Goaltending Antti Niemi has consistently been a very good NHL goaltender since he emerged for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, and last season gave no indication that Niemi is about to lose that status. Niemi’s career numbers include a 2.36 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. Last year’s numbers: a 2.39 goals against average and a .913 save percentage, very close to his career statistics. Niemi might never be the best goaltender in the league, but he’s consistently in the top ten. There is some intrigue, however, from the emergence of Alex Stalock as a secondary option. Stalock only played 24 games last year, but his numbers were spectacular: a 1.87 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. Stalock was sensational in relief, so much so that San Jose went to him in the postseason when Niemi started struggling. Not bad for a player with just 27 career appearances going in. Expect Niemi to begin the season as the starter, with Stalock ready in case Niemi’s numbers dip. Power Play Much like the division rival Anaheim Ducks, the Sharks were a team that didn’t have many weaknesses last season, but struggled on the power play in particular. After four consecutive seasons of converting power plays at a rate of 20 percent or above, the Sharks dipped to just 17.2 last year. With a handful of scoring forwards and a pair of skilled offensive defensemen, there was no reason to suspect that San Jose might have that kind of problem. It’s most likely that this is just a blip. Brent Burns should be able to fill the void left by Dan Boyle’s departure, and with Tomas Hertl back in the lineup, the Sharks are not lacking for scoring forwards either, especially with the creativity of Joe Thornton at the center position. Expect San Jose’s power play to return to form and be a team strength once again this season. Penalty Kill Joe Thorton PHOTO/NHL/Getty Images The penalty kill was a strength for San Jose last year, ranking 6th in the NHL with a success rate of 84.9 percent. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun combine to be a tough duo good at closing in on opponents and separating them from the puck. It helps that forwards like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau have strong two-way skills as well. This is an area where playing Brent Burns at forward was a particular advantage. Burns has the scoring skills needed to thrive on the wing, but also has the experience of a defenseman in shorthanded situations. Burns will be back on the blue line this season, but the Sharks have a deep roster of players who are good playing both ways. Add in two strong goaltenders in Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock, and the pieces are in place for the Sharks to be good on the penalty kill once again. Three Questions 1. Should the Sharks promote Alex Stalock over Antti Niemi? While Stalock was phenomenal in limited action for the Sharks last year, it’s important to remember that it was just limited action. Stalock posted a 1.87 goals against average in 24 games, but that number would likely increase if Stalock was forced to take on a bigger workload. Niemi is a proven high-level performer in net, and until his performance drops off, there’s no reason to demote him. 2. Can the veteran forwards keep up their high level of performance? Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau each enter the season at 35 years old, but they’ve been very consistent performers for quite a few years now. Plenty of NHL players remain excellent until they approach the age of 40, so there’s no reason to think Thornton and Marleau are about to decline. 3. Will the Sharks finally break through in the playoffs? Perhaps no fan base in sports has been more tortured than San Jose’s the last ten seasons. While the Sharks figure to be a very good team again, their roster hasn’t been improved from last year’s squad. Unless a young player like Matt Nieto emerges as an all-star caliber performer, it’s hard to imagine the Sharks getting past the Kings or Blackhawks in the postseason. Prediction One of the safest bets in sports over the past ten years has been to pick the Sharks to make the playoffs and then lose. There’s no reason to expect anything different this year. The Sharks are good at everything but great at nothing, which is a recipe for another heartbreaking playoff defeat.
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