Key storylines for Sharks

Key storylines for Sharks
October 7, 2011, 11:40 pm

SAN JOSE -- After two straight appearances in the Western Conference Final, logic would dictate that the Sharks needed only a few tweaks to their roster to secure a trip to the Stanley Cup Final -- and maybe a Cup itself -- in 2011-12.

Of course, as Sharks followers well know, thats not exactly how the NHL, or sports in general, works.

Still, the club looks great on paper. A bulked-up, more experienced and skilled defense -- along with some high-octane scorers and a proven goalie -- give the Sharks as good a chance as any club to go all the way.

Lets take a look at some early storylines as the Sharks get set to open their season on Saturday at home against Phoenix.

PREVIEW: Sharks open Saturday night vs. Phoenix

The new guys
The player who will command the attention of the most eyeballs among the new Sharks is defenseman Brent Burns -- and not just because hes 6-5, 230. Along with Dan Boyle, the Sharks now possess a 1-2 punch on defense that they sorely lacked last season, following Rob Blake's retirement. Burns presence should immediately help the penalty kill, he can put up points on offense, and can punish opposing forwards skating in his direction.

Martin Havlat will replace some of the speed the Sharks lost with the trade of Devin Setoguchi, and can break games open with his skill. Michal Handzus will center the third line and also contribute key minutes shorthanded, so guys like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski can rest up when the team is down a man.

Also, dont discount the signings of Jim Vandermeer and Colin White. While there probably isnt room for both of them on opening night, having an experienced seventh defenseman is sure to come in handy at some point.

Backing up Niemi
The Sharks were dealt a pretty significant blow when they learned that Antero Niittymaki wouldnt be available for the first 12 weeks of the season. Even though Antti Niemi is the No. 1, Niittymaki is a veteran goalie who can win games. In his absence, backup duty falls to Thomas Greiss -- a familiar name here, but also a guy who spent last season playing in Sweden.

The Sharks had the cap room to go out and get an experienced backup, but chose to stick with Greiss, who will start on Saturday and probably play at least five or six games in the first couple months of the season. The Sharks are putting an emphasis on avoiding the slow start they suffered through last season, so Greiss is going to have to be good when hes in the net. Its far too early to rely solely on one goaltender, even when Niemi gets healthy.

Scouting the calendar
The Los Angeles Kings are a sexy pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. They made some major moves, and are solid at every position. Its a good bet that the Kings and Sharks are going to battle it out all season for the division title, as the Ducks, Coyotes and Stars arent expected to be serious contenders.

The rivals will face each other twice in November (Nov. 7 at home, Nov. 28 in L.A.), a couple more times later in the season, and then finish up with a home-and-home to end the regular season. Its not a stretch to say that those two games in April may decide who wins the Pacific.

In the spotlight
With Dany Heatley in Minnesota, Pavelski will get his chance on the Sharks top line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Hell be on the wing, which is a bit of a change from his natural position at center, but should be able to at least equal his already more-than-respectable point total of 66 last season.

Lines are sure to change throughout the year, but keep an eye on Pavelski early on to see if he clicks with his highly skilled mates.

Avoiding the sophomore slump
Logan Couture seemingly came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the Sharks top scoring threats last season (which should have ended with the Calder Trophy, but thats a story for another day). The difference this season is that the club will expect Couture to at least duplicate that output -- specifically his 32 goals. Thats a good bit of pressure on a 22-year-old, who's now slotted securely on the teams second line.

He should be able to do it, as Couture possesses a scoring touch that you cant teach. Still, hell want to avoid getting off to a slow start, otherwise he may fall victim to trying to do too much as some young players are wont to do.

Finally...
Let us know in your comments below what youre going to be looking for when the puck drops, or what you think we may have missed.