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Sharks aim for postseason success

Wednesday, 09.03.2008 / 9:00 AM / Season Preview

By John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist

The San Jose Sharks have been one of the NHL's best regular-season teams over the past several seasons. They won the Pacific Division last season, went 20 games without a regulation loss and finished second in the overall standings.
   
But after a shaky first-round playoff victory against Calgary and a second-round elimination by Dallas, General Manager Doug Wilson decided that wasn't enough.

Wilson opted for a coaching change, dismissing Ron Wilson and bringing in Todd McLellan, who enjoyed success at the junior and AHL levels before earning a Stanley Cup ring last spring as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.
 
The Sharks have had 99, 107 and 108 points during the last three seasons. Those totals have only been surpassed by the Red Wings, who have 124, 113 and 115 points during the same period.

"I think there is a parallel between San Jose and Detroit," McLellan said. "It took the Red Wings three years of playoff experience to finally win the Stanley Cup. As a team, we had gained experience from losing to Edmonton in 2006 and Anaheim in 2007."

But a coaching change wasn't the only alteration. Wilson, a stellar defenseman as a player, almost completely revamped his defense by adding Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich -- while losing their big deadline-day acquisition, Brian Campbell, as a free agent to Chicago and dealing Craig Rivet to Buffalo in order to stay under the salary cap.

It's not a coincidence that all three newcomers, like their new coach, have Stanley Cup rings. Regular-season success will no longer be good enough in the Bay area.

Goalies

SAN JOSE SHARKS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 108
(2nd West/2nd NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +1
Home Points 50
(7th West/12th NHL)
Away Points 58
(1st West/1st NHL)
Evgeni Nabokov has climbed into the NHL's goaltending elite. He was voted to the First All-Star Team and was runner-up for the Vezina Trophy after winning 46 games, posting a 2.14 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and six shutouts. At 33, he should have several more top-level seasons ahead, especially if McLellan gets his players to make the same commitment to defense that Ron Wilson did -- Nabokov saw less than 24 shots on goal per 60 minutes, one of the lowest totals among starting goaltenders.

"I think people know how we feel about our goaltender," Wilson said of his netminder. "And his record speaks for itself. Winning is what it's all about."

One difference between this season and last figures to be Nabokov's workload. Nabokov played in 77 of San Jose's 82 regular-season games because the Sharks lacked a veteran backup until landing Brian Boucher at the trade deadline. Ron Wilson was reluctant to give rookie Thomas Greiss any real work, and even Boucher played only five games (going 3-1-1 with a 1.76 GAA) in the regular season and just two minutes in the playoffs.

Nabokov appeared to show the effects of playing in 77 regular-season games during the Sharks' two playoff rounds, when he struggled before San Jose outlasted Calgary and never seemed to be able to come up with the one big save his team needed in a six-game loss to Dallas. Don't expect Nabokov to start the Sharks' first 43 games -- as he did last season before Greiss got the first of his two starts.

"Brian came in and played very well for us down the stretch,"  Wilson said after re-signing Boucher. "With his regular season and postseason experience, it gives us a goaltending tandem that is second-to-none in the NHL."
   
Should Boucher not be up to the task, Greiss figures to get another chance. In the meantime, Wilson is more than content to let him mature at Worcester of the AHL, where he tops a long list of goaltending prospects.

Forwards

McLellan inherits the NHL's most prolific setup man in center Joe Thornton, who led the Sharks with 96 points last season and topped all NHL players with 67 assists. He has averaged 1.36 points per game since joining the Sharks early in 2005-06 and at his best offers a combination of size and skill that's unmatched among centers in the NHL.

What the Sharks need to find is more balanced scoring. Milan Michalek's 55 points were second on the team -- but 41 behind Thornton -- and only Michalek (24) and Jonathan Cheechoo (23) broke the 20-goal mark. Cheechoo's decline since his 56-goal performance in 2005-06 has been especially disappointing. He doesn't have to break 50 goals again, but if he spends most of his time playing with Thornton, there's no reason Cheechoo shouldn't approach 40.

Captain Patrick Marleau (19-29-48) also put up disappointing offensive numbers last season, though he played well in the playoffs. Center Joe Pavelski had 19 goals and 40 points in his first full NHL season (as well as seven shootout goals in 11 tries) and looks like a player who's ready to break out. His offensive numbers could go way up if McLellan gives him more ice time -- the skill is certainly there.

"He's a big-time player," Wilson said of the former University of Wisconsin star, who had 15 points in his last 18 regular-season games. "We think he's right on path. I'm not going to limit expectations on him. I think he can be a heck of a player in this League. ... He wants the puck on his stick when the game's on the line."

The Sharks have excelled at finding young talent, and they could get a boost from Ryan Clowe, a big left wing who missed most of the regular season but was San Jose's best player in the playoffs, tying for the team lead with five goals in 13 games. Clowe is big, strong and skilled -- and provides a presence in front of the net that the Sharks don't get from anyone else.

Youngsters Devin Setoguchi and Torrey Mitchell are good checkers and can contribute more offensively. The Sharks may also try to make room for Lukas Kasper, their No. 1 pick in 2004, who almost made the team last fall.

Also back for another season is Jeremy Roenick, who was ready to retire last summer before being talked into playing again by Wilson, a former teammate. Roenick had 14 goals and 33 points -- but 10 of the goals were game-winners, and he added effervescence to a team that often seemed to lack some fizz.

"He wants to win," Wilson said. "It's that simple. He plays hard. He's accomplished just about everything in this game. He wants to win. Look at how he played in the playoffs. When the game is on the line, he'll do whatever he can to win."

The Sharks will need more of that to get further in the playoffs.

Defensemen

The Sharks rolled the dice at the trade deadline, sending talented forward Steve Bernier and a first-round pick to Buffalo for All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell. The Sharks got their money's worth in the regular season, when Campbell put up 19 points in 20 games. But he was a non-factor in the playoffs, scoring only one goal and rarely making an impact. Despite that, the Sharks had hoped to keep him, but he opted to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, who are far closer to his home in Ottawa.

To fill the void, the Sharks sent former Hobey Baker winner Matt Carle as part of a package to Tampa Bay in return for Dan Boyle (4-21-25 in 37 games after recovering from a severe wrist injury caused by a skate cut), one of the NHL's best offensive defensemen and a key to the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup. Boyle should improve the Sharks' transition game and give a boost to a power play that failed to carry its share of the load last season.

"It's pretty rare when a player like Dan becomes available," Wilson said after acquiring the 32-year-old. "He's one of the elite players in this league. He's won a Stanley Cup. ... He'll be the quarterback of our power play for a long time."

The deal also brought Lukowich, a defensive defenseman who played with Boyle on the Bolts' Cup-winner four years ago.

Blake, now 38, signed with the Sharks after sandwiching stints with Los Angeles around a Cup-winning stay with Colorado. Blake isn't the premier defenseman he was earlier in his career, but he's still got a big shot and a physical presence. McLellan, who saw Mike Babcock effectively use Chris Chelios, should have no trouble making sure that Blake isn't worn down by playoff time.

Expect more than the 21 goals the Sharks' defensemen scored last season. Boyle and Blake could put up that many by themselves.



Blake should also come in handy as an additional mentor for youngsters such as Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Doug Murray, who will be counted on for more this season.

Three reasons for optimism

* Thornton is still the most prolific passer in the NHL. He's one of the few players who make anyone paired with him a threat to score at any time.

* Having Boucher on hand for a full season should make life easier for Nabokov, who's likely to see his load cut to 60-65 games -- which should leave him a little more refreshed for the playoffs. He appeared to be worn out as the postseason progressed.

* The coaching change should bring a new atmosphere to the team. The Sharks had gone about as far as they could under Ron Wilson, and Doug Wilson acted to bring in players and a coach with championships on their resumes in an effort to get his team to the next level.

Contact John Kreiser at jkreiser@nhl.com.

Season preview

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Northwest

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Pacific

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Phoenix
San Jose




Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers