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San Jose Sharks season preview

The San Jose Sharks drop the curtain on a new NHL season on Wednesday when they hit the road to take on the intrastate rival Los Angeles Kings. When the puck drops, a different looking Sharks team will begin the battle to get back to its long-accustomed spot as a playoff team.

Out with the old, in the new

The Sharks will have a different look, from the bench to the net. Todd McLellan, the most successful coach in Sharks’ history was shown the exit door after seven seasons behind the bench. In his place comes Peter DeBoer, most recently of the New Jersey Devils.

DeBoer brings a similar system to the club, but his coaching past is a mixed bag. He did take the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals one year (losing to the Kings), but it was the only playoff appearance in his seven-year NHL coaching career. But, while that’s not a mark to hang his hat on, DeBoer does have the well-earned reputation of getting the most out of his roster – he’s improved teams immediately when he’s taken over, and they’ve regressed just as quickly when he’s left.

Another new face for the Sharks will be behind a goalie mask. Gone is long-time Shark net minder Antti Niemi, who departed as a free agent signee of the Dallas Stars. In his place, the Sharks acquired young Martin Jones, the former backup to the King’s Jonathan Quick. Jones burst onto the scene as a rookie two seasons ago filling in for an injured Quick and immediately impressed, recording a 12-6 mark, including four shutouts, and posting a .934 saves percentage on a 1.81 goals against average.

Jones cooled off a bit last year, his second season (4-5, .906 SV% and 2.25 GAA), but if he can find just a bit of his 2013-14 form, the Sharks look to be set between the pipes.

Improving the Sharks overall team defense – they were regularly outplayed five-on-five last season – can help ease Jones’ transition into being a number one goaltender, and the Sharks have a new acquisition on the blue line to help do just that.

Defensive lines

Veteran Paul Martin joins the blue line corps for the Sharks, signed over the summer as a free agent. Martin is a smooth, puck-moving defenseman who is not only responsible in his own end, but can give an offensive spark as well. Entering his 12th season, Martin will look to fill the role of Dan Boyle after a long year’s absence.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic remains one of the best shutdown defensemen in the game, and other tested veterans include Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun. Then, of course, there’s Brent Burns, who the Sharks remain committed to playing on defense despite a horrible regression in his advanced analytics last season following two season playing at forward.

It’s yet to be determined who will join those five as regulars for the Sharks. Micrco Mueller was sent a message earlier this year when his locker was moved from the Sharks dressing room to the AHL-affiliate Barracuda’s dressing room. Local product Matt Tennyson has an opportunity to play his way onto the roster, as does rookie Dylan DeMelo. With the Barracuda playing in San Jose this year, look for a few players to go up and down before DeBoer and staff finally settle on the sixth and seventh defensemen to carry on the club.

Forward lines

The biggest new addition to the Sharks forward lines is veteran Joel Ward, a free agent acquisition who brings a solid two-way game to the lineup. Dependable and reliable, Ward will fill a variety of roles, including duties on special teams.

Another welcome addition to the lineup will be veteran catalyst Raffi Torres, returning after missing most of the past two seasons with a recurring knee injury. Torres is hated in every arena in the NHL save for his home arena, and there’s a reason for it – he’s good. He’s a gritty player that gets under the skin of opponents, all the while sparking his own team. Plus, he has the speed and the hands to contribute to the scoring threat. Not only is the Sharks’ third line better with him on it, the entire squad is better when he’s dressed and on the ice.

The rest of the Sharks’ forward lines are a blend of tested veterans and promising young talent. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski will anchor the top line and the power play, and they’ll account for big possession numbers and goals scored. Who plays on the wing is still to be determined, as Tomas Hertl has been getting long looks in the preseason as the center of the third line, and second-year winger Melker Karlsson remains sidelined with an undisclosed injury.

Veteran Patrick Marleau will look to rebound from a statistically horrible season last year, and both Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels will seek to take a step up in their career development, with Couture knocking on the door of the NHL’s very elite. Young prospects include Chris Tierney, last year’s first-round pick Nickolay Goldobin and rookie Joonas Donskoi, at least one of which will make the opening day roster, and likely all three to see NHL action at some point in the year.

The Outlook

On paper, the Sharks have to roster to compete for a playoff spot. Of course, games aren’t decided on paper – if they were, the Sharks would have won a Stanley Cup or two in the past decade. Ultimately, with the new scheduling and playoff formats introduced two years ago, it will come down to how well the Sharks compete within the Pacific Division. They should be better than the Vancouver Canucks and the Kings, but not as good as the Anaheim Ducks.

Still, second in the division gets the Sharks into the playoff tournament, and once there, Sharks fans can dare to dream. Again.

Photo Credit:  Norm Hall/Getty Images

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Ray Hartjen

A Public Relations pro by day, by night @RayHartjen follows parallel - yet somehow still often conflicting - paths searching for hair metal guitar legend status, a career as a journeyman 4th line center in the NHL, and the treasured laminates to be a hanger-on in the circus that is Formula 1.
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