San Jose Sharks season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 11:56 PM ET

San Jose Sharks


By Scott Burnside,

The Sharks rode out a rollercoaster season in 2005-06, beginning as many experts' picks to win the Western Conference. But the team struggled through the first half of the season until a blockbuster deal brought eventual scoring champ and league MVP Joe Thornton to town. The Sharks blistered through the last half and looked to be a team that could run the table in the postseason, but they fell to a determined Edmonton squad in the second round, blowing a 2-0 series lead in the process. So where does that leave the franchise? On the cusp. The Sharks remain one of the best -coached, best-managed teams in the NHL, and look to be a team that should contend for the foreseeable future.

This coming season, they will have to deal with a potential goaltending controversy, the good kind, a battle between two quality netminders. And they'll have to prove that giving up quality defensemen like Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing since the trade deadline last March won't hurt them down the road. But this is a team that brought in crucial players like Mike Grier and Mark Bell that could have people next spring nodding and saying, yeah, that's a Stanley Cup puzzle piece.

Offense: Many people assume the new rules mean that size is passÚ. Those people haven't spent much time watching Joe Thornton, or Jumbo Joe as he was sometimes known in Boston. Thornton took to his new surroundings in San Jose like a fish to water, collecting 72 points in 58 games. His arrival also coincided with the scoring explosion otherwise known as Jonathan Cheechoo.

The unheralded native of Moose Factory, Ontario, came out of nowhere (and if you've been to Moose Factory it is as close to nowhere as you can get) to lead the NHL in goal-scoring with 56 goals, earning himself a big, new contract along the way. All but seven of those goals came after Thornton's arrival. Add in captain Patrick Marleau and Nils Ekman and that's just four 20-goal scorers on the team. That's why GM Doug Wilson believed he could give up on Preissing, who surprised many with a 43-point performance from the blue line, to bring in Bell, a 25-goal man in Chicago last season. The jury's still out on that move as Bell almost immediately was charged with drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident in San Jose. That won't sit well with a franchise that prides itself on its good citizens. The Sharks have a history of rewarding home-grown prospects with opportunity, so watch for Steve Bernier and Milan Michalek, who had 62 points between them as rookies, to get more of a look.

Defense: If there is an area that raises some warning flags for the Sharks, it's along the blue line. Wilson had to part with Stuart (and Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau) to get Thornton and clearly the deal is a winner as far as the Sharks are concerned. But combined with the departure of Preissing, whom some believe is a one-hit wonder, the Sharks are counting heavily on the rapid development of top prospect Matt Carle, who comes out of Denver with 53 points in his final year of collegiate hockey. Scott Hannan rebounded from a slow start to lead the Sharks with more than 24 minutes of ice time per outing. Kyle McLaren has also evolved into a solid top-two defender and Christian Ehrhoff is one of the patented low-profile, swift-skating, puck-moving defensemen the Sharks seem to trot out every year. But after that, things get a little murky. Josh Gorges, a rookie who played in 49 games last season, will have to step up for this young but talented group. The team's penalty-killing unit should improve from a surprising 23rd ranking with the arrivals of Grier and Ville Nieminen.

Goaltending: Under coach Ron Wilson, the Sharks have relied on top-notch goaltending to allow their up-tempo, aggressive squad to do their stuff. But former rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov never quite got on track last season and ultimately gave up the No. 1 goaltending post to Vesa Toskala, who was sensational right until he spit the bit against Edmonton in the second round of the playoffs. Still, Toskala has made it clear he has no intention of giving up his starting role after going 23-7-4. That creates a bit of a problem for GM Doug Wilson, who now has a $5-million backup goalie. That's not so good for the bottom line, but there's a certain amount of comfort for a coach knowing that if Toskala can't handle the pressure, he's got experience waiting in the wings. Nolan Schaefer shone in a relief role last season, so the Sharks might end up starting the season with three netminders in the fold.

Coaching: Ron Wilson is among the most forward-thinking and best prepared of all NHL coaches. He didn't panic when his team looked and played like also-rans for the first half of the season. He will look to get his team out of the gate in better fashion this season and should have the Sharks at or near the top of the conference when the dust clears.

2nd The Sharks will build off a strong finish to last season and roll to the Pacific Division crown and the second seed in the Western Conference.

Stock Up
Stock up. The Sharks took off in the second half of the season, much to the delight of loyal, vocal fans. Too bad they booed the Canadian national anthem during the playoffs. Karma's a bear, isn't it?

Much of the Sharks' offensive core surrounded Joe Thornton last season. Expect that trend to continue. Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo displayed remarkable chemistry late last season and newly acquired Mark Bell should excel on that line. Keep tabs on that goalie battle between Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. They'll likely share the job initially, but the Sharks would prefer Toskala win it outright, making him a breakout candidate. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Sharks:
1. D. Setoguchi, 19, RW, Saskatoon (WHL)
Statline: 65 GP, 36 G, 47 A, 69 PIM
2. Matt Carle, 23, D, Denver (WCHA)
Statline: 39 GP, 11 G, 42 A, 58 PIM
3. Lukas Kaspar, 20, LW, Cleveland (AHL)
Statline: 76 GP, 14 G, 22 A, 88 PIM
4. Dimitri Patzold, 23, G, Cleveland (AHL)
Statline: 10-21-0 record, 3.97 GAA, .869 SV%
5. Tim Conboy, 23, D, Cleveland (AHL)
Statline: 78 GP, 6 G, 14 A, 124 PIM
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San Jose Sharks
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record44-27-11 (99 points)
DivisionFinished second in Pacific
ConferenceFinished fifth in West
PlayoffsLost 4-2 to Edmonton in second round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Joe Thornton
League MVP, league scoring champ, Thornton has met the challenges head-on since his arrival in San Jose. Still, until the Sharks make a long playoff run, there will be questions about Thornton's ability to get the big job done when the money is on the table.
Winger: Mark Bell
The 6-foot-4, 26-year-old Bell has lots of talent but apparently lots of baggage. If he can't fit in, it will mark the kind of mistakes GM Doug Wilson rarely makes.
Defense: Matt Carle
People are already talking about a potential Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. It'll be up to coach Wilson, et al, not to let the talented young defender get buried by his own press clippings.
Goalie: Vesa Toskala
The native of Tampere, Finland, looked a little like fellow Finn and former Shark Miikka Kiprusoff for much of the last half of the season. But can he handle the load as a No. 1 guy out of the gate?

Key Moves
The aforementioned Bell comes at the cost of a pretty good young defenseman in Tom Preissing, now in Ottawa. The real key offseason moves came in the form of Mike Grier and Ville Nieminen, who both bring character and an understanding of what it takes to win.

Rating the Sharks
The San Jose Sharks finished fifth in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Sharks in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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