I'm picking my San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup this season. This is partially because I'm a Sharks fan, but mainly because of several offseason improvements they made to bolster a team that made back-to-back Western Conference Final appearances in 2010 and 2011.
If you're one of my San Diego peeps, you can think of the Sharks as the Chargers of the NHL. They boast one of the best rosters year after year but fall just short in the postseason. This year that changes, and it's going to be to the surprise of many.
As of 1/19/13, the odds of San Jose winning the Stanley Cup this year is 25-1, the 13th-most likely champion out of the NHL's 30 teams. Someone messed up.
Let's look at the past to see how we got to this point.
After reaching the NHL's equivalent of the Final Four in 2010 and 2011, the Sharks realized that they needed to upgrade their defense. So, they made two trades that significantly affected their 2011-12 season. First, they sent second-line forward Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota for Brent Burns, a first-line playmaking defenseman with size and an elite skill set. Defensemen like Burns don't come along too often, so you are fortunate when the opportunity comes along to acquire one.
The Sharks then made a separate deal with Minnesota less than a month later, exchanging first-line winger and former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, one of the fastest skaters in the NHL who can pass well and play well defensively.
Between those two trades, the Sharks traded away two of their top six forwards for a top forward and a top defenseman. Since the Sharks had other scoring contributors like Jamie McGinn waiting for their shot on the top scoring lines, the trades made sense and gave San Jose a paper roster even better than one that took them just short of a final appearance. I thought the Sharks could go 62-20 that year, but then Martin Havlat got injured and missed almost the entire season. With Havlat injured, the Sharks had essentially removed two 30-goal scorers from their lineup in Heatley and Setoguchi without replacing them. As the Sharks proved during the 2011-12 season, most teams would struggle under those circumstances.
The Sharks led the Pacific Division race on Jan. 1 but were in danger of missing the playoffs come March. Then Havlat returned and helped them finish with a 43-29-10 record and 96 total points, good for the No. 7 seed in the loaded Western Conference. Keep in mind that the defending champion Kings were the No. 8 seed. That speaks to the quality of competition in the conference -- and the importance of having a great postseason from your goalie.
People used to fear the Sharks, now they're writing them off like they had a terrible season. They are good, they just didn't have Havlat last year so they lost a bunch of scoring. It's a simple concept.
Back to the present, everyone is healthy and the Sharks are poised to dominate.
Marleau-Thornton-Couture: Three All-Stars.
Clowe-Pavelski-Havlat: Excellent chemistry and a mix of speed and size.
Galiardi-Handzus-Wingels: Needs to be dependable. This line's success could take team from good to great.
McLaren-Desjardins-Burish: They hit people.
Vlasic-Boyle: A Norris Trophy candidate and a Cup-winning veteran with scoring.
Burns-Murray: Burns is 6-5, 225. Murray is 6-3, 245.
Stuart-Braun: Stuart was on the top defensive unit in Detroit. He's only a third-liner in San Jose.
Antii Niemi: He carried the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2010. He also let in soft goals last year. The team has his back, but this is his last year to get the job done. If he's unbeatable in the postseason, so will be the Sharks.
Thomas Greiss: He has shown flashes of greatness, but not consistently enough to be considered a starter.
Alex Stalock: He was considered the undisputed heir to the starting job until a skate cut the back of his knee and damaged his nerves back in February 2011. He's a wild card for the backup role later in the season.
The Sharks struggled at different times with their scoring, their defense and the penalty kill. The offensive woes have been explained and are taken care of. The defense and penalty kill, which go hand-in-hand, will make a dramatic improvement this season because of another offseason acquisition.
On July 8, the Sharks hired Hall of Famer Larry Robinson as an associate coach. He won six Stanley Cups as a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, one as a head coach for the Devils, and two more as an assistant coach, also with the Devils. Beyond that, he just helped New Jersey to a Finals appearance this last summer. His teams win.
The hiring of Robinson, more than anything else, is why the Sharks will win the Stanley Cup this year. He's going to take a penalty kill unit that finished an abysmal 29th last year and make it top-10 (His Devils were No. 1 in PK last season). He's going to take a defense that was already No. 10 in fewest goals against last season and make it top five.
The Sharks were bad last season by their own expectations, but they still got 96 points and made the playoffs. With the additions of Havlat and Robinson, the Sharks have what it takes to make this strike-shortened season memorable in San Jose.
I expect the Sharks to win the Pacific Division, defeat the Kings in the Western Conference Finals, and get past the Boston Bruins in seven games to win their first Stanley Cup Championship.