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Wigge: Sizing up the new-look Sharks

Friday, 11.20.2009 / 12:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

At first blush, we can't see the forest from the trees when looking at the San Jose Sharks.

* Joe Thornton's still putting up points.

* Even though Patrick Marleau is no longer captain, he's more of a leader now than before.

* Dan Boyle is still the straw that stirs the drink in San Jose.

* And Evgeni Nabokov continues to stop nearly everything.

But GM Doug Wilson's makeover of the Sharks roster is more than just trading key second-tier scorers Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to Ottawa for Dany Heatley.

Career 500-goal scorer Jeremy Roenick retired. So did Claude Lemieux. Also gone are defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich, checkers Michael Grier, Travis Moen and Marcel Goc, along with backup netminder Brian Boucher.

"A lot of new faces. New chemistry," Thornton said. "But ..."

The Sharks, who were 53-18-11, the best record in the NHL last season, were unceremoniously ousted in the first round of the playoffs in six games by eighth-seeded Anaheim. Early playoff exits for several years for a team with expectations, that means changes.

"You're out. That's it," Thornton said. "It doesn't matter who was No. 1 and who was No. 8. Doug Wilson obviously felt frustration by what he saw -- and in the past, he's always made the right moves to make us better."

Following San Jose's 3-1 victory in St. Louis on Nov. 14, the Sharks had a 14-4-3 record -- once again good for the top spot in the NHL. They also were 9-0-1 in their last 10 games and 11-1-1 in their last 12 starts.

Heatley's off to a 14-goal start in his first 22 games. Thornton's once again challenging for the League's scoring title and Marleau's on pace to surpass season-high of 38 goals, set last season. Plus, Boyle and Nabokov are chipping in with their best performances as usual.

But that's where this story begins. There's nothing different from San Jose's top ranking in the NHL considering what the Sharks did last season. But there's plenty different about the atmosphere around this team.

Look no further than the team's energy/checking line of Scott Nichol centering Jed Ortmeyer and Manny Malhotra. Nichol and Ortmeyer were lured away from a hard-working Nashville team, while Malhotra came from Columbus.

"I wouldn't call them a No. 3 line," coach Todd McLellan said. "They've been an impact line for us ... and on many nights they've been our best line."

Energy. Being relentless and gritty.

"It's more than that," Thornton said. "Each of those guys has come in trying to make an impression -- and, in the process, they've helped create a new identity for our team.

"They play with a sandpaper approach, hard to play against -- and their energy has been contagious. I know I don't want to come to the rink, watch them play with energy and have someone say they've outworked me. I think we all feel that way."

Nichol didn't hesitate on July 15, when the Sharks called and made him a free-agent offer.

"Are you kidding? Being able to join the best team in the NHL?" Nichol said. "I not only didn't hesitate to sign with the Sharks, but I also didn't hesitate to bring everything I've got to training camp."

McLellan says when he was back in Detroit, working with Wings coach Mike Babcock, there was one word for the commitment that went through all the roles on that team, whether it be scorer, passer or checker.

"The word is passion," McLellan said when asked about the comments Thornton made about Nichol and Co. "Scottie has only one speed -- and that's 100 mph."

You won't get Thornton or McLellan or any of the Sharks to gush over the success they've had early this season. Because they've been there, done that -- not getting past the second round of the playoffs since 2004.

"You want to build a foundation, a model of consistency, a way of playing that makes you hard to beat in April, May
and June," Thornton said.

Born to be orange -- Back on draft day, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was asked if he was surprised at the Philadelphia Flyers acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul, rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa and two first-round picks.

He smiled and said, "I think he was born to wear orange. He's got the whole package, size and skill as well as being a leader. But the fans in Philadelphia will love that mean streak he brings to every game."

Coming into this season, the Flyers were looking to find a way to win some of the close games that got away from them in recent time. Pronger has often been that difference-maker this season. And he was again on Nov. 16 when the Flyers hosted the New Jersey Devils, who were on the verge of tying an NHL record of 10 consecutive road victories to start a season.

In Philadelphia's 3-2 victory over the Devils, goalie Ray Emery got a lot of attention, as did Darroll Powe, Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk for their goals. But there was Pronger, playing 26:51 and was a tower of strength on defense with one hit, but four blocked shots while adding two shots to the offense.

Avalanche warning -- Being successful in back-to-back games always has been a pretty good barometer of a strong team in my mind. Don't look now, but the Colorado Avalanche won their first seven games in those stamina-testing two-games-in-two-night situations following a 3-2 victory at Calgary Nov. 17, before they finally lost one in a back-to-back set one night later in Edmonton, 6-4.

It's easy to same that goaltender Craig Anderson has been the No. 1 constant in that consistency for Colorado (he gave way to Peter Budaj in the loss to the Oilers). And a look at the veteran leadership of Milan Hejduk (6 goals, 1 assist in those back-to-backs), Wojtek Wolski (3 goals, 4 assists) and Paul Stastny (2 goals, 5 assists).

But on Nov. 17, the cream that came to the top as well was a gritty group of defensemen -- especially after captain Adam Foote went out of the game in the first period with a jaw injury that limited the Avs to just five D-men -- veterans Scott Hannan and Brett Clark, along with Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey and Ryan Wilson -- the rest of the way.

In the end those defensemen were a key part of blocking an impressive 24 Flames shots as the Avs retained first place in the Northwest Division with the victory over Calgary.

"They do a good job of taking your space away and get big in front of you, blocking shots and clogging up the passing lanes," praised Flames winger Rene Bourque.

Added Colorado coach Joe Sacco, "They always sacrifice their bodies to try and help the team -- and they knew how important this game was tonight."

A roadblock of sorts -- To say Alex Auld is almost as important as MapQuest to the Dallas Stars would be an oversimplification. He's a backup goaltender to Marty Turco, so most of his assignments come on the road. But ...

Here's the angle to this story -- following a 31-save effort in Detroit on Nov. 18, all three of his wins have come on the road. But consider this: 40 of his 77 career victories in the NHL have also come in road games. In fact, Auld is one of only five active NHL goaltenders with at least 50 career wins who's won more games on the road than at home -- along with Vesa Toskala, Brian Boucher, Antero Niittymaki and Carey Price.

Not Greene anymore -- There have been plenty of pretty elite players perform for the Devils in New Jersey, but undrafted, unheralded defenseman Andy Greene recently bedeviled all of us when he either scored or assisted on the winning goal in five consecutive games to set a team record.

"You want to build a foundation, a model of consistency, a way of playing that makes you hard to beat in April, May and June." -- Joe Thornton

In fact, the last time a player on any team in the NHL accomplished the feat -- it was Daniel Alfredsson with Ottawa in January 2007.

"If there's one thing you learn when you are fighting for ice time to establish yourself in the NHL, it's to make sure you bear down and put yourself in good positions," Greene said. "Stay focused. Try to make an impact on every shift you get."

Coach Jacques Lemaire, who helped develop the likes of New Jersey defensemen Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko among others, smiles when he watches the 27-year-old Trenton, Mich., native, saying, "He's a different player than the one I saw a few times when I coached in Minnesota and we'd play the Devils. Since training camp, he's shown me a player who is good with the puck, makes good plays, he's patient and doesn't get rattled."

In other words, a Jacques Lemaire-type player who has gotten well over 20 minutes of ice time every night since Oct. 29.

Trying to be like Mike, er, Ovie, er themselves -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau knew his team would be in awe of Alex Ovechkin's return after he missed six games with a shoulder injury, just like the fans.

"He's an exciting player. I imagine it'll be like Michael Jordan, everyone watching him in the shoot-around. What an exciting athlete and entertainer," Boudreau explained. "That said, I don't want to see our players standing around watching Ovie and saying to themselves, 'Alex is back, let's let him do it.' I want them to play like a team like they did when he was out."

The Caps were 4-2 without Ovechkin, scoring 22 goals in those six games (3.675 goals per game). More important, they were 6-for-14 on the power play.

But Boudreau got his wish Nov. 17, when the Capitals got their first goal by Ovi. And they added three more goals for a 4-2 triumph over the New York Rangers.

He wears a Blue jacket --  Edmonton winger Ales Hemsky has owned the Columbus Blue Jackets over the years with 30 goals in 22 games coming into a Nov. 16 contest. Sure enough, he scored another goal.

"Give him five seconds in our zone with the puck and we freeze or we're mesmerized by him," said Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock.

Things that make you go hmmmmm -- One of the reasons goalie Ray Emery has been a strong pickup for the Flyers -- he's only given up four first-period goals and has blanked teams 12 times in the first 20 minutes (and we all know how that teams leading after one period usually win about 70 percent of the games). ... Flames power forward Jarome Iginla has scored the first goal of a game a league-high five times this season and all of his opening goals have come in an eight-game span. ... One more first-goal note. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave up the first goal in 17 of their first 19 games -- and won only three of those 19 games. What's more, their falling-behind-in-games pace would break an NHL record -- which is currently held by the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers, who fell behind early 57 times in their inaugural season and posted a forgettable 14-57-7-4 record. ... New stick, new attitude? Not quite, even if Pittsburgh Penguins playmaker extraordinaire Sidney Crosby had 76 shots in 21 games and was tied for fourth in the NHL with Dustin Brown -- behind only Alex Ovechkin with 86, Zach Parise with 84 and Jeff Carter with 78. ... Shootouts? Be careful what you wish for when you face Mathieu Garon in that shooting gallery. The Oilers should have known. After all, Garon, now the backup goaltender in Columbus, once won 11 straight shootouts for Edmonton. But there he was on Nov. 16, stopping Patrick O'Sullivan, Dustin Penner and Gilbert Brule in the fourth round of the shootout, after Ales Hemsky beat Garon, for his 13th consecutive shootout win. The victory gave Garon a career record of 18-4 in shootouts. ... Happy birthday to Islanders defenseman Tim Jackman celebrated his 28th birthday Nov. 14 by scoring a goal 16 seconds into a 5-4 shootout loss at Florida. Only three other players in NHL history have scored a goal in the first minute of play on their birthday -- Thomas Eriksson (32 seconds into a game on his 24th birthday in 1983), Elmer Lach (43 seconds, on his 26th birthday in 1944) and Dave Taylor (52 seconds, on his 24th birthday in 1979). ... Vinny Prospal has been a big pick-me-up for the New York Rangers this season. New York's lone regulation goal in a 2-1 shootout victory at Ottawa on Nov. 14 was a shorthanded goal. What makes that so important is that it was the first shorthanded goal of Prospal's 13-year, 203-goal career. Now, the only active players with 200 or more goals -- but none shorthanded -- are Andrew Brunette, Daniel Briere, Sergei Samsonov and Michael Nylander. ... Steven Stamkos is proving all of his doubters in the first half of last season wrong, wrong, wrong. He netted 13 goals in his first 16 games this season -- and, though he's scoring them everywhere around the NHL, he recently had a six-game home goal streak to tie a Tampa Bay Lightning record set by Brian Bradley in 1992-93 and matched by Vinny Prospal in 2007-08. ... You would hardly know that Ilya Kovalchuk had missed the Atlanta Thrashers' last six games due to a broken right foot when he returned to the lineup and contributed 1 goal and 2 assists to Atlanta's 5-3 win over the Rangers on Nov. 12. The goal was Kovalchuk's 10th in nine games this season. The only season in which Kovalchuk needed fewer games to reach double figures in goals was 2003-04, when he scored goal No. 10 in his eighth game. ... Here's one I bet you didn't know. Montreal center Tomas Plekanec has scored three points or more in a game 12 times in his NHL career -- and nine of them have come on the road. ... Nearly every game last season someone somewhere was wondering what was wrong with Ottawa center Mike Fisher. After putting up 22, 22 and 23 goals in his previous three seasons, Fisher slumped to 13 goals and somehow the grunt work he does so well on defense and in the intangible department was overlooked. Don't look now, but Mike is being looked at for his two-way resume by Team Canada for the upcoming Olympics. Media folks are nodding their heads in the affirmative this time because he already has 8 goals and nearly a point per game. ... Here's a Tipp: New Phoenix coach Dave Tippett knows a defense-first game makes a team competitive on the road -- and if you win on the road you should be OK. Following a 3-2 win at Minnesota on November 18, the Coyotes had won six of 10 on the road. They didn't get their sixth road win last season until after Christmas.


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