SJ SharksYesterday on the round table we did away with any bad taste still lingering from the Sharks’ early playoff exit last season. Although Todd McLellan took heavy fire for San Jose’s pitiful showing against the St. Louis Blues, it seems certain that the fifth year coach’s job is safe, especially in a short 48-game season. Antti Niemi is another man who can breathe easy according to the boys, as many of his past struggles can probably be attributed to the defense skating in front of him. The key to keeping both McLellan and Niemi’s seats cold appears to be the addition of assistant coach Larry Robinson, who will be integral in patching up the Sharks’ penalty kill and making the team better in the process.

According to Kevin Kurz, the Sharks are expected to open training camp this Sunday and the season is slated to begin on January 20th against the Flames in Calgary. This is of course tentative, and won’t be official until the players vote to ratify the new CBA. The owners approved it today by a unanimous vote of 30-0, and the players are expected to vote either Friday or Saturday.

In celebration of what looks like this lockout’s official closure, we look ahead with the help of the best Sharks writers around.

Brodie Brazil is the Sharks sideline reporter for Comcast SportsNet California, as well as one of CSN’s Sharks insiders. His forte may be hockey, but he’s a jack of all trades, often anchoring SportsNet Central on CSN Bay Area and co-hosting on 95.7 The Game. You can follow him on Twitter @brodiebrazilCSN and find his writings on CSNBayArea.com.

Kevin Kurz is a Sharks insider for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Before coming to the Bay Area to focus on the Sharks, Kurz spent two years as a digital content producer at Comcast Sports Group’s Philadelphia affiliate and served in several different capacities for PhiladelphiaFlyers.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KKurzCSN and find his writings on CSNBayArea.com.

Derek T is the managing editor of Fear the Fin, SBNation’s hub for everything San Jose Sharks. He runs FTF’s twitter handle with objectivity and snark rivaled by no one, and his knowledge on the team in teal runs deep. You can follow him on Twitter @Fearthefin and he writes as “The Neutral” on Fearthefin.com.

 

Are there any guys in Worcester looking poised to break out in San Jose this year?

Brodie: I’ll be interested in seeing if the Sharks give James Sheppard a good look in camp.  This is his first “regular” season back from that terrible ATV accident, and he’s done pretty well in the AHL with 21 points in 33 games.  Here’s something to consider about all current AHL players in general: they have a leg up on even a lot of the NHL’ers because they’ve been competing at a relatively high level on regulation sized rinks in regular time zones for the past 4 months.

Kevin: James Sheppard is playing well down there, and he would be a great story if he came up and had an effective season after two years off. Other names that could crack the NHL lineup are Matt Irwin and Matt Tennyson on the blue line.

Derek: There are still two holes in San Jose’s lineup up front and it seems like a good bet they will be filled by whichever Worcester forwards impress the Sharks’ revamped coaching staff during training camp. 5’10” spark plug Tim Kennedy has turned heads in Massachusetts so far this season, leading the Worcester Sharks with 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games. He has also benefited from a rather inflated 23.1% shooting percentage and is a 26-year-old who has yet to stick in the NHL as a regular, so I have my doubts that he’s right for the big club. James Sheppard, acquired from Minnesota for a third round pick two summers ago, is second on the team in scoring and the likely favorite to claim a spot on the Sharks’ opening night roster. John McCarthy, who has enjoyed cups of coffee in San Jose each of the past two seasons, is another contender. It’s very unlikely any of these players will make large impacts in the NHL this season though.

 

Last year the Kings came out of nowhere to take the Stanley Cup, much to the chagrin of Sharks fans. It may be too early to say, but who do you think poses the biggest threat to the Sharks in the Pacific Division the Western Conference this year? 

Brodie: Let me put it to you this way: last year, the Minnesota Wild went 20-7-3 to begin the season.  After a full 82 games they missed even qualifying for the playoffs by 15 points.  Almost any team could get hot, ride the wave and be in grand position to challenge for the division and/or conference this year.  But things will change in the postseason.  I think the playoffs with best-of-seven formats will actually be more normalized and a truer test of teams.  The only difference is that after a grueling 48 game experience, how banged up or beat down will players be heading into the second season?

Kevin: In the Pacific Division, I’d still say the Kings are the favorites. I still see the Canucks, Kings, Blues and Blackhawks as the best in the West, but I do expect the Sharks to make the playoffs.

Derek: The Kings have to be the presumptive favorites in the division heading into the season, not just because they won the Cup, but the dominance they displayed while doing so. After swapping out Terry Murray behind the bench for former Sharks coach Darryl Sutter, the Kings were nearly unstoppable last season and only improved when they dumped defensive liability Jack Johnson at the trade deadline while picking up former 40-goal scorer Jeff Carter. With a surplus of top-six forwards, the best young defenseman in the NHL and one of the better goaltenders in the league, there are really no holes on Los Angeles’ roster. At the same time, anything can happen in a 48-game season and I really won’t be too surprised by any of the five teams in the division claiming the title.

 

How will the salary cap changes in 2013-14 affect the Sharks?

Brodie: It’s going to be interesting.  That season is the final year where the Sharks are locked into big players (Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Boyle).  Assuming a $64.3M cap, Doug Wilson might have to get creative with the surrounding cast or shed one or more of the heavier contracts via a trade.

Kevin: It will be a tight squeeze. I figure they will want to re-sign Ryane Clowe, and they may be forced to shed some salary either with a trade or amnesty buyout to fill their roster. It should be an interesting summer.

Derek: They’ll certainly have a lesser impact on the Sharks now that the cap ceiling has reportedly been set at $64.3 million rather than the owners’ proposal of $60 million. Still, the Sharks will only have $10 million in cap space with which to sign 9 players, including Ryane Clowe or a replacement top-six forward, meaning they’ll likely have to shed salary somewhere. It’s difficult to make the case that an amnesty buyout, of which every team will be granted two, is the way to go about doing that however. If the team decides to begin an arduous rebuilding process this summer, it will be highly preferable to receive assets in exchange for Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Martin Havlat or Dan Boyle than to buy them out and get nothing. Even if San Jose wants no part of rebuilding, unless they plan on icing a fairly bare-bones roster for a year, Boyle (as the only player of those four without a no-movement clause) might need to be traded to clear space.

 

Most importantly: How far do you think the Sharks will go this season?

Brodie: Even with the altered format of the schedule and reduced games, I still see the Sharks as unquestionably receiving an invitation to the playoffs.  I hesitate to speculate further than that because as evidenced every year, the postseason requires a certain amount of “luck” to continue advancing.  As long as the Sharks are knocking on the proverbial door to a Cup run, I’m not sure how much more you can ask.  Eventually their challenge will be answered.

Derek: This is a tough question to answer, just due to the uncertainties inherent in a 48-game schedule. If the Sharks can fix their penalty kill and Doug Wilson overhauls the team’s third line, they’re about as good as anyone in the Western Conference. If those things don’t happen, they’ll remain a step behind Vancouver, Los Angeles and St. Louis, making any playoff series against one of those teams a difficult one to win. So if the team solves its two outstanding problems, I’d be willing to bet a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is in the cards. If they aren’t able to, a second-round exit seems more likely as they would probably have to face the Canucks, Kings or Blues at that point.

Kevin hasn’t made a prediction yet but he’s going to be making one soon. Be sure to check  his Sharks blog on CSNBayArea.com to see what he thinks.

A very special thanks to Brodie Brazil, Kevin Kurz and Derek T for their generous contributions to this round table. Be sure to follow all three of them and, of course, BASG for great coverage on the Sharks’ upcoming season!