For the second straight season, the San Jose Sharks lost in the Western Conference Final, not quite getting over the hurdle to reach their first Stanley Cup Final.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Sharks roster that doesn't lack for talent, yet presents challenges for GM Doug Wilson as he tries to net the franchise its first Cup.
The Sharks have recorded five straight 100-point seasons, requiring a strong finish to the 2010-2011 campaign to get there, but have not been able to emerge out of the Western Conference at playoff time.
That's not an easy task, to be sure, as the quality of competition makes it a daunting task for any contender, but the Sharks don't lack the ability to match teams of similar contender's stature, rather, they have not been able to either a) extract big performances from their best players at crunch time or b) limit the opposition's best players.
San Jose's trio of high-priced forwards -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley -- bear the brunt of the criticism because all three have been prolific regular season scorers, yet have, at times, struggled in the postseason.
With all three possessing no-movement clauses in their contracts, the Sharks' course of action seems to be to figure out a way to win with them, as the window for being an elite team may be closely tied to their contracts (all expiring after the 2013-2014 season) anyway. By then, all will be into their mid-30s and, if a Cup hasn't arrived in Northern California by then, it will be up to the next generation.
When it comes to shutting down the opposition, the Sharks did miss the presence of Rob Blake on their blueline last season. Without a bona fide shutdown pair, the Sharks were victimized by the Sedin Twins in the Conference Final in a way that Nashville (with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter) and Boston (with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg) were not in the postseason.
Having the right kind of shutdown pair on defence is, of course, the worry of contenders, teams that have plenty of firepower up front, solid goaltending and enough talent on defence; it just so happens that the Sharks might need a slighly different mix to get over the hump.
That's a slightly different mix. The core is in place; the Sharks have cast their lot with these players and the next few seasons will determine if that faith will be rewarded.
Doug Wilson/Todd McClellan
Through five NHL seasons, Joe Pavelski has emerged as a top-fight player, scoring a career-high 66 points last season, despite a career-low 7.1% shooting percentage. That means he wasn't necessarily getting justly rewarded despite having more shots on goal per game (3.81) than in any of his previous seasons.
As frustration mounts with the Sharks' Big Three, more responsibility will continue to shift to Pavelski, who is just hitting the prime of his career.
Whether a rookie or not (he was), Logan Couture turned into a serious offensive threat, ranking second on the Sharks with 32 goals. While he was the beneficiary of protected minutes -- with opposing defences focusing primarly on Marleau, Thornton et al -- Couture's emergence gives San Jose tremendous scoring depth.
Patrick Marleau seems to face a lot of criticism for a player with 119 goals over the last three seasons, during which time Alexander Ovechkin is the only one to light the lamp more often.
Marleau is somewhat a victim of being in San Jose for so many playoff defeats and that seems to generate frustration, rather than appreciation for a player that has scored at least 30 goals in five of the last six seasons and has missed a total of 31 games in 13 NHL seasons.
Few players can provide the mix of talent and toughness that Ryane Clowe brings to the table. In the last two seasons, Corey Perry is the only other player in the league to have at least 50 points and 100 penalty minutes in both years.
Clowe's aggressive style also tends to stand out among Sharks skilled forwards that have been accused of being too passive.
Joe Thornton put up 70 points in 80 games, numbers that would befit many number one centres in the league, but the point total was Thornton's lowest since 2001-2002 and his points-per-game was at its lowest since 1999-2000.
While some might argue that Thornton is playing a more complete game, that would be a recent development, as he was minus-14 at the All-Star break, finishing with a flourish (plus-18 in his last 32 games) to end up on the right side of the ledger.
Jumbo Joe will be 32 this summer, so it's possible that his play is starting to decline as he approaches 1000 career NHL games, but when you've topped a point-per-game in seven of the last eight seasons, decline is inevitable at some point.
While Marleau and Thornton can take their share of critiques, Dany Heatley is feeling the heat that comes when a goal-scorer stops scoring goals. He did score 26 goals and 64 points, which isn't terrible but, given five straight seasons with at least 39 goals and 72 points (not to mention three goals in 18 playoff games), it's clearly disappointing.
Now 30-years-old, Heatley is showing signs of aging, not moving particularly well and getting fewer chances as a result. If he's going to re-establish his credentials as a premier goal-scorer, Heatley will need a summer of serious conditioning. Otherwise, he's likely to get passed on the San Jose depth chart as nature takes its course.
Checking centre Torrey Mitchell can generate chances with his speed and tenacity and he contributed more offensively late in the year when skating on a line with Pavelski, scoring 13 points in 19 games to finish the regular season. The emerging two-way pivot could play more than the 13:21 per game he did last season if not for the Sharks' depth up front.
Devin Setoguchi was on his way to another disappointing season when his game turned around in the second half. Due in no small part to more chances playing with Joe Thornton, Setoguchi scored 15 goals and 29 points in the last 33 games, giving him 41 points for the season.
For all of his ups and downs, Setoguchi does have three straight 20-goal seasons and he does it without requiring prime ice time, playing 15:12 per game last season.
Benn Ferriero has played 57 games with the Sharks over the last two campaigns. Despite being a reliable depth forward for the first half of the season (nine points, plus-7 in 29 games through the end of January), he spent most of the second half in the AHL once the Sharks acquired Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood.
An undrafted centre who never scored more than 42 points in a junior season and played a full year in the Central Hockey League upon graduation from the OHL, Andrew Desjardins' perseverance puts him in the mix for a fourth-line role. He plays with an edge, never stops working and is good on face-offs, which may be enough to earn a regular role after playing 17 regular season and three playoff games for the Sharks last season.
Jamie McGinn gained some notoriety for a couple of questionable hits in the playoffs, but the 22-year-old is still trying to earn his place in the lineup. He played 49 games last season, scoring one goal (after 10 in 59 games the year before), so he has to be able to provide that physical presence if he's going to secure regular employment.
In a similar battle for playing time, John McCarthy played 37 games for the Sharks last season, scoring four points. He's a blue-collar worker, but one that may always be on the fringe of the NHL.
With four unrestricted free agent forwards, the Sharks have an opportunity for some turnover, at least lower on the forward depth chart, as it appears veterans Jamal Mayers and Scott Nichol will most definitely be moving on. Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood, who helped spark the Sharks in the second half, may be more appealing to bring back.
Dan Boyle has scored at least 50 points in five of the last six seasons and his average ice time of 26:14 per game ranked second in the league last season, behind Chicago's Duncan Keith, so he dictates a lot of San Jose's pace of play.
Boyle turns 35 this summer, so it's fair to wonder how long he can maintain this elite level but, right now, there are no indications that he's slowing down.
Puck-moving defenceman Justin Braun split his first pro season between the AHL and NHL, and he showed enough in a limited role with the Sharks that he could earn a full-time role next season.
Jason Demers played a more significant role in his second season and should be able to handle regular duty going forward. His offensive production was actually worse on a per-game basis than his rookie season, but Demers was also a team-best plus-19.
Though he's still used in a shutdown role, Marc-Edouard Vlasic played the fewest minutes per game (20:52) of any of his five NHL seasons. Vlasic's 36-point season from 2008-2009 appears to have been an aberration, as he's produced a total of 34 points in the last two campaigns.
A 6-foot-3, 240-pound battering ram, Douglas Murray isn't the most mobile blueliner, but he's as strong as an ox and plays as hard-nosed as anyone would like from a shutdown defenceman.
Though he only played a half dozen games for the Sharks last season, Mike Moore does have a one-way deal for 2011-2012 (www.capgeek.com). After three years in the AHL, he may be prepared to hold down the seventh defence spot.
With three unrestricted free agent defencemen, and one of them -- Niclas Wallin -- already headed to Europe, the Sharks will need to find a suitable top-four defenceman. Barring additional moves to create room under the salary cap, the Sharks may be better off bringing Ian White back if he is going to be more reasonably priced than some of the other free agent defencemen.
If not White and depending on finances, others that may be on interest could include: Ed Jovanovski, James Wisniewski or, perhaps, Bryan McCabe or Tomas Kaberle.
Antti Niemi got off to a rocky start (.877 save percentage through the end of November) after arriving in San Jose, but he emerged as the clear No. 1 goaltender the rest of the way, posting a .927 save percentage the rest of the way.
His playoff performance wasn't quite up to his Cup-winning level with Chicago the year before, but Niemi is getting used to playing big games, with 40 playoff games already in just two seasons.
Before the Sharks signed Niemi, Antero Niittymaki looked like he might be the starter and he played well enough early in the year for it be a competition, but he couldn't keep it up and ended up playing in just four games from January 1 through the end of the year.
Niittymaki is a quality second-string goaltender, but is also well-compensated for a guy that may be counted on for only 20 starts.
||Boston University (HE)
||7-19-26,even, 27 GP
||3-11-14,-17, 67 GP
||14-39-53,-19, 68 GP
||Tappara Tampere (SML)
||2.96 GAA, .910 SV%, 37 GP
||2.63 GAA, .907 SV%, 41 GP
||17-16-33,-6, 69 GP
||38-45-83,+25, 68 GP
||14-19-33,-2, 62 GP
||8-19-27,-36, 58 GP
||Prince Georige (WHL)
||15-48-63,even, 66 GP
A first-round pick last summer, Charlie Coyle had a solid freshman year at Boston University, but thrived at the World Junior Hockey Championships. He plays a well-rounded game already and should develop more offensively as he matures.
A bruiser on the blueline, Nick Petrecki has a couple of seasons in the AHL and may be ready to bring his game to the next level. If his decision-making is up for the job, his nastiness will be welcome in San Jose.
6-foot-8 defenceman Taylor Doherty has progressed nicely since he was a second-round pick in 2009, improving his puck skills and playing more offensively, but his future lies in being able to match up against power forwards.
21-year-old Finnish goaltender Harry Sateri joined Worcester late in the AHL season and the immediate results were good, so now he's set for a full season of development in North America before he's ready to challenge for a job in San Jose.
Having played 102 AHL games over the past two seasons, Alex Stalock may be closer to the NHL than Sateri, if not possessing quite the same ceiling. It speaks to the Sharks' organizational depth at the position that these two aren't their only prospects outside the NHL.
23-year-old Tommy Wingels enjoyed a solid first pro season and might be ready to play in the NHL now, but if he's going to play a significant role, he could use more time to develop offensively in the AHL.
A fifth-round pick last summer, Freddie Hamilton turned in a very productive season for Niagara in the OHL. He's still just 19, so there's no urgency, but with a couple more years to develop, he might have what it takes.
A big winger who will drop the gloves, Brandon Mashinter saw action in 13 games for the Sharks last season. He's produced enough in the AHL (36 goals over the last two seasons) to be considered more than a one-dimensional tough guy, but his brawn will earn his spot in the lineup.
6-foot-5 defenceman Konrad Abeltshauer is a combined minus-62 in two QMJHL seasons, but he's still only 18 and has the raw physical tools that make him worth waiting for.
A Bay Area native, Sena Acolatse is both productive and a battler on defence, dropping the gloves for 50 fights in his WHL career, while scoring 31 goals over the last two seasons.
Check out a possible roster, on www.capgeek.com, for next season, with mostly familiar faces: http://bit.ly/meNGBE
28th - Oscar Klefbom, Connor Murphy, Vladislav Namestnikov.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sharks have approximately $52.3M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: Depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Sharks needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, starting goaltender.
They added: Jamal Mayers, John McCarthy, Antti Niemi, Antero Niittymaki.
TRADE MARKET Devin Setoguchi, Justin Braun, Antero Niittymaki.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
Off-Season Game Plan Archive