After six games, the Sharks are right where they were at this point last season: perfect.
With a road win over the Dallas Stars tonight, the team would improve to 7-0, matching last season’s exceptional start. But this isn’t a rerun — the Sharks are a revamped team and it starts with the top line.
The Sharks jumped out in front of the pack last winter with a little help from the NHL’s fourth-month lockout. After an abbreviated training camp, most teams spent the first few weeks of the season developing chemistry on the fly while Todd McLellan’s veteran team stormed past them, scoring tic-tac-toe as if the Sharks were playing pickup games on a frozen river.
But once the rest of the league caught up, the team took a nose dive, losing 13 of 17 games. By March 1, a chorus of critics were begging general manager Doug Wilson to blow up the nucleus.
Instead, Wilson made a few tweaks, the Sharks made a push in the Stanley Cup playoffs and now they’re looking like early favorites to win the new Pacific Division.
After two weeks, the Sharks are leading the NHL in goals per game (5.00), shots on goal (251) and shots against (141), they’re second in goals against (1.50), eighth on the power play (25 percent) and 10th on the penalty kill (76.9 percent).
Heading into the season, everyone knew the Sharks boasted one of the league’s best defensive units and one of its top goalies. But did anyone expect Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl to form the most balanced line in hockey?
Burns’ move from defenseman to forward turned last season around. He has 26 points in 30 games since the switch and the Sharks are 20-9-1 over that stretch.
In a short span, Burns is proving to be among the best forecheckers in the league, throwing his body around, creating chaos and bringing physicality to a forward line that had developed a reputation for being soft.
I would have sworn that I heard Thornton saying “You complete me,” to the 19-year-old rookie through the TV after he scored four goals against the New York Rangers last week. Then, I realized that “Jerry Maguire” was playing in the other room.
Thornton is the greatest setup man of his generation and now he’s skating on a line with a wrecking ball who can grind it out in the corners and a skilled European, who possesses Patrick Marleau’s goal-scoring touch.
Hertl isn’t just a flashy wingman, though, he has size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and he’s willing to throw it around. He’s tough, strong and capable of protecting the puck along the boards, like his countryman Jaromir Jagr, a headache for defensemen trying to move the puck out of their own zone.
The kid is still maturing, obviously, but he’s in good hands on a line with Thornton. Jumbo Joe showed why he wears the big C in Vancouver last week, defending Hertl’s hot dog move against the Rangers with a vulgar comment, taking the heat off the 19-year-old and redirecting it onto himself.
Of course, Hertl has never played a full 82-game season, so the picture could change in March. But by then, Raffi Torres should be ready to lace up the skates.
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.