"I think there might be a little bit of extra pressure on us," Couture said. "People in the off-season pick us to win the Cup – I don't know how many years it's been – and we've disappointed obviously not getting there."
Well, here we go again. The 2011-12 NHL season is about to begin, and this time I'm that guy. I'm holding my breath and … picking … the … Sharks. I can't help it. They're No. 1 on my list of the top 10 Stanley Cup contenders because I think they're finally ready, even though coach Todd McLellan seems to be holding his breath, too.
"I think right now we all have to be excited about the season but a little bit cautious as well," McLellan said. "Everything on paper looks fine, but we know that doesn't win championships."
We all should underachieve like the Sharks. They are one of only two teams to make the playoffs each season since the 2004-05 lockout, along with the Detroit Red Wings. They are the only team that has advanced to the conference final in each of the past two years.
They have been tweaking and learning and developing all the while, and they might have found the formula via two trades with the Minnesota Wild – essentially swapping Dany Heatley(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes) for Brent Burns(notes) and Martin Havlat(notes).
Burns brings skill and size to the back end, taking some pressure off puck-mover Dan Boyle(notes). Havlat not only balances the loss of Setoguchi's speed, but he has scored 12 goals in his last 26 playoff games while Heatley scored only five in 32 for the Sharks. Maybe Havlat's skating ability allows him to pick up his game better when the pace picks up in the playoffs.
The Sharks, who weren't strong enough around their net in the playoffs, added more grit and depth on defense in Colin White(notes) and Jim Vandermeer(notes). After finishing 24th in penalty killing last season, they signed third-line center Michal Handzus(notes). If they need further tweaking – the fourth line is a question mark – general manager Doug Wilson has enough room under the salary cap to make more moves.
All this, even though deep down the Sharks felt they should have beaten the Vancouver Canucks – maybe especially because they felt they should have beaten the Vancouver Canucks. "I believe last year if we played our best and they played their best, we would have been better than them," Couture said. "But they outplayed us in the conference final." Everything on paper looks fine, but we know that doesn't win championships.
The Sharks thought long and hard about why they didn't play their best against the Canucks. In short, they seemed tired. They can trace that back to their second-round showdown with the Red Wings, in which they blew a 3-0 series lead and had to battle through Game 7. But they can trace it back farther to the first half of the season.
Coming off a 2010 conference final loss, the Sharks were flat early in the 2010-11 regular season. They often were "willing to work at about at 95 percent rate," according to McLellan, and floundered as low as 12th in the West. Then they revved up, went on a 27-6-4 streak and finished second in the conference, but it took too much out of them. "There's no way to quantify that, but it's something we believe," McLellan said.
The challenge this time is to break in the new guys while making sure the old guys are "ready to play and engaged," McLellan said. Joe Thornton(notes) and Patrick Marleau(notes) have to be a force. Couture and Joe Pavelski(notes) have to take another step. They have to do it from the start, especially in the competitive Pacific Division, so they can be there at the end.
"It is something that's staring us right in the face, and I'd like to think that we've learned from it," McLellan said. "It's great that you get to the final four a couple years in a row, but to do that three times in a row is a goal of ours – and obviously to go further – and we've got a lot of work to do prior to that. We can't look at the end and wait for it to come. We've got to work our way there, and we'll take that approach this year."
The next nine:
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens feel they would have beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round last season if only Matt Cooke(notes) had not been suspended, and they might be right. "Those guys, they were coming at us," Lightning winger Steven Stamkos(notes) said. "Their so-called role players were playing unbelievable." Imagine if they had Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes), too. They could soon. Malkin is healthy and motivated, and Crosby is close to returning from a concussion. Crosby is the big question mark. When will he come back, and how well? If those two superstars even approach their old form – and their teammates can continue to play as well as they learned to play without them – the Penguins will be a power again. Remember that James Neal(notes), acquired last season, hasn't even gotten rolling yet.
3. Boston Bruins: The best argument against the Bruins is actually that they won the Cup last season. "We don't really want to use the word 'repeat' because we know how hard it is," coach Claude Julien said. These aren't the 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks, who lost half their team to a salary-cap purge after winning it all. The Bruins return with most of their team intact and might have upgraded in a couple of areas, with Joe Corvo's(notes) shot replacing Tomas Kaberle's(notes) passing on the power play and talented teenager Tyler Seguin(notes) entering his second season. The issue here is the typical season-after effect. "We have got to take what's important from last year and carry it over to this year, but you don't sit back and say, 'Yeah, we're champions, and everything should fall into place,' " Julien said. "We understand the challenge of it."
4. Vancouver Canucks: The hangover could be even worse for the Canucks, who had the best season in franchise history – winning the Presidents' Trophy by 10 points and dominating the league statistically – only to lose the Cup final in Game 7 on home ice and watch a riot break out in the streets. "I don't think something like that you'll ever get over," center Ryan Kesler(notes) said. "But it's definitely motivating now." Mental toughness was a main theme last season – staying in the moment, staying composed – and it will be even more important this season, especially for boom-or-bust goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes). They have the roster to win the Cup, despite the losses of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff(notes) and ruffian Raffi Torres(notes), but can't afford to think about their ultimate goal. "Don't look at the big picture, because it gets overwhelming if you start doing that," Kesler said. "Just take it one goal at a time and focus on that, and we'll be fine."
5. Washington Capitals: The Caps' story resembles the Sharks' – poor first half, strong second half, high finish – only they flamed out even more spectacularly in the second round and made even more dramatic changes. Among the departures: Jason Arnott(notes), Scott Hannan(notes), Marco Sturm(notes) and Semyon Varlamov(notes). Among the arrivals: Troy Brouwer(notes), Jeff Halpern(notes), Roman Hamrlik(notes), Joel Ward(notes) and Tomas Vokoun(notes). "Right now it's a different team and different guys, so it's good," captain Alex Ovechkin(notes) said. We'll see. Ovechkin and his fellow offensive stars must bounce back from a down year without opening up the team's style too much again. Can the Caps find the right balance for the playoffs? How will these guys mesh?
6. Chicago Blackhawks: With the core of the 2010 Cup team locked up for years, the ongoing question for the ’Hawks is finding the right supporting cast. This year's version includes Andrew Brunette(notes), Dan Carcillo(notes), Jamal Mayers(notes), Steve Montador(notes) and Sean O'Donnell(notes) – some scoring, more grit, a lot of experience. How they complement Jonathan Toews(notes), Patrick Kane(notes) and Co. remains to be seen, but the hunger should be there again. "It's tough sledding after you win," said defenseman Brian Campbell(notes), who accepted a trade to the Florida Panthers. "Coming back, you're not as strong. You're not as sharp initially. … It's a tough Western Conference. They're going to be right up there."
7. Los Angeles Kings: Now that Drew Doughty(notes) has landed his big contract, it's time for it all to pay off. Doughty must play like a $7-million defenseman, Jack Johnson(notes) must play up to his potential on the blue line and Dustin Penner(notes) must be better up front, because the Kings have the ability to break out this season. Simon Gagne(notes) and Mike Richards(notes) were big off-season additions – especially Richards, an all-around pain to play against who supports No. 1 center Anze Kopitar(notes) and bumps Jarret Stoll(notes) to his proper spot at No. 3. "It's just a matter of gelling, and we haven't had a problem with that sort of thing," captain Dustin Brown(notes) said. "This is definitely the best team we've had [entering the season] since I've been in L.A."
8. Philadelphia Flyers: They traded Richards and Jeff Carter(notes) because they wanted to go in a different direction. But what direction will that be this season? How will they replace the 59 goals and 132 points Richards and Carter produced last season? Will Jaromir Jagr(notes), who turns 40 in February, look as good in the postseason as he did in the preseason after going through the 82-game grind for the first time since 2007-08? Is Ilya Bryzgalov(notes), who struggled so badly in the playoffs for the Phoenix Coyotes, really the long-term answer in goal? This team has too many pieces to count out but too many questions to count on. "Now we're going a different direction," center Claude Giroux(notes) said, "and we just need to make sure everyone's on the same page and start winning some games."
9. Tampa Bay Lightning: Hate to say it, but they caught Lightning in a bottle last season. Rookie general manager Steve Yzerman and rookie coach Guy Boucher could do no wrong, and the Bolts went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. They still have a strong core, but they lost Gagne, playoff hero Sean Bergenheim(notes) and the element of surprise. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) turns 42 on Oct. 12. "I think teams will prepare a little more to play us – not that they didn't last year, but as the year went on, they were taking us a little more seriously compared to the couple previous years," veteran Martin St. Louis(notes) said. "We have to be ready for a bigger fight this year."
10. Detroit Red Wings: Owner Mike Ilitch summed it up in an interview with the Detroit News: "The best way to analyze the Red Wings is, they're good, but I don't know how good." This is still a playoff team at worst and a Cup contender at best with Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes). But the Central Division is tougher than it used to be, and how long can Lidstrom, 41, continue to play at a Norris Trophy level? Losing partner Brian Rafalski(notes) to retirement was a bigger blow than many realize. The Wings could not replace him, settling for free agents Ian White(notes) and Mike Commodore(notes). Todd Bertuzzi(notes) and Tomas Holmstrom(notes) are declining. The Wings need big seasons from Valterri Filppula, Johan Franzen(notes), Jimmy Howard(notes) and Jiri Hudler(notes), and they might need GM Ken Holland to do something he hasn't done in a while – make a big trade.
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