The San Jose Sharks may not look it with the few off-season changes made, but they are a team in a rebuild. The list of young talent pictured with summaries is detailed below, including two featured in stories on the team website: Logan Couture and Mirco Mueller were both listed as key Friday, July 25.
The name Logan Couture is not foreign to NHL fans. Many may not know the former All-Star is a genuine two-way star. He may be even more familiar soon, as successive stories are an early indication he has the lead on being San Jose's next captain.
The Sharks are a tightly-run ship from a management perspective. Communications have top-to-bottom consistency, and the fact that the last two times a player has represented the team to the media were both from Couture is probably intentional.
Friday's story spoke of his recovery from hand surgery that was needed after a fight with Mike Richards in the last game 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. It also referenced Couture telling Pro Hockey Talk Tuesday that he hoped his San Jose teammates would use the sting of that epic choke at the hands of the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings to motivate them in the 2014-15 NHL season.
Even though the Sharks have already been relying on Couture for a major role, it would be another major step for him to become captain. Either way, he will need to step up for general manager Doug Wilson's rebuild to truly begin.
Mirco Mueller is not as familiar a name to fans outside San Jose. He has not made it to the NHL yet and was not a top-tier, first-round draft pick. However, the 19-year old Swiss defenseman could be an even bigger key to how quickly the rebuild happens.
Mueller was the 18th pick in the 2013 NHL draft and played in juniors that season, with 27 points in 60 games for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL and two more in five playoff games. He then went to the AHL Worcester Sharks for nine games, scoring two points.
With San Jose moving out veterans Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, there is an opportunity for new faces to fill roles. One of them will be veteran Brent Burns, returning from forward. Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan were battling for the last blue-line spot during the 2013-14 NHL season, leaving room for both this upcoming season.
However, both would have to beat out prospects Mueller, Taylor Doherty and two young players with four games each NHL experience: Matt Tennyson played in the lockout-condensed 2013 season for the Sharks while Taylor Fedun broke in with the Edmonton Oilers last season.
At least two of those players is likely to get some playing time in the 2014-15 NHL season. If Mueller looks good in enough in camp, he could get a 10-game run in San Jose before he either has to be kept on the roster or sent back to the WHL for the rest of the season. If his fluid-skating, two-way skills are good enough for top league in the world, he could be a wild card that elevates the entire unit.
If not, Hannan probably plays most of the season rather than being a scratch in case of emergency most nights while a healthy young player develops. His decline at the end of the 2013-14 NHL season was evident, and it could be worse as he passes 36 years old before the 2015 NHL All-Star Game.
It would be a lot better for the Sharks if one of the other young players stepped up, but there are no prospects as strong as their two rookie forwards in the 2013-14 NHL season: Matt Nieto and Tomas Hertl were co-rookies of the year for the team, and will need to do even more to reduce the loss of Burns from the forward corps.
Hertl may have won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year had he not been injured. He had 15 goals and 10 assists in just 37 games and showed some defensive ability before getting two goals and three assists in seven 2014 Stanley Cup playoff games. If he has even the same scoring while continuing to improve in his own end, he should be one of the San Jose's five highest-scoring players.
Nieto had 10 goals and 14 assists in 66 games and matched Hertl's production in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. If he makes strides on both ends, he can give the Sharks enough top forwards to have three dangerous lines even without Burns on them.
Finally, Alex Stalock could give San Jose a boost in net. The goalie battle is open this season, and if he shows first that he is the best choice to start the 2014-15 NHL season and then can handle the workload of a starter, that could make things a lot easier for Wilson.
As detailed on Examiner.com Thursday, current starter Antti Niemi is not as adept at moving the puck and offers less help to a young blue line looking to put the team on the attack rather than being pressured to defend. He could be traded before entering free agency next summer if Stalock emerges as capable, possibly adding another piece to bring the team into contention for the 2015 Stanley Cup.
If even three of the above players raise their games, San Jose's rebuild could be complete by season's end. If none or one does, the rebuild could become more drastic.
The good news for fans is that the even before this was as much of a young man's game in 2003, Wilson got more out of the team turning it over to younger players. Considering the previously aging Sharks had gone backwards from 2011, the approach is again warranted.