Key storylines for Sharks

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Key storylines for Sharks

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.

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

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AP

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

No one asked, but I’m going to begin this week’s mailbag with my prediction for the Stanley Cup Final – Preds in six. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to a few of your questions…

Most likely to be moved this off-season? (Nik @niknisj25)

If the Sharks do make a move – and I’ve argued here that I think it may be time for a shakeup – they’ll surely be looking for someone up front to boost the offense. In that case, they’d likely have to sacrifice a defenseman or two.

The Sharks defense is the strength of the organization at the moment, as they had one of the best one-through-seven groups in the NHL this season. But it’s also an expensive one. The Sharks have nearly $27 million committed to their top seven defensemen next season, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is due for a hefty raise beginning in 2018-19.

One name that could be intriguing to other teams is Justin Braun. The 30-year-old has been a part of the Sharks’ top shut down pair with Vlasic for several seasons now, and is signed for the next three years at a reasonable $3.8 million cap hit. The Sharks could potentially move him for offensive help, and slot in a guy like David Schlemko alongside Vlasic, while finally giving Dylan DeMelo a chance to play on a nightly basis on the third pair. A Vlasic-Schlemko pair could be more offensive than Vlasic-Braun, too, because as adept as they were at keeping the puck out of their own net, the Sharks didn’t get many goals from their defenders outside of Burns.

Of course, the upcoming expansion draft all but assures that nothing will happen until Las Vegas selects its team on June 21. If the Sharks lose a defenseman to the Golden Knights, they’ll be more reluctant to move another one. Still, with guys like Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, Julius Bergman, Mirco Mueller and now Radim Simek in the pipeline, the club might be able to handle a couple departures.

How do we fix the power play next season? Bring in a coach that could help us? Change up the lines, or style of play? (adam smith @kickback408)

One thing that won’t be happening is a new coach, as Doug Wilson recently confirmed that Steve Spott would be back alongside Pete DeBoer. Bob Boughner could move on if he gets hired as a head coach elsewhere, but Boughner’s focus is the team’s defense and penalty kill.

Obviously, the future of the power play depends on who is on the roster, beginning with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both saw their power play production dip this season.

Thornton went from 29 power play points in 2015-16 to 19 this season (he had eight power play goals in 2015-16, and just one this season). Marleau saw a decline from 25 power play points in 2015-16 to 16 last season. Even if both return, it may be time to try other bodies on the top unit.

Do you see Meier, Labanc and/or Sorensen having a breakout season next year? Or anyone else on the Barracuda? (Colin Dunn @ColinDunnACA)

Someone better had, because this team needs to start getting younger, and soon. One of the bigger disappointments of the 2016-17 season is that none of them apparently showed the coaching staff that they were prepared to play on a nightly basis at the NHL level.

Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, I would surmise, are at the top of the depth chart as far as forwards go. Their line in the playoffs with center Chris Tierney was the Sharks’ best through the early part of the series with Edmonton. As for Kevin Labanc, I think he’s fallen a bit since he had a brief run of success for the Sharks in December.

While the Sharks did a good job stockpiling some young players through the 2013-15 drafts, they’ve traded away a number of picks in recent years. In last year’s draft they didn’t have a first or third round pick; this year they don’t have any picks in the second, third or fourth rounds; and in 2018 they are already without their second and third round picks. 

It’s great to accumulate young players, but at some point they have to break through. Now is the time.

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

After five seasons with the Sharks, Larry Robinson is leaving the organization.

Robinson, 65, spent the last three seasons as the club's director of player development. He served as an associate coach from 2012-14.

TSN in Montreal and the Montreal Gazette originally reported the news.

The Sharks confirmed that Robinson's contract would be expiring, and general manager Doug Wilson told NBC Sports California that the divorce was amicable, and "because of geography." Robinson lives in Florida.

According to the Montreal Gazette

Robinson’s contract with the Sharks expires on July 1, but agent Donnie Cape said Thursday that San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has given him permission to speak with other teams. Robinson lives in Bradenton, Fla., and the long travel distance to San Jose is one of big the reasons he’s looking for a new team to work for.

Robinson seemed to ponder retirement in 2014, but signed a three-year extension to remain in the Sharks' front office. He worked mostly from his home in Florida the past two seasons, making occasional trips to San Jose, including during training camp.

In the summer of 2015, Robinson underwent surgery for skin cancer.

Recognized as one of the best defensemen in NHL history, Robinson won six Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens as a player, and holds the NHL record for playing 20 straight seasons in the playoffs. A 10-time All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy winner, Robinson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Robinson was the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1995-99, and the New Jersey Devils from 1999-2002 and again in 2005-06. He led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000. Robinson has nine Stanley Cup rings as a player and coach.

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The Sharks did not renew the contract of pro scout Jason Rowe, who had been with the organization for the past nine seasons. Rowe focused on eastern NHL and AHL teams.