Sharks swimming in calmer waters

After a season of turmoil, the Sharks are hoping to rebound under new leadership.

Originally Published: September 24, 2001
By Mike Heika | Special to ESPN.com

Seeing the Sharks picked to finish in the playoffs probably makes you laugh a little, right? Well, go right ahead.

Writing off the Sharks as so much dreg this season is just as foolish as thinking they could win the Stanley Cup last season. This team probably was never going to be great, but it shouldn't be considered horrible, either.

The question is: Can it overcome the tumultuous season past?

A comeback is well within their potential.

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH. . .
8th
STRENGTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Strong young talent throughout the lineup. Their leading goal-scorers are in their mid-20s and there is a solid group of skilled guys pushing from below. All of their defensemen are under 30.

WEAKNESS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Probably just the chaos that has surrounded the organization for the past year both on and off the ice. This is a team very concerned with money right now, and the way it slashed through management last season left some players' heads spinning. If new GM Doug Wilson can steady the ship, management could turn into a strength.

BEST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . . . .
Naming Wilson the GM. The man is a straight-shooter and a determined winner, and he's exactly what the organization needs. When you watch what Bryan Murray did in Anaheim over the last two years, you get an idea of what Wilson could duplicate.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . .
With old friend Bill Houlder still out there and other defensemen coming in fairly cheap, it's curious that the Sharks didn't go get some insurance on the blueline. If the kids don't fit quickly, San Jose might have to scramble to take whatever is left.

PLAYER TO WATCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Goalie Evgeni Nabokov will control the fortunes of the Sharks this year. If he shines in net, this team has the depth and the talent to really surprise people in the West.

FANTASY FIX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Evgeni Nabokov. A first-round pick in many fantasy leagues last season, Nabokov was barely worth a roster spot by February. But fantasy owners have long memories, and Nabokov's back-to-back brilliance in 2000-01 and 2001-02 can't be forgotten. With no distraction this time around, Nabokov should be ready to prove last season was simply a fluke. -- Graham Hays

AT A GLANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2003-04: Schedule | Roster
2002-03: Schedule/Results | Stats
First, the contract dispute that cost the start of the season for goalie Evgeni Nabokov was ridiculous. That cost GM Dean Lombardi his job, and probably should have. Simply put, you do what you have to do to get your goalie into camp.

This season, all of the contracts have been taken care of by new GM Doug Wilson and the team appears to be focused on the task at hand. What's more, there isn't that circling pressure of Stanley Cup expectations that dogged this team so hard. Now, the Sharks can come out of nowhere, and that's a very good place for these guys to start.

Next, Wilson has done a good job of streamlining his team from a budget standpoint and also getting rid of the "personality'" of the old team. While the Sharks always worked hard, they were one of the dumbest teams in hockey, taking bad penalties and often following the moody leadership of then-captain Owen Nolan. With Nolan and Bryan Marchment off to Toronto, the Sharks are actually better off in the long term.

And finally, the Sharks have been lauded for years because of their young forwards -- and most of those players remain. Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm and Alexander Korolyuk (back from a year in Russia) are hitting their prime, and youngsters Jonathan Cheechoo, Brad Boyes and Niko Dimitrakos are ready to step in.

Maybe it sounds silly, but the Sharks could finally be on the right track.

Offense

Sharks insiders are happy to be saying good riddance to Nolan. And the loss of Teemu Selanne (Colorado) isn't breaking their hearts, either. But the departed duo does take a lot of goal scoring away. That means it'll be up to players like Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton to help shepherd these young players to a new place.

Marleau and Sturm are the real deal with 28 goals apiece last season, and at ages 24 and 25 respectively, they should be ready to take a step up.

Damphousse still has something left and his intensity could really be brought up if the team gets off to a quick start. Ricci, Thornton and Todd Harvey each have been injury prone, so good health is a key. And that leaves us with the rest of the kids.

Boyes had 30 goals and 34 assists last season in the AHL, while Dimitrakos had 15 goals and 29 assists. Both could find themselves playing key minutes and on the power play, so they need to adapt fast.

The power play has typically been a boon for the Sharks, and it probably will again. San Jose fired at a respectable 18.1 percent (ranking 9th) and scored 68 goals with the man advantage. Mike Rathje showed last season that he can man the point, and that experience will be helpful this year if Brad Stuart struggles.

Defense

Stuart had concussion problems last season and injured his shoulder hitting an opponent during preseason -- and that's pretty scary for a defenseman who will have to bring the lumber every now and then. If he regains his health this season, the Sharks have three solid defensemen around which to build. If he doesn't, there could be some real depth issues.

Stuart has a little edge mixed with a lot of skill. Rathje has a lot of edge mixed with more skill than many anticipated. Rathje took over last season and led all Sharks defensemen in scoring with seven goals and 22 assists. If he keeps those numbers where they are, he could be a perfect complement to Stuart and Kyle McLaren.

McLaren played 33 games with the Sharks last season after being acquired from Boston and struggled with only eight assists and a minus-10 ranking. However, he should show great improvement this season.

Scott Hannan continues to improve at age 24 and the 1997 first round draft pick has earned the trust of his team. He's a solid No. 4 guy or he could slide down and help kids like Christian Ehrloff and Rob Davison.

One thing all players will be asked to do this season is improve on the penalty kill. The Sharks ranked last in the NHL at 81.0 percent. While Ricci is still the key to that unit, expect some new kids to get into the act this season.

Goaltending

You either believe Nabokov is losing it or you believe that his 2002-03 season was simply an aberration. The statistics point to the latter, as while he had a 2.71 GAA in 2002-03, he still finished with a respectable .906 save percentage.

Nabokov is extremely quick and plays an outstanding game when he has his confidence and showmanship going. He doesn't seem to mind pressure and he has a 2.37 GAA and .913 save percentage for his career. He should be fine.

Vesa Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff are fighting for the backup role. Whichever one loses could possibly be traded.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.