The Sharks' offseason moves are a lot like the electric slide. Lots of flash and shimmying about, but in the end you're kind of standing in the same spot. Amid the debut of new home jerseys and some marquee contract extensions, they acquired forward Tyler Kennedy and sent T.J. Galiardi packing. Otherwise their depth chart is only slightly altered.
What does this mean? It means that the Sharks are a playoff team again, but it's not clear that they've fixed the problems they had last year in a season that left many Sharks fans seeking therapy. They opened the season with seven straight wins, then dropped seven straight and looked like they were mailing it in when they traded away Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus, but they somehow managed to pull it back together and win the first round of the playoffs.
This year, they still have great depth with a beautiful combination of a youth movement maturing, a Vezina finalist goaltender, and All-Star veteran talent. But this better be their year.
They signed big extensions with emerging leaders Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, who both had outstanding playoff appearances last year. These extensions, along with Martin Havlat's injury making him buy-out proof, have the Sharks up against the wall with the salary cap. That makes this season even more important as they have Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Patrick Marleau, and backup goaltender Alex Stalock in the final year of contracts.
So, the Sharks look pretty good on paper, but here comes the rub: Antti Niemi can't replicate last year's performance. He had an incredible season, playing more minutes than any other goaltender in the league. They won't be able to lean on him like that again this year over a full 82-game slate.
General manager Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan aren't helping Niemi much either. After letting former backup Thomas Greiss go, they did not signed a new backup to provide some relief for their Finnish workhorse. Behind Niemi lies Stalock (who will likely be their No. 2) and 21-year old J.P. Anderson, who have a combined three games of NHL experience between them.
So, what if they don't work out as quality backups and you can't play Niemi in 90 percent of the games in a full season? (And don't forget there are cap issues.) Joe Thornton is a big guy and would probably cover a lot of space if you put him in the net.
Niemi is a risk. He'll be rated highly - and make no mistake, he is a top goaltender - but he's going to get worked to the bone.
Outside of the obvious All-Stars on the team, there's Brent Burns, who will be playing his first full season at forward in the NHL after a breakout year. Top prospect Tomas Hertl is expected to make his NHL debut this year and the Sharks have high hopes (sing it with them… "He's got high apple pie in the sky hopes") for this season and the future.
Get ready Sharks fans, because it's going to be hard to replicate this depth in 2014-15. Not impossible, but the Sharks are all-in on this season. It's 2013-14 or bust.
The Big Guns
Antti Niemi (G): You can't ride a goalie much harder than San Jose rode Niemi last year -- he played in 43 of the team's 48 regular-season starts and was the man of the hour through the postseason. Niemi's 24-12-6 record last year with a 2.16 GAA and a .924 save percentage ought to silence any critics who have questioned his ability to take a larger workload for a team. Despite his often derided, atypical style of goaltending, he led the league with 24 wins. And only Ondrej Pavalec played more games than Niemi's 43. Niemi led the NHL in time on ice, was third overall in saves, was one removed from the league lead with four shutouts, was 11th in goals-against average and seventh in save percentage. Wow -- he handled the workload and then some. And his numbers, while many were career bests, weren't that far off his usual mark. Now here's the but and it's a biggie. There's no way he can maintain that type of workload over a full season and still be fresh for a long playoff run. New back-up goalie Alex Stalock is coming off a near career-threatening injury not all that long ago. If Stalock can't perform well at the NHL level, will San Jose brass push Niemi to the point of exhaustion? It's a question worth asking, but not enough of a problem to really hurt Niemi's fantasy value right now. Niemi should be near the top -- or at the top -- of the list of goaltenders on your draft list. Not only is he playing more than most tenders, he's playing better.
Joe Pavelski (C): Pavelski finished last season with 31 points in 48 games, a decent tally but a little under his historical scoring pace. But interestingly, Pavelski scored on 12.3 percent of his shots last year, which was his best shooting percentage since his rookie season. And he also tied his career-high for game-winning goals at five in this shortened season. It's clear the Sharks depend on his leadership and contributions, and he'll continue to get significant time in important situations like the power play (he had 10 points on the PP last season) and in the last minute of play. Quite honestly, there are few players who are as good under pressure. We like Pavelski and would love to have him on our team.
Joe Thornton (C): Jumbo Joe finished last season with seven goals and 33 assists. He's not passing that point-per-game mark that he used to hit so regularly, but he's far from irrelevant. Thornton is still a leader for the Sharks, but he has evolved his game into a more two-way approach. The team now relies on him to win face offs and check, too, rather than just deliver points. His value is clear -- his 58.5 percent success in the face-off circle put him fourth overall in the NHL last season. His 33 assists still had him tied for 12th overall in the league as well, but his age and the declining number of goals might make him a sneaky pick-up later in the draft than you might expect. Don't sleep on him, though -- the arrival of Brent Burns on his wing could lead to a bit of a renaissance for Jumbo Joe and it's plausible that he could get back to his point-per-game pace with an increased load of assists.
On the Rise
Logan Couture (C): Couture has been a growing threat for the Sharks since his debut in 2009-10. He's a natural scorer and has the ability to get the kind of separation that produces points solely through speed. Last season, Couture blossomed into the leader the Sharks have been expecting, tallying 37 points in 48 games and then playing through injury in the playoffs to net 11 points, including three game-winning goals, in 11 games. The Sharks made no mistake about tying their future to the young star by offering up a lucrative contract extension in the offseason. There's little doubt that Couture should be a top selection in most fantasy drafts. He already has two 30-goal seasons behind him and another 21 goals in last years' truncated campaign. This could be a breakout year (40 goals -- anyone? anyone?) for the 24-year-old All Star.
Brent Burns (LW): Where to start with Burns? Sharks' general manager Doug Wilson has made it official that Burns will be starting the season as a forward. And now that he's probably listed as a forward in your fantasy league, it's time to adjust your expectations, particularly in keeper formats. If you had him last year, he was an incredible pick-up because you were judging his offensive production against defenseman in many leagues. So his nine goals in just 30 games were good to tie him for fifth overall among defenseman where he still had eligibility. Among forwards, he'd have been tied for 135th. Nonetheless, Burns finished the season with 20 points in 30 games. And those numbers look even better when you note that he had 20 points in 24 games at forward. The scoring spark was no doubt aided by being on San Jose's top line alongside Joe Thornton, a spot he'll probably start in 2013-14. And those six games started on the blue line will give him eligibility there in many leagues, too. That's a huge boost to Burns' fantasy potential if he stays on the first line, given that Jumbo Joe is perennially among the league leaders in assists and Burns augments Jumbo's playmaking ability with great speed, great hands and what might be the longest stick in the NHL, Zdeno Chara aside. Drafting Burns isn't without some risk, though. There are unknown quantities at play coming onto his first full season at forward in the NHL (he played forward prior to his NHL debut in Minnesota). But with Burns able to train and prepare for the position this offseason, Burns could be a great pick-up on draft day. You might even be able to get him a little later than expected because his numbers don't jump off the page when he's listed with other forwards. But don't ever forget the injury risk -- the guy is going to miss at least a dozen games with various ouches.
Two to Watch
Tyler Kennedy (LW): Kennedy had a slow season in 2012-13, with six goals and five assists in 46 games in the Igloo in Pittsburgh. But the June 30 trade to San Jose and his subsequent two-year contract signing leaves the door open for new beginnings in the Western Conference. Kennedy has shown in past years that he has the potential to put points on the board, averaging over a half-point per game in the previous four seasons. And he seems to be a logical center for the third line, which may also feature Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels (though Torres could be moving up to first or second line). Putting two physical forwards on the wings for the 5-11 center could be a magic combination to reignite his scoring touch. Still, temper your expectations -- his upside is 45-50 points if he really clicks, but his downside is equally as dramatic ... especially as there isn't yet any clarity on where he will play given the number of young centers fighting for a roster spot this year. And young players are cheap gold to an NHL general manager.
Raffi Torres (LW): So, how exactly does Groundhog Day go again? Yes, Torres ended his second straight season with yet another playoff suspension. This surprises no one, as that's the reputation Torres has cultivated. But that reputation hides the fact that the winger isn't just a third line forward who can protect some young talent while shutting down the opposing line. He has the ability to score, set up plays and be an offensive presence ... as long as his head stays screwed on the right way. His new three-year contract says that the Sharks' front office sees this, too. And Torres might get playing time on one of the top two lines as he did when Martin Havlat was injured last year, so there's a possibility that his production could inch toward that half-point-per-game range that he's done once before in his career. Torres isn't an All Star and he's not well-known for his fantasy production, but he's worth keeping an eye on as the Sharks' depth chart falls into place during the preseason.
Dan Boyle (D): If you remove the 2007-08 season when he was sidelined due to injury, Boyle has been among the top 10 scoring defensemen every season since the 2005-06 season and hasn't been outside the top 20 since 2001-02. That is, with the exception of last season when he notched 20 points in 48 games to slip to 37th in points overall among defensemen. At 37, it would be reasonable to expect that Boyle will start to slow down, but it's just as likely that Boyle will rebound and continue to be the high-scoring defenseman he's always been. While he didn't tally points at his normal clip last season, he had eight points in 11 playoff games and had his best shooting percentage (7.2 percent) since the 2009-10 campaign. And then there was his highlight reel, end-to-end goal against Minnesota. Boyle is far from done.
Martin Havlat (RW): Havlat is your man if you're a gambler and feeling dangerous. His pic has got to be listed on the Wikipedia page for risk/reward (kidding). He's supremely talented, but has a painful history of injuries, and quite frankly, that's the only reason he's still on the Sharks. Havlat seemed to be a lock to be a compliance buy out for San Jose, but you can't buy out an injured player and Havlat is still considered injured from the pelvis injury he sustained in the playoffs. Havlat is still a natural scorer, but there's no guarantee that he'll continue to produce at earlier levels and it seems unlikely that he will play the full season this year. He will start the year on long-term IR, with general manager Doug Wilson saying there is no timeline for him to return. Ouch -- literally and figuratively.
Patrick Marleau (LW): Marleau isn't going to electrify and wow you the way Logan Couture will, but it'd be hard to say that Pattie isn't a consistent offensive player. He has averaged 0.78 goals per game over the last 13 seasons and 0.88 goals per game over the last eight. However, there was an issue last season that we really want to monitor. Yes, his overall numbers were just a bit lower than his usual average (31 points in 48 games for 0.65 points per game) and you could just write that off as being related to the short season. But after tallying nine goals and 14 points on a six-game streak to start the year, he turned into Rip Van Winkle and delivered just 17 points in the remaining 42 contests. Yes, you read that right. Is this 15-season veteran seriously slowing down or was there an underlying injury that was never really discussed? He's only 33, so you should expect that he has a few more solid seasons in the tank. But watch for the streaks and be ready to leverage a trade and fast if he shows the same signs of slumber as he did last year.
Tomas Hertl (C): Hertl is the most promising of the incoming San Jose prospects. He was a standout at their summer prospects camp and is expected to compete for a spot on the roster this season. The 17th overall selection in the 2012 draft is the odds-on favorite to fill the vacancy in the Sharks line up created by the departure of T.J. Galiardi and Martin Havlat's injury status. Hertl notched 30 points in 43 for Slavia Praha in the Czech League last year and is clearly a scoring talent with good hands and an even better hockey sense. His fantasy value is unknown as he hasn't competed at the NHL level before and he will carry both the rookie and ice size adjustment periods on his back this year. It's probably best to steer clear of him in single-year leagues until you see if he's playing, where he's playing and what kind of ice time he'll be seeing in that role. He is of interest in deep keeper leagues, though -- he could be a future star.
Bracken Kearns (C): At 32 maybe it's a bit of a stretch to still consider Kearns a top prospect. However, Kearns got the call up at the end of the season and led the Sharks AHL affiliate in Worcester in scoring last year with 46 points in the regular season. Kearns is a physical player who can score, though he hasn't found that scoring touch in his limited NHL time previously. If Kearns gets an extended chance he plays the kind of gritty hockey with a nose for scoring that the Sharks are fond of. He could find himself in a role similar to the one Cal Clutterbuck carved out for himself in Minnesota over the last three seasons.