Sharks return core group, optimistic for lockout-shortened season 

click to enlarge Sharks forward Ryane Clowe is well-aware of the expectations that meet the South Bay franchise after several failed postseason runs, saying, “We’ve got to win the Stanley Cup this year.” - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • Sharks forward Ryane Clowe is well-aware of the expectations that meet the South Bay franchise after several failed postseason runs, saying, “We’ve got to win the Stanley Cup this year.”

The puck finally drops on a new NHL season this weekend and a familiar Sharks team will get another crack at bringing the Stanley Cup to Northern California.

Despite a disappointing first-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring, the Sharks’ core nucleus remains intact as the team prepares to kick off the lockout-shortened 48-game season on the road against the Calgary Flames on Sunday.

“We all still believe,” forward Ryane Clowe said. “We know we’ve got to make hay this year. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to win the Stanley Cup this year. There’s no question about it.”

The Sharks’ front office brought in two new faces during the offseason. Former Sharks first-round pick Brad Stuart rejoins the team after six seasons away from the club to solidify the blue line. The team also added fourth-line toughness by signing veteran center Adam Burish.

But the team parted ways with Torrey Mitchell, who left the club in July to skate with the Minnesota Wild, and Dominic Moore, who is a free agent. But all the big names — Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Martin Havlat, Antti Niemi and Clowe — are back.

With only a week to prepare, Clowe said the Sharks should benefit from having the core lineup together.

“Everything’s so familiar,” he said. “When you’re coming out of the gates like that and you don’t even have any exhibition games, it’s very important to have the same guys.”

But if the team wants to return to the top of the Western Conference standings this year, it will need to improve its penalty killing, which ranked 29th in the league (76.9 percent) last season.

The Sharks brought in a pair of assistant coaches, Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson and former Washington Capitals assistant coach Jim Johnson, over the summer to help the team improve in that area. At this point, the plan is to tweak the system that’s in place rather than instituting a complete overhaul.

Coach Todd McLellan said the addition of Stuart and Burish should also improve the penalty kill.

“When you look back to [Stuart’s] days in Detroit, and even back here, that was his role,” he said. “He was able to penalty kill, a shot-blocker type.”

The blue line is a little banged up right now with injuries to Brent Burns (groin), Jason Demers (hand) and Justin Braun (hand). Braun, however, is expected to skate against the Flames on Sunday.

With the addition of Stuart, Boyle said the Sharks’ defense is probably the best unit he’s ever played on.

“That’s on paper,” he said. “We have to collectively do it on the ice.”

Pavelski said spirits are high in practice this week after 113 days on the sideline.

“It’s good to be back,” he said. “A lot of energy in the locker room right now.”

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Paul Gackle

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