Does a Hot Start to 2013 NHL Season Prove San Jose Sharks Are Legit Contenders?

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2013

Apr 19, 2011; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks left wing Patrick Marleau (12) and center Joe Thornton (19) react after a goal in the second period against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks have been one of the NHL's most impressive teams during the first week of the shortened 2013 season. But is this veteran squad a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup?

With a 3-0 record, the Sharks are atop the Pacific Division. While that's not an unfamiliar position for this team to be in, winning the division was a goal they were unable to achieve last season.

Following last year's disappointing end in the first round of the playoffs, general manager Doug Wilson made a few smart additions to an already deep and talented roster.

Trading for veteran defenseman Brad Stuart has given the team more depth on the blue line and a player with Stanley Cup experience. The additions of forwards Adam Burish and Scott Gomez have also given the Sharks some more grit and experience.

Despite a long run of success over the last decade, the Sharks have not been able to win the Western Conference and reach the Stanley Cup Final.

These repeated failures, in addition to concerns about the team's age, likely caused many fans to forget about San Jose while making predictions for this lockout-shortened season. However, this year's Sharks team is much more capable of making a championship run than the previous ones that were unable to win games when it mattered most.

Bottom-six depth is one area that has been a weakness in the past for the Sharks. But so far this season, it has been a strength. In a shortened season, any team with the goal of making a deep playoff run must have four solid lines, and that's exactly what head coach Todd McLellan has at his disposal right now.

By having four quality lines, McLellan won't have to overplay his top six forwards, which will keep his veterans in great shape for the playoffs. Since the lockout gave his team a lot of extra rest, San Jose should be a healthy team going into the postseason, which wasn't the case in 2011-12.

To win in the playoffs, you also need superstars to be playing well. Even though the Sharks are just three games into the season, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau look as motivated as ever, and their performances back that up.

San Jose's top four forwards have been really impressive to start the season:

Player G A P +/-
Joe Thornton 1 8 9 4
Patrick Marleau 6 2 8 4
Joe Pavelski 0 7 7 3
Logan Couture 3 4 7 3

As with all teams, goaltending is going to play a huge role in playoff success. Starting goaltender Antti Niemi is 3-0 with 2.33 GAA and a .927 save percentage, and he looks quite comfortable in net.

Despite the criticism he's received in his San Jose career, Niemi hasn't been awful in the playoffs. With a more talented group of defensemen playing in front of him this season, Niemi shouldn't be under as much pressure to dominate as he was last season.

Mental toughness and physical play have also been issues for the Sharks over the last few years. But judging by the first three games of the year, San Jose is playing with much more emotion, determination and composure thus far.

Hiring former Stanley Cup winner and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson as an assistant coach was a great decision, and you can bet he will not allow the Sharks to be a soft team at any point in the season.

The Sharks have never had a deeper or more talented team, and for the first time in the last decade, all of the pieces are in place for a successful postseason run.

Not many people are giving San Jose much of a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup in June, but you probably won't hear the players in the Sharks locker room complaining about it. They are more than ready to silence the doubters and achieve the only thing missing from the team's remarkable run of success since the 2004-05 lockout.