2007-08 Team Preview: San Jose Sharks
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideWe like to think of the San Jose Sharks as the Detroit Red Wings of the early and mid-1990s. For a number of years, the talented Red Wings were picked to win a Stanley Cup, only to fall apart at some point along the playoff road. As painful as those disappointments were, they were instrumental in setting the stage for the Wings' Cup wins in 1997, 1998 and 2002. After making a surprise appearance in the 2004 Western Conference finals (they lost in six games to the Calgary Flames), the Sharks have become annual Cup favorites, yet they have stumbled twice in a row in the second round. Last season, it was a surprisingly resilient Detroit team that battled back after the Sharks had taken a 2-1 series lead. The Sharks looked poised to take a 3-1 edge, but they lost in overtime and never won another game. As the series got away from the Sharks, coach Ron Wilson asked some pointed questions about some of his leaders. He didn't name names, but it was obvious he was talking at least in part about captain Patrick Marleau. The loss and Marleau's off play in the second round led to rampant speculation the longtime Shark would be dealt. Instead, he signed a contract extension and will set out to prove he is capable of winning the big prize. GM Doug Wilson also signed defenseman Craig Rivet to a long-term deal and added a little spice to the pot by signing Jeremy Roenick to a one-year deal. Perhaps the most appealing element of the Sharks, and why they are our pick to win the big prize, is the continued development of top-notch young players like Matt Carle, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who will press the veterans even more this season. The Sharks might not be tough enough yet on the blue line, but that's what the trade deadline is for. OFFENSE
The Sharks netted 258 goals last season, tied for the second-most in the Western Conference with Calgary and Anaheim, behind conference-leader Nashville. Joe Thornton, the defending scoring champ from 2005-06, played through injury in the first half, lit it up in the second half and very nearly caught Sidney Crosby for the scoring title, falling six points short with 114. Thornton was second behind Crosby in power-play production, while the Sharks boasted the second-ranked power play in the league, again tied with Anaheim. Coach Ron Wilson praised Thornton's toughness (he played all 82 games despite foot and hand injuries in the first half of the season) and the snarl he brought to his game, which made him even more difficult to dislodge from the puck in the offensive zone. Jonathan Cheechoo, perhaps not surprisingly, struggled to replicate his goal-scoring championship form from the season before, but he still finished with 37. Both Marleau and emerging offensive force Milan Michalek had nine game-winning goals, the second-most in the league. The problem for the Sharks was Marleau went pointless in the second round of the playoffs. Bill Guerin, brought in at the trade deadline, was a bust come playoff time with zero goals and now is on Long Island. Other than Guerin's departure, the Sharks' offensive attack will look much the same, which, in theory, means they will be a handful every night. DEFENSE
The Sharks were the seventh-ranked defense in the NHL last season and that was with Vlasic, who turned 20 in March, averaging 22:11 a night in ice time. Carle pulled down 18:08 a night. They both should take a step forward in their development, and having Rivet around for a whole season will add even more stability to a top-notch back end. Yes, they will miss Scott Hannan, who played 22:49 a night and was a physical presence for years. But there's still Doug Murray, who will get a chance to earn a full-time job after playing 35 games last season, and Kyle McLaren. GOALTENDING
The Sharks' goaltending picture suddenly has come into better focus after two seasons of wondering who was No. 1 in San Jose. The Sharks traded Vesa Toskala to Toronto at the draft for three draft picks, including the 13th overall selection this past June. Wilson is crossing his fingers he kept the right goaltender in former rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov and that he didn't trade away another all-world netminder as he did a couple of years back when he sent Miikka Kiprusoff to Calgary. It's not that Nabokov doesn't have the pedigree to deliver both a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup; it's just that he hasn't delivered either, yet. Nabokov did return to the top-dog position last season with an impressive 2.29 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and seven shutouts. With Toskala gone and with the backup duties set to fall to unproven netminders Dimitri Patzold or Thomas Greiss, Nabokov will have to stay healthy if the Sharks are to stay at the top of the Western Conference ladder. COACHING
Ron Wilson evokes a lot of strong emotions. He can be acerbic and biting, but he remains one of the most well-prepared, technologically savvy coaches in the league. His structure made the Sharks the top team in the NHL when they scored first (.833 winning percentage). His challenge, and that of his team, is to prove all that talent and know-how can be translated into at least a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Wilson was criticized in some parts for his handling of the Sharks in the Detroit playoff series, but he didn't say anything that wasn't true. His veterans, specifically Marleau and Guerin (before he got hurt), did not deliver. Doug Wilson took about a month to announce the coaching staff would return for this season, so one has to imagine this will be coach Wilson's last shot at getting his Sharks over the hump. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
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• Record: 51-26-5
• Division: Second in the Pacific
• Conference: Fifth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in the second round by Detroit
PLAYERS TO WATCH
For the first time since 2001-02, Nabokov likely will play 60-plus games. Is he up to the task? Defenseman: Marc-Edouard Vlasic
The former Quebec Rempart not only jumped right from junior hockey to the NHL, he played meaningful minutes and was a plus-13. What's next? Forward: Ryane Clowe
The St. John's, Newfoundland, native scored 16 goals in just 58 games as a rookie. He'll get a chance to take another step forward this season.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Here's the deal with Marleau and Thornton. Like Steve Yzerman in Detroit, they never will be fully accepted as great players until they win a Stanley Cup. Fair? Maybe not, but that's reality, NHL style. Where They Will Finish
The Sharks will finish first in the Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the San Jose Sharks will finish this time around? Who will lead the Sharks in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!