San Jose Sharks training camp will be a little more spirited than it has been in recent years when it opens September 19. In an offseason that left Sharks fans and its roster wondering if the ax was ever coming to the core, the talk can subside and steel can meet the ice.
Numerous questions arose after the Sharks let the Kings wiggle out of the four game sweep of the guillotine in round one and let maybe their best shot at that elusive first Cup since 2011 escape them. as a result, head coach Todd McClellan and general manager Doug Wilson had a lot of decisions to make throughout the summer, perhaps the biggest having to do with Joe Thornton and his role on the team.
After months of speculation, Thornton had his captaincy stripped last month, opening up the competition for the next captain. From what it was predicted to be months ago, the Sharks are a little more than a month out to playing their first regular season game and can erase all the speculation from the last four months.
Here are five (somewhat) bold predictions for the 2014-15 Sharks.
1. Logan Couture is named captain
The captain must portray the heart and soul of the team and no other Shark has a better blend of talent, heart, and toughness than Couture. He also has youth going for him, which has meant a lot to Doug Wilson going forward. The nucleus of the San Jose Sharks has a closing window of opportunity to win a Cup with the current group and Couture has the respect of the locker room as well as the game to back it up.
The runner-up will most likely be Joe Pavelski as he blends the old with the youth in San Jose at the age of 30. Aside from the offensive production, he plays more a lead by example role like Thornton did. The Sharks are in need of a captain that won’t hesitate in speaking up when the level of play dips below the standard.
Couture has big skates to fill, but he fits the mold of the youth movement when it comes to NHL captains.
2. Mirco Mueller wins the Calder Trophy
Of the position needing the biggest upgrade in the offseason, defense topped the to-do list. Yet, like most of the honey-do’s during the NHL season, it lacked a big splash. Dan Boyle was traded to the New York Islanders, only to get off the island and signing with the Rangers.
Brad Stuart, another veteran, was dealt to the young upstart Colorado Avalanche. Both moves freed up two spots on the existing depth chart. One of those sports was filled through Brent Burns’ return to his original position.
The second spot is Mueller’s for the taking in training camp. Taken in the first round in 2013, Muller was heralded as the next young Swiss superstar defenseman and the future of the Sharks’ defense. From the start of training camp, the Mueller bursts on the NHL stage and finishes among the rookie leaders in plus/minus ratings and takes on second-pairing assignments against a Western Conference full of depth scoring. Mueller becomes the first defenseman to win the award since Tyler Myers in 2009-10.
3. Brent Burns returns to forward alongside Joe Thornton
In a division filled with elite offensive talent, a bruising defenseman was much needed for Team Teal. Paired with Marc-Edauard Vlasic, Burns will provide the Sharks with its first true shutdown pairing of recent memory.
However, the line centered by Joe Thornton will struggle during the push for the playoffs in late February to early March. Through that stretch of games, Burns will be moved off the blue line on a regular basis to jumpstart the line badly in need of a diffusing player to keep the opposition honest against that line. The emergence of Mirco Mueller, not only as a power play quarterback, but as the Sharks’ next complete defenseman will make the temporary loss of Burns on the blue line less of a factor.
4. Alex Stalock starts more games than Anti Niemi
Stalock’s start in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings in the quarterfinals wasn’t his best performance, but the Kings were a team of destiny last season. It was, however, the beginning of the end of Niemi’s clutch on the No. 1 goaltender job in San Jose.
Despite the undeniable success of Niemi in the regular season, his faults in San Jose have all come in April and May. Yes, the memory of Niemi as a Stanley Cup champion in Chicago is still relevant but it’s fading faster than American Idol’s ratings. With a new captain, a new vibe and a new season, it’s time for a new goaltender. Stalock wins the job out of camp, somewhat controversially, and starts 10 of 12 games in October. On the back of Stalock, the Sharks play inspired defense in front of him and finish October with eight wins in 12 games.
5. The Sharks win the Pacific Division
A lot has been made of the Sharks teasing their fans year after year with a Stanley Cup only to collapse in the playoffs. If there was a team last year as the poster child of being built for the regular season, it was the Sharks. Constantly in the top half in goals a game offensively the last five full seasons, and then not being able to hold up defensively.
They are built like a Western Conference powerhouse with good goaltending alongside plenty of youth and scoring and will lean heavily on healthy forwards like Couture, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. The mix of bottom-six muscle also favors the Sharks as they become tougher to play against, although they lack offensive talent on the fourth line. The good news: regular seasons are won on the first and second lines and in terms of forwards one through six, the Sharks are perhaps the most proven team in the west.
The Sharks continue their trend of strong regular seasons and quietly win the Pacific Division for the sixth time since 2004. What they do in the postseason is for another day.