Sharks’ core ready for run at elusive Stanley Cup

SAN JOSE — The band is back together for one more season, but this year’s run could prove to be a farewell tour.

The core nucleus of the Sharks will be back on the ice when the puck drops on the 2013-14 NHL season at the SAP Center on Thursday. But with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle entering the final years of their contracts, the team’s long-term future is uncertain.

Regardless of what happens next summer, the Sharks have all the ingredients to make a run at the Stanley Cup this spring and it starts with consistency at defense.

“Defensively, this is the most balanced group I’ve ever been a part of and we have the same guys going into this season,” Boyle said.

The Sharks finished sixth in goals against (2.33) last season thanks to the core group of veterans anchoring the blue line. Brad Stuart, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Jason Demers and Scott Hannan are all returning, along with Matt Irwin, who stepped up and a posted respectable -1 as a rookie last season.

At age 37, Boyle continues to be one of the league’s top puck-moving defenseman and Vlasicis earning a reputation as one of the smartest players on the back end.

“We have great chemistry,” Vlasic said. “We have the same core, so I feel very confident. We’re not the biggest group, but we play hard and we play fast.”

Behind the defense, Antti Niemi put together a career year in 2013, finishing 10th in goals against average (2.16) and seventh in save percentage (.924) while being named as one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goaltender.

“He’s shown he’s a top goalie in this league and you don’t go anywhere without that — you don’t win a Stanley Cup without that,” Boyle said.

In 2011-12, the Sharks finished 29th on the penalty kill, a wrinkle the team ironed out last year with the addition of Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson to the coaching staff. In 2013, the penalty kill jumped to 13th in the league.

“We started pressuring the power play — being proactive, being aggressive, making the power play make a nice play to score,” Vlasic said.

After jumping out to a 7-0 start last year, the Sharks’ season almost slipped away when they compiled a 5-11-7 record over their next 23 games.

But the team received a facelift in March when McLellan moved defenseman Brent Burns up to forward and general manager Doug Wilson dumped Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus while acquiring notorious bad boy Raffi Torres.

With Burns, the Sharks found the power forward they’d sorely lacked while Torres added quickness and drive-to-the-net aggressiveness.

But the team was hit with a setback last week when Torres went down with an ACL tear in his right knee. The 31-year-old wingman will be out for three-to-five months, but he’s expected to return for the stretch run.

“We saw the impact that he had in series one against Vancouver and the lack of impact when he wasn’t in the lineup against L.A., so it’s a big hole to fill,” McLellan said, referring to Torres’ suspension in the second-round of the Western Conference playoffs last year.

The team acquired Tyler Kennedy from the Pittsburgh Penguins over the summer, though, and he will bring a number of intangibles to the ice. Nineteen-year-old Czech forward Tomas Hertl, the team’s 2012 first-round pick, will also be making his debut in teal this year.

“With Raffi missing, you know the old cliche that coaches will always say — this creates opportunity for somebody else,” McLellan said.

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