2008-09 Team Preview: San Jose Sharks
AP Photo/Tony Avelar
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThere are two schools of thought for this perennial preseason Stanley Cup pick -- 1) they're bound to get it together one of these years (and this year is as good as any), or 2) that ship has sailed.
Since their surprise appearance in the 2004 Western Conference finals, the Sharks have been knocked off in the second round in each of the past three postseasons. In each case, the playoff loss would have to count as something of an upset. GM Doug Wilson went looking for a little different karma behind the bench, firing Ron Wilson and hiring former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan. Then, he went about remaking his back end in the hopes of giving it more pep and experience, bringing in Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.
The handful of Cup rings that trio represents cost Wilson yet another piece of the team's future, in terms of draft picks and prospects. The Sharks' future, for better or worse, is now.
The Sharks saw their offensive output drop off dramatically last season, going from sixth overall in 2006-07 to 19th last season. Wilson figures much of that can be contributed to a lack of production from the back end, hence bringing in Blake and Boyle.
Blake is 38 and Boyle is 32, but both have the potential to put up big offensive numbers -- especially Boyle, who missed the first half of the season after a skate fell on his wrist during last season's training camp. The Sharks' power play was 10th last season, down from second overall; both veteran defensemen should help push the unit back into the top five.
Joe Thornton remains the engine that drives the Sharks' offense, but all indications are McLellan is going to ask Thornton to be less of a perimeter player, setting up teammates with his uncanny passing, and more of a driving-the-net power forward. The more Thornton is engaged, the better things are for the Sharks.
There was a dramatic drop-off after Thornton's team-leading 96 points; Brian Campbell had 62 (and he's gone) and Milan Michalek posted 55. Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Pavelski and the oft-battered Patrick Marleau have to provide better, more consistent secondary scoring if the Sharks are going to return to the top of the Pacific and challenge Detroit for the Western Conference title.
If there's one thing McLellan hopes to replicate from last season, it's the Sharks' attention to defensive detail. They ranked third in goals against per game and were the top penalty-killing team in the NHL. The Sharks are disciplined and know how to close the deal, going 35-1-2 when leading after two periods. They also boasted the best winning percentage in one-goal games, another illustration of the team's willingness to play team defense. McLellan will have to hope he doesn't have to sacrifice any of that for the offense Boyle and Blake bring to the table.
The issue facing McLellan isn't whether he's got good goaltending -- he's got one of the best in the game in Evgeni Nabokov -- but how much does he use his star tender? Last season, Nabokov's 77 appearances were tied for the third most in history. His 46 wins were also the third most in the history of the league.
A finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Nabokov was second in the league in one-goal wins (25) and has ascended to that small handful of NHL netminders who, night in and night out, are difference-makers. If there was a promising young netminder in the wings, Nabokov's workload might diminish slightly, but there isn't.
With veteran Brian Boucher in mop-up mode, it's hard to imagine Nabokov will get much of a break this season. All good news for his teammates and Sharks fans.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in San Jose this season is the addition of three Stanley Cup-winning defensemen. Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich all bring significant experience and, in Blake and Boyle, the Sharks have two players capable of manning the point on the power play, as well.
Both Boyle and Blake will also get the puck to San Jose's speedy forwards while they are moving in transition, and that will significantly help the attack. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov is one of the best in the game, bar none.
New coach Todd McLellan has been successful at each stop on his coaching career (WHL, AHL, NHL), and after spending time as an assistant in Detroit, he too knows what it takes to win a Cup. One of his biggest challenges this season will be finding a way to reach enigmatic star Patrick Marleau. Having Marleau accept some of the responsibility and relish this coaching change as a chance for him to make a fresh start would also help the process. While Marleau did appear to make strides in last season's playoffs, more should be expected from him now.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
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• Record: 49-23-10
• Division: First in the Pacific
• Conference: Second in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round vs. DAL
• Speaking of rough Februarys, the schedule-makers really had it in for the Pacific Division as the Sharks will be on the road from Feb. 7 to Feb.15 for five games and then Feb. 23 to Feb. 28 for four more.
Stanley Cup titles: N/A
• Some folks will look at Todd McLellan (if they recognize him at all) and say, "Oh yeah, that guy from the Red Wings, the one without the bushy mustache." But McLellan has had success at a variety of stops along the coaching track. Now, he has his first head-coaching gig in the NHL -- and all he's expected to do is win a Stanley Cup. Maybe more.
"Todd's certainly ready for this," Wilson said. "He's built his résumé the right way. There's no shortcuts. He's caught the attention of all of our players and built relationships with them."
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Joe Thornton
All the big center has done since the lockout is average a shade under 112 points a season and there are still questions about his ability to get the job done. Doesn't seem fair, but for a team that is long past hoping to be competitive, it's all about delivering the goods. That, historically, hasn't been Thornton's strong suit, either with Boston, the Sharks or even Canada at the 2006 Olympics. Still, look for him to put up big numbers again.
F -- Milan Michalek
The talented Czech hit a slight bump in his third NHL season as his point total dipped from 66 to 55. Michalek finished the season strongly with points in 11 of his last 14 games, but came up with just four goals and zero assists in the playoffs. He will be one of those players whose game will have to be elevated if the Sharks are to get where they want to be. Clearly, Doug Wilson thinks Michalek can do just that as he signed him to a six-year contract extension last season.
F -- Jonathan Cheechoo
Speaking of players trying to elevate their games, Cheechoo has struggled to meet expectations after winning the Rocket Richard Trophy with 56 goals in 2005-06. His goal production has slumped from 56 to 37 to 23 (he did miss 15 games last season with injury). You have to figure this season will settle the argument: flash in the pan or real deal.
D -- Dan Boyle
When Wilson couldn't bring Brian Campbell under contract this offseason, he moved decisively to fill the big gap by acquiring the talented Boyle from Tampa. Boyle won a Cup with the Bolts in 2004 and was fourth among all defensemen with 63 points in 2006-07. If the Sharks do finally reach the summit this spring, this move will almost certainly have been a major catalyst to that long-awaited success.
D -- Christian Ehrhoff
We've always considered the Sharks to be a youthful team, yet suddenly the blue line has more than a tinge of gray with only Marc-Edouard Vlasic under the age of 26. Ehrhoff, the pride of Moers, Germany, is the second-youngest at 26 and enters his fifth season with the Sharks. The Sharks have always been about up-tempo play, but Ehrhoff, who had one goal last season after scoring 10 the season before, should be a nice complement to Boyle's go-get 'em style.
Answer: No. Despite the shrewd acquisitions of Boyle and Blake (and the under-appreciated Brad Lukowich), we can't help but believe the window has closed on this talented team's Cup dreams. Patrick Marleau, the subject of so much derision and trade talks the past couple of years, is hardly a factor, and to expect a rookie coach to coax this team beyond the second round seems like a tall order.
Bust: Jonathan Cheechoo, RW. Cheechoo's production has slipped two consecutive seasons since his breakout year in 2005-06, when he led the league with 56 goals and added 37 assists.
Fantasy outlook: Rookie coach Todd McClellan is changing the Sharks' system into more of a puck-possession game akin to that of his former employer, the Red Wings. Veteran defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake figure to be key players because of their ability to carry the puck. Up front, Joe Thornton will adjust well to the new system and be a top-10 scorer and fantasy star. His wingers, Patrick Marleau and Clowe, are hoping to rebound after disappointing years. Vezina finalist Evgeni Nabokov should again get 40-plus wins and produce a nice GAA and save percentage. -- Jim Wilkie