LOS ANGELES — One of the central themes going into last year’s Stanley Cup Final was the speed of the Penguins and Sharks.
But once it was over, all anyone could talk about was how much faster Penguins were.
It’s something Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer remembered with a chuckle at Saturday’s All-Star media session, as he prepped to coach the Pacific Division.
“We were fast… until we saw Pittsburgh,” DeBoer said with a laugh. “That’s obviously something we talked about, and I think we are faster.”
To hear the head coach explain it, speed isn’t the only thing San Jose’s upgraded.
DeBoer says this year’s team is notably improved compared to the ’15-16 group — a team that finished with 46 wins, 98 points and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
(A scary proposition for the rest of the Western Conference, this.)
“I like our team,” DeBoer explained. “I think we’re better than last year, sitting where we are right now. The young guys have added a dimension to our team. I think we’re deeper.
“The big question here is going to be health, and energy. There’s no secret and there’s no hiding from the fact that you go to the Final and then find a way to get back there. That’s just reality. But I think if there’s a group that can do it, we’re set up to do it.”
DeBoer’s comments come after GM Doug Wilson made several unheralded-yet-significant changes to the club’s makeup. The speed upgrade was most evident — highlighted by the free agent acquisition of Mikkel Boedker, one of the quickest guys in the league — but getting faster wasn’t just limited to skating ability.
“Speed isn’t just pure speed, it’s puck movement speed too,” DeBoer explained. “We’ve added [David] Schlemko on defense, who’s a puck-moving defenseman. So I think all those factors make us definitely faster than we were a year ago.”
Changes didn’t just happen in the offseason, either. Already this year, the Sharks have parted ways with young veterans Matt Nieto (waived, claimed by Colorado) and Tommy Wingels (traded to Ottawa).
In doing so, Wilson has embraced a youth movement, implementing the likes of Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc.
Labanc, 21, worked his way into the Sharks lineup after starring with the club’s AHL affiliate and has emerged as a regular, with 14 points in 37 games. Meier, the ninth overall pick in 2015, is a little less polished and playing in a smaller role — but both he and Labanc have impressed the veteran core.
“[Labanc], just the ability to get in position to score – I think he’s a very, very smart hockey player. He wants to score every night, which is fun to see as an older player,” Joe Thornton said in late December, per CSN Bay Area. “Timo, just his speed stands out, and how strong he is.
“Both guys are playing huge roles on our team right now.”
The club has also been buoyed by the return of Tomas Hertl.
Hertl, who was one of San Jose’s best forwards in last year’s playoffs, missed nearly the entire Cup Final with a knee injury, then missed almost all of the last two months with more knee problems.
Hertl returned to the lineup in San Jose’s final game before the All-Star break, which essentially put the team at full strength.
That, plus a burning desire to repeat last year’s run — only with a different ending — could make the Sharks a very dangerous team over the next few months.
“The guys are hungry to get back,” DeBoer said. “And I like how we’re positioned.”