Opening night is just around the corner and I find myself much more cautiously optimistic this season than last. Perhaps it's the coaching change or perhaps it's because last season felt like a genuine "lesson learned" type of thing that you have to fight through in order to achieve greatness (at least to me); whatever it is, my gut tells me that the inconsistencies and brain-fart moments won't be as commonplace for the Sharks this year.
That being said, here's my collection of random not-so-bold predictions about certain players. I like to think they're educated guesses, and if you're cautiously optimistic like me, you're probably predicting similar things.
Joe Thornton will break the 30-goal barrier. Hell, his coach already called him out on driving the net more and we've seen that he can score goals when Joe puts his mind to it. Also, he'll eclipse 90 assists again simply because he'll get more offensive help from the blueline on the power play. Joe's final point total: 32 goals, 94 assists.
Patrick Marleau will have a good year. I've said it several times here at BoC but I truly believe that Marleau turned a corner back in February. For those of you that missed the oft-repeated story, in a listless defeat against New Jersey, Marleau stood up in the locker room and told his teammates that he simply had to be better and that he should be held accountable. To me, that's the mark of a mature player and a leader and give Marleau credit for living up to it by playing with more consistent grit and fire than we'd ever seen. Patty's final point total: 35 goals, 50 assists.
Jonathan Cheechoo will rebound...somewhat. Coach Todd McLellan stated that the Cheechoo/Joe Pavelski/Milan Michalek line was his best during the preseason. Well, it's not because of Cheechoo and his whopping two assists in five games -- pretty bad for a noted goal scorer. Still, Cheech has shown before that he could score 25+ goals with a grinder like Mike Ricci as his center, and he's also been extremely streaky. With McLellan's emphasis on shooting and driving the net, I think Cheech will find his groove again and perform to the level that we saw late last year when he was finally healthy. Cheech's final point total: 40 goals, 23 assists.
Dan Boyle will be awesome...eventually. As much as I love Dan Boyle (I'm a super-fan from his Tampa Bay days), I'm guessing we won't see his true capabilities until about 10-15 games into the season when he gets really comfortable with his new teammates. He won't provide those crazy Brian Campbell spin-o-ramas but he'll still be the best defenseman the Sharks ever had. Boyle's final point total: 16 goals, 42 assists.
(Short aside: Want to know how to irritate Dan Boyle? Find a bunch of his old superhero-themed bobbleheads from Tampa Bay and send them to him. At the Teal & White game, I brought my bobblehead for him to sign, thinking I'd be the only fan with a cool rare piece of memorabilia. When I handed it to him, he grimaced and said, "Oh god. Those things were awful. I hated them." Whoops.)
Ryane Clowe will be ok but not great. There's a lot of media hype about Clowe since he had a relatively strong playoff and his numbers were decent in the games that he actually played. Still, we've never seen a full season from Clowe and I haven't seen anything to make me think he'll be the second coming of John Leclair. Instead, I see Clowe as more a poor man's Ryan Malone: a gritty, in-your-face winger who can score during critical times. Clowe's final point total: 17 goals, 24 assists.
Rob Blake will be good for his age. I don't think anyone's expecting 1998 Rob Blake to be showing up here. If he's reasonable defensively, provides some physical player and locker room leadership, and helps out on the power play, that's all we can ask of the guy. He's overpaid but it's a one-year deal, so there aren't any real long-term consequences. Blake's a Stanley Cup mercenary and that's fine by me. Blake's final point total: 12 goals, 30 assists.
Christian Ehrhoff will finally get it. Ehrhoff's got all the components to be a great two-way defenseman -- fast skater, big shot, improving defensive sensibilities. He's just never put it together consistently. Last year, assistant coach Rob Zettler told Ehrhoff to focus on the defensive side of his game and it worked; as the season went on, Ehrhoff became increasingly reliable in all situations. His monster shot, however, remained wildly inaccurate and if he could have just gotten some more of those on net, the power play might have been different. This season, my gut tells me that both Blake and Boyle will help Ehrhoff fine-tune his game so that he can be a complete player. Ehrhoff's final point total: 14 goals, 28 assists.
As for how the team will do in the end, I'm not going to make any prognostications because so many things rely on unpredictable factors such as injuries and breakout rookies. I will say this, though: I get the feeling that unlike last season, I won't be embarrassed by the team's wildly inconsistent and head-scratching play. I know, that's not exactly the most telling of statements but if you've been through the ups and downs of the last two Ron Wilson seasons, you'll recognize that that's a significant step forward.