SAN JOSE — As much as the San Jose Sharks may try to put last season's playoff collapse behind them, there will be constant reminders all season long.
The starkest one will come on opening night when they will be forced to watch the rival Los Angeles Kings raise their second Stanley Cup championship banner in three seasons. That comes just months after the Kings became the fourth NHL team to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games by beating the Sharks four straight times, sending San Jose to a summer of soul-searching.
“Last year is over with,” forward Tommy Wingels said. “People are going to want to talk about it, we're going to want to think about it, but you need to eliminate it from your memory because it's over with. Our focus is on the start here and getting off to a good start.”
But the impact of that collapse is still felt. General manager Doug Wilson spent the offseason talking about entering a rebuilding phase and calling the Sharks a “tomorrow” team.
Captain Joe Thornton and alternate Patrick Marleau were stripped of their letters as coach Todd McLellan talked about everyone coming into the season with a “clean slate.”
“Joe, nothing bothers him,” defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “But he's motivated more than ever to prove (people) wrong. When a C or an A gets taken away from you, I don't know how it feels, but maybe you've got something to prove. Joe's a guy that we believe in, and we need him to be his best and he is and he will be.”
Thornton was for most of last season when he was second in the NHL in assists and played a major role in San Jose's success that all fell apart in four uninspired losses to the Kings.
He enters this season with the same attitude, despite losing his captaincy, and the same expectations of winning a championship, despite talk of rebuilding, that he has always had.
“I have enough motivation,” Thornton said. “I don't need somebody else telling me we can't do it.”
Here are some things to watch when this season begins Oct. 8 in Los Angeles:
LOOKING FOR LEADERS: The Sharks still have not named a new captain and could go into the season without a player in the permanent role. McLellan and Wilson want more players to take a leadership position after some of the younger players talked about being co-workers instead of teammates after last season. Vlasic, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are the most likely candidates among the younger core to earn a letter.
BLUE-LINE BURNS: The Sharks acquired Brent Burns three years ago to be an anchor on the blue line who could run the power play and defend in his own zone. Burns struggled in that role in his first season and a half in San Jose before emerging as one of the league's top power forwards when he was moved to wing on Thornton's line in March 2013. Burns had the second-most even-strength goals on San Jose after the move and was a fearless forechecker. With Dan Boyle gone, Burns is back on the blue line again.
WHERE'S PAV?: Pavelski is San Jose's version of a Swiss Army knife, with the ability to play both wing and center, kill penalties or play the point on the power play. The Sharks are at their best when Pavelski is able to center the third line, behind Thornton and Couture, as few teams can match that depth up the middle. But with Burns moving back to defense and Raffi Torres and James Sheppard starting the season hurt, the Sharks may opt for Pavelski to play wing on Thornton's line where he scored the bulk of his team-high 41 goals last season.
SHARING GOAL: Antti Niemi has started nearly 80 percent of the games since signing with San Jose before the 2010-11 season but Alex Stalock began to challenge him for playing time last season. While Niemi struggled, Stalock made seven of his 18 starts after the Olympic break and allowed just 1.87 goals per game. Stalock even started Game 6 against the Kings and figures to get a more even split of the playing time this season.
YOUTH BE SERVED: Wilson is committed to giving opportunities to young players and there could be plenty of openings on defense. With Boyle and Brad Stuart gone and Scott Hannan not figuring to get as much playing time, there could be an opening for an untested player like Mirco Mueller, Taylor Fedun or Taylor Doherty to get into the regular rotation.