Will New Look on the Bench Equal Success?
The San Jose Sharks went to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011, and in between saw a number of their top players skate in the 2010 Olympics. That's a lot of hockey in a short span, and general manager Doug Wilson believes that was one factor for the team's slide to seventh in the conference last season and loss in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But rather than dwell on last season's struggles, Wilson is embracing the positives. Could a longer offseason actually be a good thing?
"Going to the final four two years in a row and the Olympics thrown in, maybe if [players] got rest this summer and rehabbed, they come back healthy and in great shape, it may be a good thing out of a bad situation," Wilson told NHL.com.
To help improve his club's situation for the 2012-13 season, Wilson chose to reshape the team's identity.
"We did a pretty honest evaluation of our team," Wilson said. "Certainly penalty killing is an issue, consistency is an issue, but being able to play against top teams tells us we're capable of it, we just didn't get it done. We made some changes and we'll adjust how we play in certain areas."
The numbers bear out Wilson's comments -- the Sharks were 13-10-2 against the 10 teams to top 100 points last season and had winning records against seven of them. So he felt tweaks, rather than a full-scale overhaul, was the direction that made the most sense.
Leading the way was a reshuffling of the coaching staff. Added to the bench alongside coach Todd McLellan was associate coach Larry Robinson and assistant coach Jim Johnson.
Robinson is a six-time Stanley Cup champion as a player who added three more titles as part of the New Jersey Devils' coaching staff.
"His resume speaks for itself, so I don't need to get into that," Wilson said the day Robinson was hired. "There's nobody in this business I respect more as a player, as a coach, and as a person than Larry. It's a very exciting day for our organization."
The biggest area Robinson could help is on the penalty kill, where the Sharks ranked 29th in the League last season with a 79.6-percent success rate.
"We like to play an aggressive style and go after people and make people try and defend against us," Wilson said of the man-down strategy. "For whatever reason, our penalty kill became a little passive and reactive."
Robinson said, "I do have a few ideas and a few things that hopefully will help it move up the ranks. This League is a specialty league, so you can win and lose games with your power play and your penalty kill. There are definitely things that we can work on."
Also helping will be the return of a healthy Michal Handzus. Handzus played in 2011-12 through the loss of best friend Pavol Demitra in the Lokomotiv plane crash -- Handzus was the best man at Demitra's wedding -- as well as a painful hip and groin injury. When fully healthy two seasons ago with the Los Angeles Kings, Handzus used his 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame to help them finish fourth in the League on the PK.
Another area Wilson is hoping to improve is ice-time balance. Last season, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau were among the top four forwards on the team in even-strength, power-play and shorthanded ice time, and Joe Thornton and Logan Couture weren't far behind.
"I think it's important to be a four-line hockey team," Wilson said. "You look at the two teams in the  Stanley Cup Final, they got a lot of mileage out of their fourth line. It enables other people to do certain things, and coaching up all your players is a real important part of being successful in this League. We believe strongly in our staff having the ability to do that."
One player the coaching staff hopefully will get a longer chance to work with is Martin Havlat, who was limited to 39 games after tearing his hamstring climbing over the boards during a game in December.
How important was Havlat to the Sharks? They were 25-11-3 with him in the lineup, and 18-18-7 without him. When Havlat returned to the lineup March 17 after missing three months with the hamstring tear, San Jose went 9-4-0 to finish the season, going from a point out of a playoff spot to a more secure position.
"Marty is an important player for us," Wilson said. "If you look at our record with him in the lineup it was very good. We missed him. … Having him back 100-percent healthy will make a big difference. He's trained all summer and looks tremendous. He's an important part of this team."
Another important part of the team looking forward to a better second season is defenseman Brent Burns. The big blueliner arrived in San Jose after a career-best 17-goal, 46-point season with the Wild in 2010-11, but had 11 goals and 37 points last season.
With the addition of Robinson, plus a year of experience in San Jose under his belt, Wilson is predicting big things for Burns, who had offseason surgery to correct a sports hernia.
"He cares so much," Wilson said. "Sometimes your heart gets in the way of your head. He was so excited to be here and he wanted to do everything that he could. Sometimes less is more to be more efficient. I think we will get the best out of him this upcoming year."
More is expected from the entire group.
"A lot of our players are in the primes of their careers," Wilson said, "so I think they're really excited about getting back at it."
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor