The Sharks begin their post-Christmas schedule Friday at Phoenix. If you can figure out where they're going after that -- in terms of ultimate success or failure -- please call the hockey gods. They would probably like to know themselves.

The Sharks will be going to the playoffs again, surely. Our beloved Los Tiburones haven't missed the postseason since 2003.

And check the standings. The Sharks' 23-8-6 record is their best after 37 games since the 2008-09 season, when they won the Presidents' Trophy for finishing with the NHL's most points.

The truth is, we are so familiar with regular-season success by the Sharks that we tend to take it for granted. But by any measure, this is one of the best starts in franchise history.

So why does the stomach still gurgle when contemplating what the next few months will hold?

A portion of the gurgle is based on history, of course, with the team's consistent failure to reach the Stanley Cup finals -- including last spring's rugged seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference semifinals.

However, a bigger gurgle element right now is the team's performance over the past 10 games, with only two regulation victories and four overall. Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who has been here long enough to see enough to be frustrated enough, is not buying the old "slumps are just part of a long season" excuse.

"We're still not at where we need to be -- and where we were," McLellan said the other day. "We still have work to do. And we're trying to find the right way of getting it done."

Which brings us to another reason for the gurgle. And it is the most concerning.

When training camp began, the biggest difference between this Sharks team and last season's team was supposed to be the addition of two new faces. One was Tomas Hertl, the touted teenage rookie from the Czech Republic. The other was Raffi Torres, acquired at last season's trade deadline, who provided a visible energy jolt during the 16 games he skated with the Sharks.

Hertl's and Torres' styles also matched what McLellan has found works best for his team in 2013 -- with speed, on a north-south trajectory. But the new faces are now disabled faces. Torres suffered a knee injury in the second exhibition game -- on a collision with an opponent -- and underwent surgery. Hertl had his own knee wreck last week -- also in a collision with an opponent -- and an operation to repair that injury.

Torres is on schedule to return after the Olympic break in late February, but surgery and rehab don't come with a warranty. Hertl's availability for the rest of the season is in question. But an optimistic view would have him back in the second playoff round, if he's on the same track as Torres (even though every knee surgery is different). And again, no guarantee.

In any event, neither Torres nor Hertl will be around for a while. So what are we left with? Basically, the same Sharks team we've seen for the past few seasons with the same core players. And where does that get them?

We already know the answer. It gets them someplace in the upper echelon of the NHL -- among the top six or eight teams -- without piercing the upper-upper echelon of the top two or three teams.

Doug Wilson, the Sharks general manager, likes to caution the team's followers that the team is not really complete until after the trade deadline and a playoff roster is set. But this season, Wilson might have his work cut out for him more than ever, in several respects.

For example, the Sharks' fourth line still has a French Foreign Legion feel to it, with names sliding in and out from Worcester or the injured list or McLellan's doghouse (when a forward from the top three lines needs to be sent a message). The fourth liners can jump up and make a splash but also can be victimized. Wilson needs to find some consistent men for McLellan to play on that line -- and/or be certain that injured Adam Burish will indeed be back in uniform for the season's last month.

And what of the other forwards? Marty Havlat is a skating on-off switch in terms of effectiveness. Brent Burns still looks like something from the Island Of Misfit Hockey Toys On Ice. He's incredibly fun to watch. He scored a big goal the other night against Colorado. But there are shifts when he seems to be whirling around with force and passion but not getting a lot accomplished. Could he be trade bait? Or should the team think about moving him back to defense?

Meanwhile, goalie Antti Niemi has been ... well, the best word to describe him is mysteerio. It might sound like a Finnish breakfast cereal but is actually the Finnish word for "mystery." He was largely terrific in October and November but has lately given up around one clunker goal per game. Rookie Alex Stalock has been refreshing in his backup appearances, but maybe Wilson needs to think about bringing in a more veteran name to motivate Niemi.

It makes you appreciate the Sharks' core players more, really. They're carrying the team again. Joe Thornton is quietly leading the league in assists. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are on pace for 30-plus goal seasons. Logan Couture has to emerge from his struggles soon. The biggest wild card, naturally, will be the Olympics, with probably five to seven Sharks being tabbed to represent their countries.

There are so many questions, with a smaller window of time to answer them than you think. The NHL trade deadline is March 5. That comes only 10 days after the gold medal game in Sochi, so the player evaluation for potential moves must essentially be done before the Olympic break begins Feb. 6. January will not be a month of Sharks boredom.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

FRIDAY'S GAME
Sharks (23-8-6) at Phoenix
(19-10-7), 6 p.m. CSNCA