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Blake wants one more kick at the Cup

by Eric Stephens
Rob Blake isn’t ready to call it quits anytime soon, but he can also see the end is approaching faster than ever in his rearview mirror.

Faced with a decision to work out a deal with the team he’s been associated with for 13 of his 18 NHL seasons or head elsewhere for one last, realistic chance to take another drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup, Blake’s choice was actually quite clear.

Goodbye, Los Angeles. Hello, San Jose.

"To be honest with you, I knew I wanted to play after last season," Blake said. "I started to feel better over the summer and I wanted to continue to play. When the option wasn’t there with L.A., I had to look elsewhere. With San Jose being in close proximity, but also being a very hungry team, I looked at it and thought it would be a good fit.

"When I had to look elsewhere, it was 'Where do I think I can go that has the most opportunity to win?' At this stage, I follow that."

The Kings’ decision to usher in a full-fledged youth movement following a last-place finish in 2007-08 painted a picture that the 38-year-old Blake no longer wanted to be in. Meanwhile, San Jose made it clear that it has tired of second-round playoff exits after 100-plus point seasons. 

It helped Blake that the Sharks were willing to offer $5 million for this season, not as much as the $6 million he made the last two seasons with the Kings, but enough to make him feel wanted.

As soon as it was apparent that Blake would hit the market July 1, San Jose acted quickly. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson and new coach Todd McLellan, whom Wilson hired in June, came to the agreement that the changes they wanted to make would be on defense.

"We’d been trying to acquire Rob for the last couple of years now," Wilson said. "One of the things that we really like was his right-hand shot from the point. With Dan Boyle, we’ve got two those guys when it’s a rarity to find one. As soon as it was July 1, we were on the phone.

"I think it’s just the right fit. Great players often need to have the opportunity to win to get the best of them."

The Sharks are built for now with longtime standouts Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo in place and Vezina Trophy finalist Evgeni Nabokov in goal.

Blake isn’t the focal point. He doesn’t have to be "Superman" as McLellan puts it, or even be the mentor for some of the team’s younger defensemen, as he was last season for L.A.'s promising Jack Johnson.

But that doesn’t mean Blake is a supporting player, even at this stage of his career. He’s logging at least 22 minutes of ice time on most nights and played 26 minutes, 43 seconds in a recent game at Philadelphia.

"We just want him to be Rob Blake from minute 1 to minute 60 and show up again the next day," McLellan said. "He wasn’t brought in to be a complementary piece. He’s a go-to piece. His minutes and his ability to make an impact on the game have spoken for itself.

"We had no interest in bringing in a free-agent defenseman just to be a complementary piece. Rob is a very important piece and will continue to be that throughout the year."

Joe Thornton said Blake brings an element on the blue line that was missing until the team acquired free agent Brian Campbell in a trade deadline deal last season.

Not only can Blake play in all situations, but Thornton said "we haven’t had guys that can play 25 to 30 minutes a night."

"He can do that for us," Thornton continued. "He can play the minutes that you might need sometimes. Yeah, he still has great legs and skates really well. He moves the puck and he’s still one of the top D-men in the League. He’s a force to be reckoned with still, even at his age."

A seven-time All-Star with 40 or more points in 10 seasons, Blake quickly won over the San Jose faithful with a 2-assist game in his debut. The veteran, however, went without a point for 6 straight games before notching an assist in consecutive games at Florida and Tampa Bay.

Opposing teams are seeing the difference in how the Sharks are having Blake unleash his big shot from point early and often to generate offense from the blue line to complement Thornton’s ability to make plays from down low.

"I think he’s playing with a hockey club that’s utilizing him to his strengths," Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said of Blake. "He’s a big man that can play defense. He’s got a great stick and a big-time shot. He’s seems to be healthy and very comfortable in their lineup.

"Anytime you have that player of that caliber playing to the top of their level, they’re going to make an impact."

In his first few weeks in the Sharks’ dressing room, Blake kept coming back to one word to describe his new team.

"They’re hungry," he said. "They’ve had good regular seasons. They haven’t had the playoff success they’ve wanted and their stars are hungry. They’re great players. The next level is to win a Cup and they’re hungry for it. All the players are buying in."

Blake said this experience reminds of him of 2001 when the Colorado Avalanche made a big deal at the trade deadline to get the 1998 Norris Trophy winner from the Kings, the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 1988 and watched him blossom into their anchor on the back end over 11-plus seasons.

Led by franchise superstars Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, a loaded Colorado team had seen its 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons end in 7-game losses to Dallas in the Western Conference finals. But 4 months after the trade for Blake, the defenseman was hoisting the Cup after the Avalanche’s 7-game victory over the New Jersey Devils.

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