Originally Published: September 27, 2013

San Jose Sharks: Who do you think you are?

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

It was mid-March last season and the San Jose Sharks were floundering, battling an identity crisis and propelling their GM to start peddling away pending unrestricted free agents. It was ugly. Then that eureka moment happened. A home-and-home sweep of the Anaheim Ducks March 25 and 27 began a 12-5-1 stretch run that also saw the Sharks sweep the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round before pushing the Los Angeles Kings to seven tough games in the second round. Overall, the Sharks had a 19-9-1 record over the final two months of the 2013 season, which made you wonder just where this team had been hiding all year.

"We had a fully buy-in from everybody that was here," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com. "We had been preaching and hammering away at a type of game we feel we need to play to be successful. We had some guys buy in, others slowly buying in, others maybe fight it at times, but in that last third of the season and playoffs, after the changes were made, our team played with more speed and in turn became harder to play against. We were faster and quicker, we were a tight group, which all bought into it."

The question now is whether the same team from the late season shows up to start the 2013-14 season.

"If I have a concern, it would be that heading into this year we decide we're not all-in again in playing the same way and we're going to take the long-distance path again and go through some bumps in the road," McLellan said. "In a perfect world, we would all come back and continue to understand that nothing has changed. We need to play a certain way to be successful. We'll see where the players go with it. It's our jobs as a staff to control it and manage it and correct it when it slips. But the biggest tool we had last season was when we had the complete buy-in."

Of note, this is potentially a pivotal season for the franchise with long-time, key veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all entering the final year of their respective contracts. All three will be approached about extensions, no question.

Well, they began way before this offseason. GM Doug Wilson traded pending UFAs Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus for draft picks before the April 5 trade deadline, at first giving the impression he was white-flagging it. But then he also acquired Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres before the deadline, and everybody was wondering what the heck was going on. What was going on is that the Sharks changed their look midstream last season.

"We were all pretty happy with what he did before the deadline last year," star center Logan Couture told ESPN.com. "Obviously, it was tough for us losing Clowey and Cranky [Murray] because they've been Sharks for so long and guys have built relationships with them. But I think every guy in the room realized we had to make a change. Something had to be different. We all believe he made the right moves. Raffi came in and fit in really well with our group. He played the right way, played our system, and helped us."

The biggest change of all last March came from within.

"It wasn't just personnel changes around the trade deadline but Burnsy going up to play forward for our club -- that changed the dynamic," McLellan said.

Brent Burns moved up front from the blue line and became an instant threat as a power forward, playing on a line with Thornton. Those two begin this season again as a terrorizing tandem. Otherwise, a quiet summer saw Scott Gomez leave via free agency to Florida, winger T.J. Galiardi traded to Calgary and the Sharks acquire winger Tyler Kennedy from Pittsburgh at the draft in late June. While they won't say it, it's clear the Sharks view Kennedy as a speed/skill upgrade over Galiardi.

"We're trying to build off what we finished with last season, the identity that we developed and how we played," McLellan said. "We think that Kennedy can be a very good addition in that area."

Few teams in the NHL can boast a one-two-three punch at center like San Jose with Thornton, Couture and Joe Pavelski. When the Sharks are able to roll out their lineup that way, it's so hard for teams to match up -- just ask Vancouver in the first round last spring. But when injuries dictate that Pavelski has to move up to a top-six role, just as he did against Los Angeles in the second round, the Sharks aren't as dynamic. For the Sharks to really excel this season, Pavelski needs to be in the No. 3 hole -- that's if personnel allows it.

"We think we can start Pav there, it will be fluid," McLellan said. "We'll have to see how some of our young players play, a guy like Tomas Hertl for example. If he can come in and challenge for a position on the team and contribute, it makes things easier. But we'll start the season with that plan, if everything starts properly, we'd like to have Pav in the three-hole, if we could."

The wild card here is that top-six winger Martin Havlat is recovering from offseason pelvic surgery. He should be back early in the season, but he's going to need to find his legs when he does. The expectation is that Thornton-Burns and Couture-Marleau will once again be the pairs on the top two lines, leaving McLellan to find another winger for each line. Kennedy and Torres were likely candidates to fill out those two spots, and the rookie Hertl -- San Jose's 2012 first-round pick -- would fit in on a third line with Pavelski and Tommy Wingels, giving the Sharks the preferred one-two-three punch at center. This would be made even easier when Havlat returns. But now Torres will be out anywhere from six weeks to four months depending on if he needs knee surgery after suffering an ACL injury in preseason.

Although Thornton continued to prove with another strong playoff that he remains an elite producer, Couture keeps raising his game. His Team Canada Olympic invitation over the summer suggested as much.

"It's almost on a daily basis he takes another step," McLellan said. "It feels that way. When you take seasons and break them down by quarter; ever since he got here, he seems to be making progress every single quarter, excelling to the point where he's become an elite player in the league."

Already he's among the big leaders on the team.

"I enjoy being the guy who is trusted by the coaching staff to go out in all sorts of situations to play the big minutes," Couture said. "That's what every player wants to do. Last year I think I got more of an opportunity to do that. I think Todd and the coaching staff trust me a lot to go out there at all times. We still got Jumbo, we still got Patty up front, Pavs and myself, and Boyler and Stu on the back end, we've got a lot of leaders. We're a veteran team. I think a lot of us are leaders."

The blue line is a steady, veteran group with Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic (both Team Canada invites), Hannan and Brad Stuart as the top four, with Justin Braun, Jason Demers and Matt Irwin rounding out the corps.

Goal is another strength, with Antti Niemi being nominated for the Vezina Trophy last season.

"He's a workhorse, he thrives on games and work load, which is a good sign for us," McLellan said. "The players have really come to really appreciate his ability and what he means to the team. We're lucky to have him."

One of the things that has hurt the Sharks in the playoffs the past few years is a lack of offensive support from their bottom-six forward group, especially when Pavelski is playing in the top six. That has left the cupboard a bit bare. As the Blackhawks proved last spring with key contributions from bottom-six players Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger, you can't win a Stanley Cup just counting on the big dogs to carry the day. Too often come playoff time the Sharks rely too much on Thornton, Marleau, Couture and Pavelski. They need more this season from bottom-six guys. When everyone is healthy, the Sharks are deeper up front. But Havlat's continued injury issues over the past two years has thrown a wrench in how the top nine can be rolled out. If Havlat can stay healthy, it allows the Sharks to have a player such as Kennedy play with Pavelski on the third line, for example.

The Sharks lost Dallas as a divisional foe and inherited Canadian Western clubs Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. The Sharks have a good rivalry with the Canucks, so they welcome that change. The Sharks will have to battle Cali rivals Anaheim and L.A. once again for the top spot in the division -- plus perennial contender Vancouver -- the Coyotes are looking to regain their playoff form of 2012 (when they reached the conference finals), while the Oilers are on the rise. Not an easy division.

"It's still going to be a tough division," Couture said. "It doesn't get any easier for us with realignment. But we're looking forward to playing those guys."

LeBrun: I'm taking the Sharks to win the Pacific Division.

Burnside: Second in the Pacific Division.

Custance: First in the Pacific Division.

Melrose: Second in the Pacific Division.

Strang: First in the Pacific Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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