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Sharks look to shift culture in San Jose

When the Sharks shut out the Winnipeg Jets 3-0 in their home opener Saturday night, from Todd McLellan‘s postgame comments, one might have thought his team was blanked.

McLellan said the 0-for-8 power play “sucked the life out” of the team, adding that his Sharks were “stubborn,” a “work in progress,” and “weren’t close to being the better team” in the second and third periods.

Call it what you may — focusing on improvements, not overreacting to an undefeated start to the season — but such is the thought process for a coach leading a tenuous group unsure of what the future holds.

Even before last season, the Sharks were infamously known for bowing out early in the playoffs despite regular season success. The 2013-2014 campaign ratcheted the perception to a whole new level, after an 111-point regular season collapsed into a blown 3-0 series lead and loss to the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.

The atmosphere in San Jose is different from years past. Yes, 17,500 fans still sell out SAP Center on a nightly basis. Yes, the Sharks still have an immensely talented and deep team with much of the same core. And yes, they will probably make the playoffs for the 11th straight season.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Gone is the letter “C” on Joe Thornton‘s jersey; instead, he and three wear associate captain badges as the Sharks go captain-less, for now.

Gone are past-their-prime veterans Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, as the Sharks gradually look to hand off the leadership responsibilities to younger players.

But if the Sharks really want change, what must also go are players’ egos. General Manager Doug Wilson told reporters that after last season, several players said that they were working as co-workers and not teammates.

After stressing in the offseason that the Sharks would go into a “rebuild” with changes made, Wilson drew criticism by doing very little to change the actual roster.

One argument goes that the Sharks were one game away from beating the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings, so that they most definitely have the talent to win a Cup. If they could just fix their chemistry, they might be able to string together a few more shots at the prize.

By looking at the Sharks’ lines early in the season, it appears the team is looking to intertwine veterans with youngsters. On the first forward line is Thornton centering Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, who could be due for a monster season after his rookie year was cut short.

Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Matt Nieto are on the second line, and Sharks hope Nieto can also build upon an impressive rookie campaign, which may not be hard given his linemates.

Tommy Wingels is the lone holdover on the third line, joined by rookie Chris Tierney and newcomer Tye McGinn. All three of these players are grinders, and it could be the X-factor line for the team. Andrew Desjardins, Adam Burish, and Mike Brown round out the forwards on the fourth line.

The defensive unit has also been revamped. Brent Burns is now a defenseman again, switching back from forward. He is paired with rookie and highly-touted prospect Mirco Mueller, and those two could create an interesting dynamic on the blue line.

Anchoring the defensive corps are Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, two stalwarts who have earned a spot on the top pairing. The third pairing consists of Scott Hannan and Jason Demers.

While not much has changed with the team’s core, the Sharks have brought in enough new faces and youngsters that they can mix-and-match lines and try to create a new dynamic.

Change has already backfired on the Sharks on the power play, ranked near the bottom third of league at 13.3 percent through three games.

While San Jose has lethal offensive weapons in Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, and Burns, they will have to adjust to the departure of Boyle, who quarterbacked the Sharks’ power play for many years. Boyle, an offensive-minded defensemen, led all Sharks’ defensemen with 18 power play points last season.

The Sharks have been guilty early on of being too “cute” on the man-advantage. With the amount of skill on this team, it should not be a huge struggle to score on the man-advantage merely by keeping a simple approach.

On the flipside, San Jose has allowed two power play goals on 11 opportunities. After finishing sixth in the league in penalty kill percentage at 84.9 percent last season, the Sharks shouldn’t have to make too many changes to this half of their special teams unit.

Another big change this season is in net, where Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock will split time in the crease.

Niemi has been the Sharks’ No. 1 starter for the past three seasons, but a strong rookie season from Stalock last year (12-5, 1.87 GAA) forced the Sharks’ hand.

Thus far, Niemi and Stalock have alternated starts: Niemi shut out the Kings in the season opener, Stalock did the same to the Jets in the home opener, and Niemi stymied the Capitals in the shootout in a Sharks’ 6-5 victory in the nation’s capital Tuesday night.

Both have said all the right things publicly, but it will be interesting to see how this affects Niemi’s future with the team, as he is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. If Stalock continues his strong play, the Sharks could look to trade Niemi at some point.

That decision will come down to the brain trust of Wilson and the Sharks’ coaching staff. While some called for a complete reformation of management following the playoff debacle against Los Angeles, Sharks’ majority owner Hasso Plattner kept Wilson as GM.

Wilson in turn did not fire McLellan or any of his associates or assistants — Larry Robinson, Jay Woodcroft, and Jim Johnson. The Sharks gave McLellan a contract extension prior to last season, the terms of which are unknown, but it is safe to say that he and the rest of the staff are on the hot seat.

McLellan’s predecessor, Ron Wilson, was fired in 2008 because he was unable to turn regular season success into playoff success.Based on that standard, McLellan has not fared much better.

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