SAN JOSE (AP) — The San Jose Sharks never were closer to that elusive Stanley Cup title than they were last season when a long playoff run ended two wins short of a championship.
Even with the core of that team back for another shot at the Cup, the Sharks know they have a long road ahead if they want to take that next step.
“The tough part is you don’t get to start where you ended last year,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “You have to start right at the bottom of the mountain again and start climbing.”
No team in the past eight seasons has made it back to the final after losing the previous season. But at least the Sharks return all of the players who carried the team last season.
High-scoring captain Joe Pavelski and playmaking center Joe Thornton will once again anchor the top line, do-everything center Logan Couture should be healthier after missing 30 games last season and shutdown defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic anchors a strong blue line with the dangerous Brent Burns.
Thrown in goalie Martin Jones, who was stellar in his first full season as a starter, and the experience gained from that long playoff run and the Sharks are confident heading into the season.
“We’ve been there, we didn’t get what we wanted,” forward Patrick Marleau said. “We have a better understanding of what it takes to get there and how much more you’ll have to give to get that ultimate goal.”
Here are some things to watch for with the Sharks this season:
HERTL’S HOME: Tomas Hertl’s game took off last season when he was moved to a wing on the top line with Thornton and Pavelski. Hertl struggled to produce points when he centered his own line but could get another shot this year. If Hertl can play third-line center, the Sharks will have some of the best depth down the middle of any team with Thornton, Couture and Chris Tierney also at center. That will provide a boost against other top teams and help avoid the mismatches that hurt San Jose against the deeper Penguins in the final.
DEFENSIVE DEPTH: The Sharks have top defensive pairs in the defensive-minded Vlasic and Justin Braun and the more offensively inclined Burns and Paul Martin. It was the third defensive pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak that was exposed at times in the postseason, especially in the final. The signing of David Schlemko to replace Polak gives the Sharks a better puck mover on that pairing and could help Dillon boost his production.
“He fits where the game is at and where it’s going,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “The ability to get the puck up the ice, get it up to the hands of our forwards is important and we feel like Schlemko certainly helps in that area.”
FAMILIARITY: The Sharks took a few months to find their stride in DeBoer’s first year as coach and were near the bottom of the Western Conference in January. But they were one of the top teams after that and hope that can carry over for a faster start this season because of their familiarity with the system.
“You can just go out there and kind of react as opposed to last year you’re learning and learning new bodies into systems, a new foundation,” forward Joel Ward said. “So hopefully the foundation is there from last year.”
YOUTH BE SERVED: The Sharks are hoping for a spark from a few young players fighting to crack the lineup at forward. Barclay Goodrow, Nikolay Goldobin and Kevin Labanc are among the players who could get a look early. Timo Meier, a first-round pick in 2015, was expected to make the biggest impact but will miss the start of the season after getting mononucleosis during training camp.
BACKUP GOALIE: While Martin Jones proved he could carry the load in his first season as an NHL starter, the Sharks would like to find a capable backup to ease Jones’ workload. He thrived late in the season after James Reimer was acquired at the trade deadline. Aaron Dell, who spent last year in the AHL, will get the first shot as Jones’ backup this season.