SAN JOSE (AP) -- The message to the San Jose Sharks from the coaching staff and management was the same at the start of training camp as it was when last season ended in a second straight Western Conference finals loss.If the Sharks are going to get over that hurdle and win the Stanley Cup for the first time, they can't wait three months to get going.A sluggish start last season left the Sharks in 12th place in the West in mid-January. A furious finish to the regular season earned San Jose a fourth straight Pacific Division title but might have drained the tank when it was needed most in the postseason."We have to hold them accountable," coach Todd McLellan said Saturday after the first practice of training camp. "We have to make sure we're pushing probably earlier this year than we did last year. We let them off the hook a little bit too much. That started already yesterday. It was very clear from our perspective what we expect from this group, and anything other than that is unacceptable."The Sharks made it through two playoff rounds before losing in five games to Vancouver last season as they wore down following a seven-game, second-round series against Detroit. San Jose had been swept in the conference finals the previous year by eventual champion Chicago.The Sharks were the only team to make it that far in each of the past two seasons, but that's little consolation for a franchise that has been near the top of the league the past decade but is still looking for its first trip to the Stanley Cup finals."There's just no recovery from bad starts," defenseman Douglas Murray said. "We didn't have a bad start for an average team. But for our goals and what we're looking to do here it was a terrible start for us. It probably took a lot of extra effort in the latter part of the season to get us into the right position for the playoffs. We wasted too much focus and energy doing that. It's better to take it out in the playoffs than to have to use it in the regular season."The message about fast starts has been heard by the players, who say that means being prepared each day before taking the ice for practice and bringing a heightened focus each day during training camp."Some guys are fighting for positions, some guys aren't," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "But we need to lead by example. For us older guys it's definitely not OK to take a day off. It's important to set the right example for the younger guys."General manager Doug Wilson made some big changes in the offseason, trading a pair of top forwards in separate deals to Minnesota. Wilson dealt Devin Setoguchi in a package for All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and swapped Dany Heatley for the speedier Martin Havlat.The Sharks also signed defensemen Colin White and James Vandermeer, turning what had been a weakness on the blue line to a strength. Those three new defensemen take the place of Niclas Wallin, Ian White and Kent Huskins.With Boyle, Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic back, and youngsters Jason Demers and Justin Braun in the mix, the Sharks have more defensive depth than they've ever had."This may be the most competitive training camp we have had here," Wilson said. "We told our players, if you don't like competition, you're in the wrong business."San Jose also signed forwards Michal Handzus and Andrew Murray to help bolster a penalty-killing unit that ranked 24th in the NHL last season at 79.6 percent."Every team, it doesn't matter if you win the Cup or don't make the playoffs, teams are going to change," captain Joe Thornton said. "'We like our additions and it's exciting to start the season."Goalies Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki didn't practice because of injuries. Niemi is day to day after having a cyst removed, while Niittymaki will be out for much longer while dealing with a groin problem that has lingered since last season.Newly acquired forward James Sheppard is also out after having offseason knee surgery, and Vlasic missed practice with an illness. Handzus didn't practice, two days after attending the funeral in Slovakia for former teammate Pavol Demitra.
Nearly five months after taking a puck to the mouth that resulted in major damage, Logan Couture is still dealing with the aftereffects of his surgically repaired mouth, which now features several false teeth.
Appearing on the NHL Network this week, Couture was asked how he’s feeling with less than one month to go before the Sharks open training camp on Sep. 14.
“There’s good days and bad days,” Couture said. “My bottom teeth are still my real teeth. They’ve tried to keep them so I don’t lose them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, they’re still pretty sore. My top teeth are all fake now – my front six, I think. So, it’s different. It just feels different in my mouth.
“But everything else with my face and all that is healed. I’m lucky that it’s an injury that didn’t affect my training, and hopefully won’t affect me going forward.”
Couture was injured on March 25 in Nashville. He was set up just outside the crease in the offensive zone when a Brent Burns point shot hit a stick before squarely battering the now 28-year-old’s mouth.
After missing the final seven games of the regular season, Couture returned for the Sharks’ playoff opener. He managed to play in all six games of the first round loss, posting two goals and one assist for three points, although he struggled at times and was seemingly targeted by the Oilers.
Couture is currently in his hometown of London, Ontario where he’s staging a casino event for brain research. Fellow Sharks Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo will take part, as will other NHL stars like the Kings’ Drew Doughty.
It was late in the lockout-shortened 2013 season when Sharks general manager Doug Wilson really started to prepare for the future. Douglas Murray was dealt to Pittsburgh for a pair of second round selections. Ryane Clowe packed his bags for Broadway, in exchange for a second and a third round pick from the Rangers. Michal Handzus went to Chicago for a fourth rounder.
Wilson’s logic was sound, as it typically takes two-to-four years before draft picks have a chance to make an impact at the NHL level. The general manager figured that by then, players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau either wouldn’t be a part of the team anymore or would be slowing down. Restocking the cupboards was essential.
From 2013-15, the Sharks made 24 selections over the next three NHL entry drafts, including seven total picks in the top two rounds. Some players have shown promise. Others haven’t. A few aren’t in the organization anymore. That’s the nature of the business.
The way the 2017-18 opening night roster is shaping up, though, now is the time that some of these young players in the system simply have to step up. Marleau and his 27 goals last season are gone, Thornton’s numbers are down and he’s coming off of major knee surgery, Joe Pavelski is now 33 years old, and the team’s offense depth is suspect at best. There have been no notable additions in the offseason.
Frankly, this season could be viewed as a referendum on the team’s amateur scouting staff, including longtime director Tim Burke. Wilson handed Burke and his staff a wonderful opportunity to provide the organization with fresh talent with the team approaching an organizational crossroads.
What has transpired so far is a bit concerning, as already two of the team’s first round picks from that span ended up being nothing more than trade bait.
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Mirco Mueller, chosen 18th overall in 2013, was a huge disappointment in San Jose. It’s been well documented that he was mishandled by the organization when he was rushed to the league in 2014-15, but even this past season, regular observers of the Barracuda had Mueller as nothing more than the AHL team’s fourth-best defenseman. He’s now in New Jersey, swapped for a pair of draft picks.
The scouting staff was so high on Mueller on draft day that Wilson traded a valuable second round pick to Detroit to move up just two places to select him. With those acquired picks, the Red Wings took Anthony Mantha 20th overall and Tyler Bertuzzi 58th overall – two forwards that have shown a whole lot more NHL potential than Mueller (especially Mantha, who has 39 points in 70 career NHL games so far).
Perhaps more concerning, though, is that the Sharks 2013 draft class as a whole is looking like a dud. Second round pick Gabryel Boudreau suffered a wrist injury and is no longer in the organization anymore, but he was trending downward even before he got hurt. None of the remaining players selected from rounds four-through-seven look to be NHL quality, either.
The next year brought Nikolay Goldobin, chosen 27th overall after the Sharks traded down in the first round, and he ended up being the key piece in the Jannik Hansen acquisition from Vancouver. Goldobin showed some flashes of offensive talent during his time in the organization, but his lack of hockey sense and on-ice work ethic helped lead to his exit. Whether Goldobin becomes an NHL regular, even with a fresh start in Vancouver, is highly uncertain.
Had the Sharks stayed at 20th overall, they could have selected Nick Schmaltz (20th overall), Robby Fabbri (21st overall), or David Pastrnak (25th overall). Instead, they moved down and took Goldobin, making it back-to-back first round failures.
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Still, unlike 2013, other players from Goldobin’s draft class have shown some promise. Second rounder Julius Bergman was a steady blueliner for a good Barracuda team last season, and although he’s probably not NHL-ready yet, he could be on the right track. Late in the draft the team found Kevin Labanc in the sixth round with the 171st overall selection, and Labanc had some nice moments with the Sharks last season. His shot and his hands make him a solid prospect, although Labanc still probably has to get a bit bigger and stronger to play in the NHL full-time.
Noah Rod (second round, 53rd overall) and Rourke Chartier (fifth round, 149th overall) are also still developing, with Rod playing against men in the Swiss league the past few seasons and Chartier a valuable player for the Barracuda last year.
In 2015, the draft provided the Sharks with Timo Meier at ninth overall, as the club drafted in the top 10 for the first time since 2007. At this point, Meier is far and away the best prospect in the organization, and he’ll likely be relied upon to play a top nine (or even a top six) role for the Sharks this season.
The 2015 draft brought other decent prospects, too. Defenseman Jeremy Roy was selected 31st overall, and after suffering a serious knee injury in juniors this year, he’ll get a chance to play for the Barracuda this year. Fourth rounder Adam Helewka and fifth rounder Rudolfs Balcers have also developed nicely since draft day. It’s still a bit too early to evaluate that draft as a whole.
It should also be mentioned that while their draft day record may be suspect the past few seasons, the Sharks have brought in European free agents like Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen. Karlsson has developed into a versatile, hard-working forward; Donskoi has shown flashes of offensive brilliance despite a disappointing second year in the NHL last season; and Sorensen looks primed to make the opening night roster after his speed and tenacity shined through during the Sharks’ first round series loss to Edmonton.
The Sharks scouting staff has helped to keep the team competitive for a long time, and they’re as big a reason as any that the team has missed the playoffs just once in the past 11 seasons. But this is also a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and now is the time that the Sharks need to see some results from players that were chosen by Burke and company.