2013-14 San Jose Sharks Season preview: The forwards

With the Sharks opening their 2013-14 regular season tomorrow night against Vancouver, we preview the forwards on the team's roster.

1st line

LW - Patrick Marleau

Age: 34 Height: 6-2 Weight: 220
Contract Status: $6,900,000 cap hit through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 17G, 14A, 31P, 19:06 ATOI, 52.9% 5v5 Corsi, 1.45 5v5 P/60, 4.79 5v4 P/60

Last Season: After bursting out of the gate with nine goals in his first five games last season, the franchise's all-time leading scorer cooled down production-wise down the stretch before exploding once again in the Sharks' first-round sweep of Vancouver. But even when Marleau wasn't contributing on the scoreboard, he was leaned on heavily by Todd McLellan and the coaching staff to soak up tough defensive minutes at even-strength and on the penalty kill.

This Season: He'll once again be expected to drive play effectively in difficult situations on Logan Couture's wing this season while continuing to be one of the team's go-to goal scorers in every game state. Martin Havlat opening the season on the shelf means Marleau is the only proven, bona fide top-six winger on the team right now. In the final year of his current contract, he'll need to play like it for the Sharks to take steps forward offensively.

Key Stat: Since 2008, only Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have scored more goals than Marleau's 166.

C - Logan Couture

Age: 24 Height: 6-1 Weight: 200
Contract Status: $2,875,000 cap hit through 2013-14; $6,000,000 cap hit 2014-19
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 21G, 16A, 37P, 18:05 ATOI, 52.7% 5v5 Corsi, 2.33 5v5 P/60, 4.97 5v4 P/60

Last Season: What's left to say about the Sharks' best young forward? He seized the second-line center position with a brilliant 32-goal rookie year in 2010-11 and hasn't looked back since, finally ascending to the role of first-line pivot late last season. Apart from Antti Niemi, there wasn't a player more valuable to the Sharks last season than Couture who not only led the team in goals during the regular season but coupled that with three-zone dominance in shutdown minutes and a terrific playoff performance.

This Season: Fresh off signing a five-year, $30 million contract extension, Couture returns to San Jose as the presumptive first-line center and one of the primary trigger men on the power play's first unit. He'll be expected to face off against opposing teams' first-liners while once again potting upwards of thirty goals. It's hard to imagine Couture taking yet another step forward in his development but without Ryane Clowe around to drag him down this season, it's certainly possible.

Key Stat: Since the start of his career, Couture has recorded a point on 84.9% of the even-strength goals he's been on the ice for. That's the best percentage among all NHL forwards over that span.

RW - Tyler Kennedy

Age: 27 Height: 5-11 Weight: 185
Contract Status: $2,350,000 cap hit through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 46 GP, 6G, 5A, 11P, 12:27 ATOI, 49.3% 5v5 Corsi, 0.83 5v5 P/60, 3.47 5v4 P/60

Last Season: A good amount of digital ink has been spilled about how much of a dumpster fire the 2013 Penguins were when Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin wasn't on the ice. Which makes it all the more curious that Tyler Kennedy fell out of favor in Pittsburgh last season, seeing his ice time cut by nearly two full minutes per game from the year prior. With less of an opportunity from the coaching staff and without his longtime center Jordan Staal, Kennedy struggled through a dismal half-season but did manage to score twice in the nine playoff games he drew into the lineup for.

This Season: Clearly, the Sharks are banking on a rebound season from the erstwhile Penguins winger and it was a wise bet to make. In the five seasons prior to last, Kennedy was both a productive even-strength scorer and a player capable of pushing play forward across a wide array of circumstances. He was a useful cog on a shutdown line with Jordan Staal for years and he'll be expected to play that role again alongside Marleau and Couture.

Key Stat: Only Alexanders Ovechkin and Semin have averaged more even-strength shot attempts at net per minute than Kennedy over the past five seasons.

2nd line

LW - Tomas Hertl

Age: 19 Height: 6-2 Weight: 210
Contract Status: $1,350,000 cap hit through 2015-16
2013 Stats: 43 GP, 18G, 12A, 30P (Slavia Praha CZE)

Last Season: Hertl is coming off an outstanding season in the Czech Republic's top men's league where the 19-year-old finished 22nd in goals despite missing time to participate in the World Junior Championships, where he scored five points in six games (including an overtime winner) as Team Czech Republic advanced to the quarterfinals.

This Season: The most highly-touted Sharks rookie since Couture, there's a degree of pressure on Hertl largely uncharacteristic of an organization that has subscribed to the Detroit method of allowing prospects ample development time. But Hertl's dominance over a top-flight men's league and the Sharks' injuries up front means he's penciled into the second-line left wing spot vacated by T.J. Galiardi and expected to produce at a Calder-caliber level in protected minutes alongside one of the league's best playmakers and a burgeoning power forward.

Key Stat: Among 2012 first-rounders, only Nail Yakupov and overager Tanner Pearson scored at a higher NHL-equivalent rate than Hertl in their draft year.

C - Joe Thornton

Age: 34 Height: 6-4 Weight: 225
Contract Status: $7,000,000 cap hit through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 7G, 33A, 40P, 18:22 ATOI, 54.4% 5v5 Corsi, 1.62 5v5 P/60, 6.64 P/60

Last Season: It's easy to overlook the fact that Thornton led the Sharks in scoring last season. But it was his effort in the playoffs that really turned heads. Thornton was easily the team's best player in their seven-game second round loss to L.A. and, although he was admittedly put in situations to succeed by his coaching staff, he made the best of them and proved that there's still a lot left in the Jumbo tank.

This Season: Thornton and his linemates will once again be given every chance to do what the Sharks often failed to do last season: score at even-strength. With the Couture line drawing tougher matchups, Thornton and company will be expected to take advantage of more favorable minutes. The captain also remains the engine of one of the best power plays in the NHL and he'll once again get plenty of ice time in that game state.

Key Stat: Since 2007, only Alex Ovechkin has scored more power play points than Thornton.

RW - Brent Burns

Age: 28 Height: 6-5 Weight: 230
Contract Status: $5,760,000 cap hit through 2016-17
2013 Stats: 30 GP, 9G, 11A, 20P, 16:16 ATOI, 55.5% 5v5 Corsi, 2.49 5v5 P/60, 3.13 5v4 P/60

Last Season: After a shaky start to the year in the aftermath of a return from injury, followed by another stint on the sidelines, longtime defenseman Burns eventually made his way back to the Sharks lineup in mid-March as a forward. The move drew widespread skepticism at the time but it turned out to be crazy enough to work, and work well. Burns quickly established himself as one of the team's most dynamic forwards in years and was able to carve out his own niche outside the boundaries of the Sharks' sometimes-constraining system to do his thing and score his goals.

This Season: The question on which much of the Sharks' hopes for offensive improvement rests is whether or not Burns can continue to be the same explosive presence up front that he was last season. If the experiment was a half-season fluke, San Jose will be even more starved for even-strength offense than they already were. On the other hand, if Burns can light the lamp 25-30 times while helping his linemates control things territorially, the Sharks could be among the NHL's elite.

Key Stat: In 301 even-strength minutes up front last season, Burns averaged 3.39 points per 60. On a per-minute basis, only Sidney Crosby scored at a higher rate in 2013 among forwards who logged at least 300 even-strength minutes.

3rd line

LW - Matthew Nieto

Age: 20 Height: 5-11 Weight: 190
Contract Status: $950,000 cap hit through 2015-16
2013 Stats: 39 GP, 18G, 19A, 37P (Boston University NCAA)

Last Season: In his junior season with Boston University, Nieto was one of the Terriers' best players. He's a high-energy forward with terrific wheels, which is good considering that description also applies to the player he's replacing in Raffi Torres. Unlike Torres, Nieto isn't overly physical and his size could prove to be an issue but it certainly wasn't an impediment to him having an effective eleven-game stint in the AHL after turning pro.

This Season: Nieto was not realistically expected to make the big club's lineup out of training camp this year but injuries to Torres, Havlat and Adam Burish opened up a window of opportunity that the 21-year-old forward leaped through. Penciled onto Pavelski's left wing, Nieto will be expected to help drive play and provide a level of offense similar to what the Sharks would have received from Torres.

Key Stat: Nieto's 18 goals for the Terriers last season ranked 17th in all of college hockey.

C - Joe Pavelski

Age: 29 Height: 5-11 Weight: 190
Contract Status: $4,000,000 cap hit through 2013-14; $6,000,000 cap hit 2014-19
2013 Stats: 48 GP, 16G, 15A, 31P, 18:54 ATOI, 52.9% 5v5 Corsi, 1.72 5v5 P/60, 3.82 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Aside from a dry spell from February through mid-March that coincided with the team as a whole being unable to score, Pavelski was his usual penalty-killing, power-play-point-manning, play-driving, goal-scoring, faceoff-dominating self. He was also dominant against Vancouver in the playoffs.

This Season: Like Couture, Pavelski inked a five-year, $30 million extension over the summer and as a result is in it for the long haul. He'll spend this season as a third-line center in name only; while he's technically third on the team's center depth chart, he'll certainly get his ice time on both special teams units and even-strength shifts in the top six when the team is trailing late in games.

Key Stat: Since 2008, the seventeen Sharks who have spent the most even-strength ice time alongside Pavelski have each posted better possession numbers with him than without him.

RW - Tommy Wingels

Age: 25 Height: 6-0 Weight: 200
Contract Status: $775,000 cap hit through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 42 GP, 5G, 8A, 13P, 14:14 ATOI, 48.7% 5v5 Corsi, 1.27 5v5 P/60, 2.24 5v4 P/60

Last Season: In most respects, last season was a letdown for Tommy Wingels after a great 33-game stint as a rookie in 2011-12. Wingels' goal-scoring rate slightly improved but has yet to really match the promise of his AHL and college numbers. Furthermore, after being one of the Sharks' best possession forwards the prior year, Wingels was one of their worst in 2013.

This Season: With a spot in the top nine in the bag, at least until Havlat and Torres are both healthy, Wingels needs to be more productive than he has been through the first two years of his NHL career and needs to return to being the effective two-way player he was as a rookie. Skating alongside Pavelski instead of Michal Handzus should certainly help things along.

Key Stat: Wingels' 115 hits last season led the Sharks. He, on the other hand, was hit just 57 times for a +58 "hit +/-," also the highest on the team.

4th line

LW - James Sheppard

Age: 24 Height: 6-1 Weight: 205
Contract Status: $830,000 cap hit through 2013-14
2013 Stats: 32 GP, 1G, 3A, 4P, 11:44 ATOI, 49.8% 5v5 Corsi, 0.66 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Brought in as a reclamation project during the summer of 2011, James Sheppard finally skated his first shift in the NHL since 2010 last season. When he drew into the lineup, he was a passable fourth liner often using his big frame to effectively protect the puck on the wall and generally being unafraid to drive the net. While he didn't provide much additional value in terms of offensive contributions, penalty killing or penalty drawing, he proved capable of eating minutes without hurting the team.

This Season: A former first round pick, Sheppard probably isn't going to start living up to his draft potential any time soon but he could very well be a more important piece of the puzzle than previously assumed. The fourth line was an area of concern for the Sharks throughout the year--except when it was comprised by Sheppard, Desjardins and Scott Gomez. Gomez is gone but if the team can find a suitable replacement within the system or elsewhere, Sheppard might see the offensive zone more often and be able to make things happen. If not, more of the same would be just fine from #15.

Key Stat: Sheppard went 1,020 days between appearing in NHL games.

C - Andrew Desjardins

Age: 27 Height: 6-1 Weight: 195
Contract Status: $750,000 cap hit through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 42 GP, 2G, 1A, 3P, 10:07 ATOI, 48.4% 5v5 Corsi, 0.48 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: While his production wasn't up to the standard set in his rookie season, Desjardins was still the prototypical energy-line center last year; he was dominant in the faceoff circle, consistently finished checks, capably contributed to the penalty kill, wasn't afraid to use his skating ability to take risks at the opposing blueline and, above all, agitated the living hell out of opposing players.

This Season: If Desjardins can channel his 2011-12 self, when he was one of the best fourth-line centers in the league, that would be terrific. If not, the step below that he operated at in 2013 would be fine too. Ultimately, it was never really Desjardins who was the problem with the Sharks' fourth line when it struggled last season. He's a low-maintenance faceoff ace who sticks up for his teammates and occasionally scores goals like this one.

What's not to like?

Key Stat: Desjardins drew 1.8 penalties per 60 minutes last season which tied him for 13th in the league in that category.

RW - Matt Pelech

Age: 26 Height: 6-4 Weight: 230
Contract Status: $550,000 cap hit through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 2 GP, 0G, 0A, 0P, 9:03 ATOI, 0.10% Corsi, 0.00 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Pelech punched faces.

This Season: Pelech will punch more faces.

Key Stat: Despite appearing in just 58 games with Worcester, Matt Pelech's 238 penalty minutes ranked 5th in the AHL last season. Hooray.

On the shelf

RW - Martin Havlat

Age: 32 Height: 6-2 Weight: 210
Contract Status: $5,000,000 cap hit through 2014-15
2013 Stats: 40 GP, 8G, 10A, 18P, 15:50 ATOI, 52.3% 5v5 Corsi, 1.64 5v5 P/60, 2.71 5v4 P/60

Last Season: When Havlat was in the lineup, he wasn't that bad. Granted, "wasn't that bad" isn't the type of performance you're looking for from a player with a $5 million cap hit and, at least in the playoffs, Havlat was never really in the lineup. But he did play 40 regular season games and his even-strength production over that span was topped on the team only by Burns, Couture and Pavelski. He was a plus-possession player and was far and away the most effective right wing Marleau and Couture played with in their time together. The negatives are that he was terrible on the power play, appeared in about eight minutes of playoff action and begins the year on injured reserve.

This Season: It's an open question as to when Havlat will return to the lineup. He skated at the team's practice facility throughout training camp and told reporters he feels well enough in the aftermath of his offseason pelvic surgery to draw into the lineup. Doug Wilson disagreed but did confirm that Havlat will be back at some point this season. When that happens, he should reclaim his spot on Couture's right wing with that reunited trio hopefully as effective in all three zones as they were late last year.

Key Stat: Since joining the team, Havlat ranks first on the Sharks in 5v5 Goals For%.

LW - Raffi Torres

Age: 31 Height: 6-0 Weight: 210
Contract Status: $2,000,000 cap hit through 2015-16
2013 Stats: 39 GP, 7G, 11A, 18P, 13:16 ATOI, 51.1% 5v5 Corsi, 2.15 5v5 P/60, 1.43 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Traded to the Sharks minutes before the 2013 trade deadline, franchise villain Torres was a surprisingly effective third-liner. Even ignoring his abrasive on-ice presence, Torres possessed a legitimate scoring touch in his stint with the Sharks and even earned a promotion to the top line during the playoffs in the aftermath of Havlat's injury. Of course, his postseason was eventually cut short by a suspension in the second round.

This Season: After signing a three-year, $6 million contract over the summer to stay in San Jose, Torres injured his ACL five minutes into his first preseason game as a Shark and is slated to be out for anywhere from three to five months. When he returns, it's likely he takes Nieto's spot on the third line (contingent on whether or not Havlat is back by that point) where he'll be expected to chip in offense, drive play and forecheck. And maybe not try to kill anyone this time.

Key Stat: Since 2008, only 50 qualifying forwards have averaged more even-strength goals per minute than Torres.

RW - Adam Burish

Age: 30 Height: 6-1 Weight: 195
Contract Status: $1,850,000 cap hit through 2015-16
2013 Stats: 46 GP, 1G, 2A, 3P, 10:34 ATOI, 44.1% 5v5 Corsi, 0.29 5v5 P/60, 0.00 5v4 P/60

Last Season: Burish's first season in teal after signing that ill-advised (on the Sharks' behalf, not Burish's) 4-year, $7.4 million contract was mostly disastrous. He dragged down essentially everyone he shared the ice with at even-strength, wasn't the effective penalty killer he had been billed as and was a complete non-factor offensively. He was terrific at drawing penalties, which does have a lot of value for a team that relies as heavily on their power play as the Sharks, and had a great Game 6 against L.A.

This Season: Burish played in the Sharks' first preseason game but none of the subsequent ones due to "bumps and bruises." That unspecified injury will keep him out of the opener but he almost certainly has a shorter road to recovery than Torres or Havlat. When he returns, hopefully he can provide play closer to that from his 2011-12 season with Dallas which presumably earned him that contract. If he can't, the Sharks' fourth line will likely continue to be a weakness.

Key Stat: Burish drew 19 penalties last season, more than any other Shark.