For years, the Sharks have been relatively stacked in terms of forwards, able to confidently roll three dependable lines in most all situations. Because the NHL is a cap system, San Jose did this at the expense of their defense, a decision that has appeared to cost them in their recent playoff performances.
Now, however, San Jose seems to have put a new focus on the defensive side of the game. Doug Wilson has spent the offseason improving his blue line, going so far as to trade from his deep forward corps to do so. Brent Burns, Colin White and Jim Vandermeer were brought in to give the team an offensively gifted all-star from the point, a former shut-down specialist eager to prove he still has something left, and an ancillary player with a mean streak.
It's safe to say that top to bottom, this is one of the best defensive units that the Sharks have had in their now twenty-season history.
To achieve this feat, the Sharks lost some of their famous forward depth. The top-six forward group is still among the league's best, but outside of those six the remaining forwards are far less established.
Michael Handzus was brought in to stabilize the third line, and he will give San Jose a dependable veteran presence there. However, it's unknown who will be lining up on his wings when the puck drops to start the season.
Conventional wisdom suggests that those players will be Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn or Benn Ferriero, three young players with limited NHL experience. Of the three, Torrey Mitchell is the seasoned veteran. Still, his experience is limited to just 204 regular season games.
Mitchell carried promise with him when he first laced up for San Jose in 2007. Playing all 82 games as a rookie, the then 22-year-old Mitchell potted 10 goals and 10 assists while also wreaking havoc with Mike Grier on the penalty kill. Injuries stopped Mitchell's development quickly, as he missed 108 games over the next two years with leg issues that significantly hampered his speed.
Last season was a bit of an renaissance for Mitchell; he scored a career high in points and seemed to regain some of his trademark speed. Most of this success came with Kyle Wellwood and Joe Pavelski at his side though, and with Wellwood still on the market and Pavelski moved into the top six, Mitchell will have to try to replicate his numbers without the benefit of these gifted playmakers.
Although a good season from Mitchell is far from a sure thing, that seems almost guaranteed when you look at the other players the Sharks will lean on next year.
As far as importance goes, Jamie McGinn could be crucial to San Jose. No player has been more of an enigma for the Sharks over the last few seasons; McGinn has either shown flashes of potential or stretches of ineffectiveness.
Unlike Mitchell, the more highly touted McGinn was never given a guaranteed spot on the team. Instead, McGinn became acquainted with what was dubbed "The Worcester Shuttle", moving back and forth between the NHL and AHL in his first two years with the team. On some occasions, due to the Sharks issues with the cap, McGinn would find himself playing an NHL game one night, flying back to Worcester, and then flying back to San Jose to play in the team's next NHL game.
It wasn't the most ideal situation for McGinn, the travel undoubtedly drained him and the lack of practice time with either squad stymied his development. Still, in 2009-2010, McGinn scored 10 goals and looked like he was about to find a permanent spot on the San Jose roster.
That wasn't the case, as McGinn struggled mightily in the 2010-2011 season. He scored just one goal in 49 games, bouncing up and down between lines and levels. Most nights, McGinn found himself on the team's fourth line, a virtual graveyard for forwards with McGinn's skill set. McGinn has always been a very highly-touted offensive talent, but his role on the team forced him to become an energy forward with reckless abandon.
Next year, it looks like McGinn will get his shot at the third line. The first few weeks will be crucial for the young forward, who despite his time in the league is still just 23. If McGinn struggles to find the back of the net, it's almost a given that he'll find himself in limbo once again. For the Sharks to have any hope of winning the Pacific Division, they are going to have to make up some of the lost forward scoring somewhere. If McGinn and Mitchell can't get it done, it's a real issue.
Benn Ferriero may be waiting in the wings to help out; the young forward did see some success with Clowe and Couture early last season but then struggled when the three were separated. He's a bit undersized, but could contribute if either Mitchell or McGinn struggles.
The young guns aren't just expected to score. It's likely that they will have to also contribute on the penalty kill. Mitchell is no stranger to this task, but McGinn and Andrew Desjardins will probably be getting their first real crack at shorthanded situations in the NHL. Both have played on the kill in the past, but with Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers headed elsewhere next year, someone is going to have to take over the lost minutes.
The real concern is scoring though, and outside of these players, the Sharks don't have many prospects who can come in and do that. Most of their offensively-minded prospect are still years away from the NHL; no immediate help is available in dire situations. Still, San Jose does have the cap space to make a move if necessary, something they haven't had in years past.
Doug WIlson would likely keep that space for a bigger move, however. Ideally, these young Sharks will regain past potential or cash in on future promise to help give San Jose their trademark forward depth.