Craig Custance chats with rival scouts and players to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks are no longer the favorite to emerge from the Western Conference like they were when guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were in their prime, but there's now a healthy respect for this team in hockey circles that comes when a team matures, evolves and adds talented young players like San Jose is integrating.
The tweaks Doug Wilson made at the deadline makes San Jose a faster team and one a few have circled as an unheralded group capable of making a run.
"The darkhorse for me is San Jose," said one Western Conference coach. "They're getting goaltending, they're getting secondary scoring and everybody is forgetting about them."
They've adjusted their style of play and it could be more conducive to playoff success.
"They're doing the numbers thing down low. They've got some big bodies to help out on forward with that," said the coach. "If your two guys are down there and the third forward is high -- collapse. It would be us three against you two and our two would take care of the three up high. That's the way the game has gone. It's numbers. New Jersey did it in the finals. St. Louis did it a little last year. Everything changes. You have to evolve."
The Sharks are evolving and have positioned themselves as a group quietly capable of surprising in the West.
"If they get by the first round, look out," said a longtime scout.
KEY STRENGTH: In Antti Niemi, the Sharks have a goalie who was one of the NHL's most consistent during the regular season. Goalie is a question mark for a number of Western Conference contenders -- including the Ducks, Blackhawks, Blues and Canucks. It's not a problem for the Sharks. Niemi finished the season tied for the league lead in wins and his .924 save percentage put him firmly in the top 10 all season.
"There's two things there. Niemi won a Cup and Logan Couture is unbelievable," said the scout. "He's better than Thornton, Marleau, the whole bunch." One Western Conference player noticed the Sharks were playing a more conservative system in front of Niemi when they faced San Jose this season.
"They used to be heavy attack, more pressure and they seemed to sit back and trap a little bit more than I've ever seen them," said the forward. "They're playing tight, just trying to score on their opportunities. They have enough talent to do so. Defensively, they were tough to get inside on. That's always difficult."