Quirky schedule could ultimately determine Sharks’ fate 

It’s Groundhog Day in the South Bay as the Sharks get set to drop the puck on the 2013-14 season tonight.

Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are lacing up the skates for what could be their final run in teal and, once again, age is a question heading into the season.

If the Sharks’ older legs benefited from a lockout-shortened schedule last year, the 2013-14 season could present a few challenges for a team with five key players over 32 years of age.

The NHL is following up the latest starting date (Jan. 19) in league history with an Oct. 1 opening night, marking the shortest offseason it’s ever witnessed.

The Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Sharks on May 28, so the team received just more than four months of rest after playing a grueling 59 games in 18 weeks.

“It’s almost as if we went to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Boyle said. “But guys learn what their bodies need and how much time they need to take off and when they need to start working out, so I don’t think it will be a factor.”

The season is starting a smidgen early this fall because it’s an Olympic year and the league is breaking for 18 days in February to allow its players to compete in Sochi, Russia. As a result, the Sharks will be playing games almost every other night again this year, which could be taxing to older players, like Brad Stuart, who will be 34 in November; Scott Hannan, who will be 35 in January; and Boyle, who is currently 37.

But the Olympic break could work in the Sharks’ favor depending on how many players are selected to skate for their countries.

Stuart and Hannan will benefit from a long, two-week break, rejuvenating their legs for the stretch run. Marleau appears unlikely to receive an invitation this winter and he opened last year’s lockout-shortened season with nine goals in five games playing with fresh legs.

Joe Pavelski is a lock to suit up for Team USA, Logan Couture will likely wear the Maple Leaf and you can expect to see Antti Niemi in between the pipes for Finland.

Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Thornton are on the bubble for Team Canada and 19-year-old rookie Tomas Hertl could represent the Czech Republic if he’s fast out of the gates this fall.

The Olympians will be crossing the pond this time, traveling several time zones, which might catch up with older players, like Thornton, and the extra games could deplete Hertl’s tank as he skated in only 43 contests last year playing pro hockey in the Czech Republic.

“The time change will probably be a factor for a lot of guys going over, but we’re all professional,” Boyle said. “Maybe the first game or two after we got back last time were a little tough.”

In the end, age could work in the Sharks’ favor if it dissuades the Canadians from choosing Boyle and Thornton, who could break the team’s Groundhog Day spell this spring by putting together a Cup run with a little extra juice in their legs.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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