Do you still think the Sharks are too old, too slow and too soft to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?
Two months ago, you wanted to blow up the band, convinced Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle’s best years had passed. Now, the team looks like the most balanced squad to ever throw on the teal sweaters.
This year’s lockout-shorted season wasn’t a Van Gogh by any means. The Sharks didn’t win the President’s Trophy (like they did in 2009) or a Pacific Division title (like they did from 2008 through 2011) and they appeared, at times, to be closing the book on their recent run of success.
But they tweaked the roster and suddenly possess all the ingredients — goaltending, system defense, physicality, clutch scoring and veteran leadership — to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It starts with Antti Niemi in between the pipes. Goaltending is the key piece for any club that’s ever hoisted the Cup in June — think Jonathan Quick, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. Niemi is unquestionably the best netminder to ever patrol the crease for the Sharks, an intangible they lacked a few years ago when they were perennial favorites.
The Finnish goalie put together a Vezina Trophy-caliber season this year, posting 2.16 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, and he won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, so he knows how to handle the pressure when the game is on the line.
The Sharks are also playing tight system defense in front of Niemi this year with the addition of Hall of Famer Larry Robinson to the coaching staff. Robinson was one of the masterminds behind the New Jersey Devils’ run a decade ago, and under his watch, the Sharks posted the NHL’s sixth-best goals against average (2.33) this year.
Despite their structured play, the Sharks struggled to score goals early in the season. In a 19-game stretch from late January to early March, the Sharks scored more than two goals in a contest only twice, stirring panic in the South Bay.
But the brain trust solved the problem by dumping Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe, bringing in Raffi Torres and moving Brent Burns up to forward. Torres is a physical power forward, like Clowe, but with more speed. He proved he can score, too, netting a nifty overtime goal in Game 2 against the Vancouver Canucks.
With these tweaks, the Sharks’ lines are now balanced, one through four, with skill, grit and toughness. Coach Todd McLellan’s bench is loaded with guys like Burns, Torres, Tommy Wingels, T.J. Galiardi and Andrew Desjardins who are willing to do the dirty work to create space for Thornton (six points), Marleau (five points), Logan Couture (eight points) and Joe Pavelski (eight points), who possess the touch to get the puck across the line.
Of course, it’s a wide-open tournament, as usual, and a handful of teams are capable of making a push deep into June. A first-round sweep has never raised Lord Stanley’s Cup, but this team is proving it has the parts to finally get it done. Aren’t you glad that general manager Doug Wilson let the guys hit the road for one more tour?
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.