Before we get into today's preview, a quick note. I had fully intended to do every single team in the NHL for this series. However, as I have gone through and looked at the West, I realized something very important: I hate the Eastern Conference, and could give two shits who finishes where or which team wins their crappy division. I have thought for some time that the Eastern Conference is the ECHL to the West's NHL, and I just don't have it in me to break down teams that a) I don't care about; b) I don't like; and c) that will only play the Wings at most twice this season. So today's entry will mark the last one in this series. I also firmly believe (and you can take this to the bank or mark it as a prediction or whatever you want) that the team that comes out of the West in the playoffs - whoever that is - will win the Cup. If the Columbus Blue Jackets somehow make it through the playoffs and emerge victorious in the conference and represent the West, then get ready to see Gary present Rick Nash with the Cup in June. The East plays boring, uninspired hockey, and they have teams that are more focused on superstars than actual honest-to-God teams. The only reason I used to watch games between two Eastern teams was because the Wing games didn't start until 6:30 Central, and I had a half hour before that to kill. Since the Wing games are now starting at 6, I no longer have this problem. So that's that. Today's the last one, and I'll be a giant tease by saying that something big is in the works. But that's something else for another day.
A quick word about the game last night. I'm not going to do some full breakdown of it because I couldn't see it, and because halfway through I had to make a Wendy's trip (I love Frostys). I know we're all incensed still with the Orpik-on-Franzen hit, and I believe there was definitely something wrong with the hit since he was given a major and game misconduct. Is it suspendable? Hard to know. I didn't see it. Given the fact that the NHL doesn't like to, you know, discipline people for stuff, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that this is the last we'll hear of this hit. I was extremely pleased to hear that Bertuzzi immediately dropped the gloves with Orpik and laid a pretty good beating on him; that's the kind of thing that will endear him to Wing fans. However, there was no truth to the rumour that he did a spin-o-rama on his last punch. Overall, it sounded like the Pens controlled the play pretty much throughout the game, but I can't say I'm surprised since we only dressed 3 of our NHL defensemen against Crosby and Malkin. Tomorrow night will mark the first live preseason action on TV when the Wings take on Little Brother. I probably won't be able to see it since I am attending an end-of-summer BBQ, but I will be checking in from time to time.
On to today's preview, and today we're going to take a look at the team that ended the Wings' season and crushed our spirits last year.
Arrivals: Antero Nittymaki; Antti Niemi; Jamal Meyers
Departures: Evgeni Nabokov; Rob Blake; Manny Malhotra
Like the Red Wings of the mid-90s, the Sharks have enjoyed immense regular season success, but they have been unable to parlay that into anything resembling playoff success. After getting upset in the first round in 2009 as the President's Trophy winners, the Sharks got all the way to the Conference Finals last year, ultimately getting swept by eventual-champs Chicago in a fairly one-sided series. The Sharks are one of a handful of teams that have never been in the Stanley Cup Finals, and this year the expectations are no different: Cup or bust.
Offense: The Sharks are essentially returning the same offensive lineup that finished 4th in the NHL last year in goals for. Once again, the Sharks are expecting big things out of their top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. Last year all 3 of them eclipsed 80 points, Heatley really shone in his first year in San Jose with 39 goals, and Marleau showed that his 2007-08 poor showing was a fluke as he popped in 44 goals. As the Wings discovered, shutting down the top line doesn't help that much, as the Sharks saw the emergence of their 1A line in Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe. Pavelski would have set a career high in points had he not missed 15 games due to injury in the season. He still managed 51 points in 67 games, and then played out of his mind in the playoffs. After that, the talent level drops off a little, but both of those lines have enough talent to keep up offensively with just about any other top line in the NHL. The Sharks do well in getting offense from their defensemen, led by Dan Boyle. When he's not scoring own-goals in the playoffs, he's a guy who is easily capable of 50 points per year. Even with the retirement of captain Rob Blake, the Sharks had 3 defensemen who had at least 20 points. This is a team that you do not want to get into an offensive shootout with, because they have the guys that can put the puck in the net. The question will be whether they can do it with any regularity in the playoffs.
Defense: This is a little bit of an underrated area on the Sharks. Blake was their best defensive defenseman and overall leader, but he's had enough of shoving his giant ass in people's faces and will not be around. The torch has been passed to Dan Boyle, a guy known more for his offense, but who is solid in his own end (think Brian Rafalski-esque). Other than that, there's not a real superstar on there like some of the other teams, but the rest of the roster is pretty good. Kent Huskins and Douglas Murray are both guys who are more defensive, and both like to play the body. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a power play guy who can chip in points, but he doesn't play like he's 6'1" and 200 lbs. The Sharks are banking on Jason Demers stepping into a 6th defenseman role this year, but overall this group will remain relatively the same. The Sharks finished 8th in the NHL in goals against, and they finished 5th in penalty killing. For as good as they are offensively, they are almost as good defensively.
Goaltending: And now we get to the question marks. After years of failing to lead them to any playoff success, the Sharks said goodbye to longtime goalie Evgeni Nabokov and brought in Antero Nittymaki from Tampa. Nittymaki has never really enjoyed any sustained success at the NHL level, but he did win a Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2005 (I remember that because they played the local AHL team in the Finals and Nittymaki stood on his head). While his numbers have never been horrid, they also have never been that great. Part of that was he never had a ton of talent in front of him, but that is not the case here. However, in the "if you can't beat 'em, pick him up" department, the Sharks signed themselves a nice little insurance policy in Antti Niemi, the goalie that dominated them in the Conference Finals last year. All signs point to a goaltending battle in camp, but my guess would be that who starts for the Sharks will be whoever is playing better. Niemi may have won a Cup, but he was a rookie last year and he was behind a great team. It remains to be seen how he will fare in a new town.
Coaching: The Sharks are led by former Red Wing assistant Todd McClellan. He brought the exact same system the Wings use to San Jose; one predicated on speed, skill and puck possession. However, he also emphasizes size, which makes the Sharks a very difficult team to play against. He did do what Ron Wilson couldn't in leading the Sharks past the second round, but he's going to have to get them even further. He's got the talent on paper; the question will be whether he can get his players to perform in the playoffs.
Player To Watch: After a stellar playoffs last season, Joe Pavelski seems to be ready to take the next step to superstar. He has steadily increases his point totals every year, and would have probably ended up with 60-70 points had he not gotten injured. He's a guy that has 40 goal potential, and he is just now entering his prime. He's not a big guy, but he's got a crapload of speed and skill, and playing with Setoguchi and Clowe, I think he is poised to really break out this year and score 70-80 points. I expect Pavelski to pick up where he left off last year and earn his first All-Star Game berth.
Player With Something to Prove: I'd love to put Thornton here, but frankly, he's had more than enough chances and I think he's never going to elevate his game enough to be considered a playoff performer. For me, I'm putting in 2 players: Nittymaki and Niemi, with emphasis on Niemi. Nittymaki was lured away from Tampa, and he was brought in to replace Nabokov, a great regular season goalie who faltered in the playoffs. Nittymaki could win 50 games this year, but if he struggles in the post-season, then he'll be considered a bust. Niemi was picked up after the Hawks walked away from his arbitration award, and he was brought to San Jose to provide some depth in case Nittymaki doesn't work out. However, Niemi's experience is limited to being a rookie behind a stacked team, and his numbers from the Finals show that he didn't exactly bring the Cup home in the end. In truth, the entire team, from the goalies and defensemen to the forwards and coaches, are all under the gun.
Why They Can Win the Division: Except for Nabokov and Blake, the only real loss was Malhotra, their third line center. This is pretty much the same team that finished first in the West last year, and while the Kings got a little better and the Coyotes stayed the same, the Sharks were better than both last year and this year seems no different. I think between Nittymaki and Niemi, they will have more than enough goaltending to earn them yet another Pacific Division title.
Why They Won't Win the Division: Beyond the first two lines, there is little scoring there. If any of their top forwards struggle, that will limit their offensive effectiveness. Their defense is good but not great, and their goaltending is unproven. The Kings will be hot on their heels, and if the Sharks do not play their usual regular season way, they could be in for a race this year.
My Prediction: So, this team fell short of the Finals last year, and their big move is to replace the goalie with 2 relatively inexperienced and unproven guys. I have no doubts that this team will make the playoffs again, probably as the #1 or 2 seed. But if they do not make the Finals, the season is a failure. I just don't see where the Sharks necessarily improved last year, and it's not like their top players are young guys still developing. I think the Sharks are going to end up as the NHL's version of the Buffalo Bills: they will enjoy a lot of success and be a really good team, but they will not have what it takes to climb that final mountain and end up as world champions.