Previewing the 2010-11 San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks took their very first strides of the 2010-11 NHL season Wednesday night in Anaheim, and after last year’s Western Conference Finals appearance, hopes are running high in the Bay Area.

Of course, this is the time of year that optimism reigns supreme for every franchise, whether they finished first or 30th, but there are always a handful of teams that have legitimate Stanley Cup expectations rather than just aspirations. For the sixth year in a row, the Sharks find themselves amongst that group, but some significant offseason upheaval has left this year’s Sharks squad with much bigger question marks heading into the regular season than last year’s edition.

While San Jose still boasts a tremendous amount of firepower when you consider the likes of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski, there is no denying the massive defensive concerns facing the squad.

Since we last saw the Sharks in the Western Conference finals, a rather large amount of changes have taken place concerning San Jose’s ability to keep the puck out of their net. Long-time starting netminder Evgeni Nabokov is now playing overseas in the KHL, last year’s captain and top-four defenseman Rob Blake retired, and third line center Manny Malhotra is now a member of the Vancouver Canucks.

As for the hole Nabokov leaves between the pipes, Wilson has brought aboard two solid and potentially better goaltenders in both Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi. However, neither goalie has half the proven track record that Nabokov brings to the ice.

Niittymaki did win MVP of the 2006 Winter Olympics, but his NHL numbers leave much to be desired. On the other hand, Niemi is coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season with Chicago, but he was just a rookie last season and he clearly benefited from playing behind one of the top defensive units in all of the NHL. How does the old saying go, “you get what you pay for?”

The combination of Niittymaki and Niemi may be cheaper, but Nabokov brings more consistency to the position. Only time will tell if Wilson made the smart move by going with a tandem in net rather than re-signing the consistent Nabokov. However, regardless of who mans the pipes for the Sharks this season, the quality of defenders in front of the goaltender is the most concerning aspect of this year’s team.

Last year the Sharks had major problems defending their own zone and after losing Blake to retirement, one would have thought a high profile free agent defenseman would have been added. But no such acquisition has been made and as it stands, San Jose has just one new addition to the blueline since last season ended. Former Detroit Red Wing Andreas Lilja is currently in camp on a tryout. Although, even if Lilja does come to terms on a contract, he will likely be nothing more than a fifth or sixth defenseman.

What the Sharks really need is a difference maker on the back end.. They already have plenty of capable third pair defenders but what they lack is that ideal top-four shutdown defender. After all, it isn’t rocket science to figure out why Wilson made a play for Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson when he was a restricted free agent back in July.

Hjalmarsson, who was in his first full year in the NHL last season, proved to be a defensive stalwart for the Blackhawks all the way throughout the playoffs. Unfortunately for Sharks fans, the Blackhawks matched San Jose’s contract offer and Wilson hasn’t acquired any other high profile defenseman since.

Granted the Sharks will have the same amount of offensive firepower, if not more so than last season with second year center Logan Couture taking over Malhotra’s third line center spot. That said, the defense is clearly in need of an upgrade.

Could that upgrade come internally from either second year defenseman Jason Demers or a rookie prospect like Nick Petrecki? Possibly, but at this point it doesn’t seem likely that the Sharks will even be able to match, much less be able to surpass last year’s deep playoff run unless they can acquire defensive help at the trade deadline.

Projected opening night lineup:

Patrick Marleau–Joe Thornton–Dany Heatley
Ryane Clowe–Joe Pavelski–Devin Setoguchi
Jamie McGinn–Logan Couture–Torrey Mitchell
Frazer McLaren–Scott Nichol–Jamal Mayers

Dan Boyle–Douglas Murray
Marc Edouard-Vlasic–Niclas Wallin
Kent Huskins–Jason Demers

Antti Niemi
Antero Niittymaki

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