San Jose Sharks hope changes on bench create more bite on ice

Bruce Bennett

The Sharks did little to change their on-ice product this offseason, but they hope that slight tweaks on the bench will help them reach the promised land.

After the San Jose Sharks finished seventh in the Western Conference and were eliminated from the playoffs in five games by St. Louis, there was much speculation about the franchise's future.

Would Todd McLellan stay on as head coach? Was the first-round exit the impetus for a major trade to shake up the team's core?

Instead, the Sharks did little to change the on-ice product. General manager Doug Wilson chose to retain McLellan, but there were changes on the head coach's staff. In came longtime NHL coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, along with former NHL defenseman and Washington assistant Jim Johnson.

It's those changes that could spur San Jose on a run back toward the top of the West.

The pieces are certainly there on the ice. The Sharks are strong down the middle with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Michal Handzus as the top three centers. Martin Havlat, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski provide scoring from the wings. The defense is deep and talented, and the Sharks are goalie-rich, led by 2010 Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi.

This core group wasn't touched during the offseason, though it had to be tempting for Wilson. Despite having tons of talent all over the ice, San Jose just hasn't been able to crack the playoff code. The Sharks have been to the West final two times, and they've twice beaten the Red Wings in the playoffs over the last few years. However, the next step -- getting to a Stanley Cup Final -- has proven elusive to this point.

With an impressive group of defensemen for Robinson to work with, it's possible that San Jose could be as good at that end of the ice as it's ever been. The Sharks might not play run-and-gun hockey, but it could turn into a winning formula quickly.

Offseason changes / New additions

Wilson didn't do much to the roster, adding former Detroit defender Brad Stuart and two-way character forward Adam Burish.

Stuart was a nice pickup, as he is likely to mix right into San Jose's top four. He isn't an offensive juggernaut, but he will probably either be paired with Brent Burns or Dan Boyle. With that kind of guy as a partner, Stuart doesn't have to score much to be effective.

Burish probably takes a third-line role, most likely the one vacated by Torrey Mitchell, who took a three-year deal with the Wild.

Robinson's addition on the bench means the Sharks are likely to get more out of their defensemen than ever before. Johnson worked with Dale Hunter last year, and there weren't many players tougher than him during his NHL career.

The staff changes likely don't change much for the forwards, outside of perhaps a greater emphasis on their defensive responsibilities. It does signal that the Sharks understand what they have to improve at if they are to chase down the NHL's brass ring, a ring that's eluded the organization over its first 20-plus years in the league.

It's up to McLellan and his players now. Wilson clearly feels like he's done what he has to do for this team to win.

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