Tue Aug 09 11:07am EDT
"Who's your Cup pick?"
This was asked over email recently, and it felt like my mother had just told me we were going back-to-school shopping at K-Mart. It's that moment at which the tiny switch in your brain flips from "SUMMER" to "NEXT SEASON," and you begin to mull over such matters while fighting the mounting depression that your days of playing Nintendo until 2 a.m. were numbered 'till next June.
(For Young Wysh, "such matters" meant choosing between the GI Joe and the He-Man pencil case. When in doubt, roll with Snake-Eyes.)
Making a formalized 2012 Stanley Cup champion pick at this point is painfully premature; I always hated having to do so on a summer deadline for a preview issue due out in September, unaware that the best player on the team would blow out his knee in the preseason or that the new coach would turn out to be a turd. But it's not too early to get a feeling, catch a vibe, feel a sense of what the championship field might resemble.
In the Eastern Conference, give me a healthy Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes) in front of that blue line and goaltender, and let's see what GM Ray Shero adds to the pot before the playoff boil. When Sid went down, the Penguins were 26-12-4 with 56 points. Of course, matching that pace relies heavily on what type of player Sid is post-concussions.
The preliminary contender vibe in the East: Penguins, Capitals, Bruins, Lightning, Sabres and Rangers. The Flyers are a chemistry experiment I can't quite figure out yet. The Devils are a two-rounder at best with Marty in 2012.
In the West, the Vancouver Canucks are going to be the heavy favorite entering the season — Bodog has them at 7-to-1 for the Cup, best in the NHL. Lingering below the Canucks are the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks at 12-to-1.
Honestly, and this is just a preliminary vibe: I'd plunk a few shekles on the Sharks at those odds. They've had a very, very good offseason.
We've been down this road so many times that we've counted the cobblestones, but the Sharks are, again, a team that offers an intriguing case for Cup contention. Mostly because GM Doug Wilson has continued to parse the rolls of underachievers in favor of those who achieve when it counts.
He started last summer by jettisoning Evgeni Nabokov(notes), whose regular-season numbers were sterling but who was trying to break your heart every postseason. Enter Antti Niemi(notes), with the sparkly new Stanley Cup ring. He wasn't always fabulous in the 2011 playoffs, but he was a gamer when it counted — Game 7 against the Red Wings, for example, which was the type of game Nabby would have whiffed on.
Wilson continued this summer by using the Minnesota Wild as his personal recycle bin. Dany Heatley(notes), and the perpetual apologies for his invisible playoff performances? Gone. Devin Setoguchi(notes), whose flashes of brilliance followed by dead zones of offense caused migraines? Gone.
Enter Brent Burns(notes), the puck-moving defenseman the Sharks have coveted since the retirement of Rob Blake(notes). Enter Martin Havlat(notes), whose playoff numbers are great and whose regular-season numbers could hover closer to the 30-goal, 80-point mark with the Sharks' offensive attack.
Enter Colin White(notes), a Stanley Cup champion for the New Jersey Devils who will seek to fill a hulking physical role on the blue line. Enter Jim Vandermeer(notes), whom the Sharks hope will turn into a poor man's Hal Gill(notes). Enter Michal Handzus(notes), who (a) takes over the third-line center spot to allow Joe Pavelski(notes) to move up the lineup and (b) gives the Sharks what they lost in Manny Malhotra(notes) and (c) may improve the team's terrible penalty kill and (d) has 72 playoff games to his credit.
So here's what the Sharks' 2011-12 roster looks like. Their top six can match up against any in the NHL: Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Pavelski, Couture and Clowe. Ditto their top four on the blueline: Boyle, Burns, Murray, Pickles. In goal, Niemi's shown enough to have the goods.
That said, the depth at forward is going to be an issue to watch, as Matthew Taylor from Fear The Fin explained. What will Torrey Mitchell(notes), Jamie McGinn(notes) and Benn Ferriero(notes) provide this team?
The Western Conference title goes through Vancouver, whether it's the Sharks or the Red Wings or the Blackhawks on the journey. I'm not sure if the Sharks are good enough to beat the Canucks, but I know they've addressed some glaring weaknesses with aplomb and jettisoned a few parts that would malfunction on occasion.
The Heatley Trade can be interpreted in many different ways, but here's one pertinent read: That the time for excuses and silver linings is over for this team.
They've shed the choker label — anyone who says otherwise is trolling — but that underachiever label lingers like a fungus.
Is this the year the Sharks ... well, finally achieve something?