player on the man advantage, as he added 10 power-play scores to help the Sharks finish second in power-play percentage (23.5%). Of course, this brilliant campaign by Couture put him on the map as a finalist for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league's top rookie, though he was narrowly edged by Carolina's Jeff Skinner in the voting. A natural talent, Couture projects to be an elite forward in the coming years. Unfortunately, you will likely have to pay a high premium to snag one of the league's top youngsters, as his outstanding rookie campaign has given him name recognition spanning far beyond the Bay Area.

Brent Burns (D) - Burns tallied 17 goals and 29 assists with the Wild last season, both of which were career bests. The key to this successful campaign was that he managed to stay healthy unlike his two seasons previous. Apparently Sharks GM Doug Wilson liked what he saw from the 6-foot-5, 219 pound defenseman, as he executed an offseason deal that brought Burns and a future second-round draft pick to the Bay Area in exchange for prospects Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and the 28th overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. While Burns already has seven years of NHL experience at the age of 26, all of those years were spent with Minnesota, so fantasy owners will have to be patient if the big puck-moving rearguard gets off to a slow start donning a new sweater in 2011-12 - He should be worth the wait.

Honorable mentions: Jason Demers (D), Justin Braun (D)

TWO TO AVOID

Michal Handzus (C) - Handzus signed a deal with the Sharks in the offseason that will pay him $2.5 million over two years. This figures to be a safe investment for San Jose, as he has the ability to improve a penalty-killing unit that went from being one of the top units (85 percent) in 2009-10, all the way down to 79.6 percent last season. The potential pitfall for "Zeus" is that he had averaged between 18:18 and 17:20 of ice time the past two seasons with Los Angeles, and considering that was the approximate TOI range for Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture last season, barring a wild shift in the distribution of player minutes from a season ago, Handzus' minutes are bound to drop as a third-line checker in a Teal sweater. And naturally, a decrease in minutes means less opportunity to score, and an expected drop in fantasy value.

Antero Niittymaki (G) - No one could have blamed Niittymaki if he thought he was going to end up as Team Teal's top goalie after inking a two-year, $4 million contract with the Sharks last summer. But Antti Niemi, fresh off a Stanley Cup-winning season with Chicago, signed on with the club in September and formed a Finnish goalie tandem with Niittymaki, the more experienced of the two tenders. Niittymaki produced a 1.87 goals-against average in October, and held his own in the timeshare role before a groin/lower body injury that he sustained in January lingered and ended up sidelining him for most of the season's second half. Worse yet, the San Jose Mercury News reported in mid-September that he's still experiencing pain and could be sidelined for at least 12 weeks if he ends up requiring a certain procedure to rectify the problem. While he has proven to be an adequate fill-in option when healthy, it's clear that Niittymaki is a secondary option for starts between the pipes for the Cup deprived Teal.

TOP PROSPECTS

Benn Ferriero (C) - The briskly Ferriero is one of the top prospects in the Sharks' system, and it appears that the team is gradually easing him into the NHL. Last season the Boston native produced nine points (5 G, 4 A) in 33 games during the regular season before getting a taste of the playoffs, adding a goal for his lone point in eight postseason performances. The Sharks parted ways with Devin Setoguchi in the offseason, opening the door for Ferriero to assume a more prominent role with the parent club. Team Teal secured the smooth skater's services with a one-year contract in July of 2011.

Nick Petrecki (D) - Selected 28th overall by the Sharks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Petrecki is coming off his second full season with Worcester of the AHL. An aggressive playmaker unafraid of the rough stuff, Petrecki collected 129 PIMs in just 67 minor league games, though he had a minus-17 rating which leaves a lot to be desired. Consistency will be the key for Petrecki as he prepares for the new season and the Sharks can only hope that his health is fully restored following an offseason hip procedure.

Tommy Wingels (C) - The Sharks did well by drafting the American-born Wingels in the sixth-round of the 2008 NHL Entry. He's smart, fluid on the skates, and someone who can hold his own on both ends of the ice. Wingels made his NHL debut in the season opener last October, but only ended up appearing in five games at hockey's highest level of competition in 2010-11. When he wasn't up with the parent club, Wingels worked on his game with AHL Worcester, where he recorded 33 points ( 17 G, 16 A) and 69 penalty minutes in as many games en route to becoming the team's Rookie of the Year. Remember Wingels' name for future fantasy seasons.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Mashinter (LW)