San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39) is unable to score past Vancouver Canucks goalie Cory Schneider (35) in the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - After the San Jose Sharks became the only team to make it to the conference finals in each of the past two seasons, general manager Doug Wilson could have been forgiven if he made just a few roster tweaks.
Wilson did more than that, and this year's version of the Sharks will look much different from the one that got eliminated in five games by Vancouver in the Western Conference final about four months ago.
While the core of captain Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle and goalie Antti Niemi is back this season, the Sharks jettisoned three of their six defencemen from the conference finals and six forwards who played more than half of the playoff games last season.
The most significant changes came in a pair of deals with Minnesota early in the off-season. First, high-scoring winger Devin Setoguchi was dealt in a package for all-star defenceman Brent Burns. Less than two weeks later, Dany Heatley was traded to the Wild for Marty Havlat in a clear message from management that the conference finals are not satisfactory for one of the league's most talented teams.
"It's a consistent message," Wilson said. "We tell our guys we have to get better. Sometimes, it's personnel changes. We're not satisfied even though we've had some pretty good success the past two years. We're pushing. We think we're one of the top teams in the league and we have to go out and perform that way."
The Sharks also brought in an accomplished penalty killer in Michal Handzus and forward Andrew Murray to upgrade a unit that ranked 24th in the league last season, and two physical defencemen in Colin White and James Vandermeer to bolster a blue line that had been a bit thin.
The hope is that these moves are enough to carry the league's second-best regular season team over the past seven seasons to the top spot in the post-season.
"We're just not satisfied going to the Western Conference finals two years in a row," Thornton said. "Our standards have always been high ever since I've been here. We want to get to the Cup final and win the Stanley Cup for the Bay Area. We're focused and we're ready to go."
While there were plenty of moves made this summer, the most significant was clearly the trade for Burns. With seven forwards capable of playing on the top two lines, Wilson used that surplus to deal Setoguchi, former first-round pick Charlie Coyle and a 2011 first-rounder to the Wild for the topflight defenceman the Sharks had been seeking.
Boyle and Douglas Murray formed one top defensive pair but the Sharks did not have a second elite unit in a void they hope they have filled with Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Burns had 17 goals last season, third among all blue-liners. He also had 29 assists, giving the Sharks another proven puck-moving defenceman to go along with Boyle. Burns also signed a five-year, US$28.8 million contract to stay in San Jose through the 2016-17 season.
With Jason Demers likely set to play with either White or Vandermeer, the Sharks will now have three pairings of an offensive defenceman and a more defensive-minded player.
"There wasn't too much offence coming from the back end. I think Burns is going to bring that extra D-man," Boyle said. "As it sits right now, we have three pairings and we have a guy who can jump in and a guy who will stay back. It will help everybody. A lot of teams match up certain ways but when you have three of us who can go on any given shift I think that will be pretty beneficial for the way we like to play."
Along with changing personnel, the Sharks want to change how they begin the season. After being swept in the conference final by Chicago in 2010, San Jose got off to a sluggish start the following season.
A six-game losing streak in January had the Sharks mired in 12th place in the Western Conference, before a furious finish gave them a fourth straight Pacific Division title.
Wilson believed the Sharks were drained by the end because of how hard they pushed down the stretch and starting strong was an emphasis in training camp in a message the players heard clearly.
"I think the start might have had something to do with getting to the conference finals and not realizing you have to play 82 games to make the playoffs," Couture said. "You don't just wake up and get to the playoffs. Everyone starts off fresh and everyone has zero points and it's a fight to get into the playoffs. That's something we didn't realize last year but for sure we realize that now and I think we'll get out of the gates strong."