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Pressure's on as Sharks try to erase disappointment

by Eric Stephens /
Something had to be done. Not just anything. Something big.

That was the common refrain that surrounded the San Jose Sharks this summer following a stunning first-round playoff exit dealt by the Anaheim Ducks, which effectively ruined a record-breaking 53-win, 117-point season that earned the club its first Presidents' Trophy.

Regular-season champions aren't revered if they don't reach the finish line and the Sharks haven't been close to winning the Stanley Cup despite annually putting themselves in a position to do so. A first-round ouster following three-consecutive seasons that ended in the second round only intensified the calls for General Manager Doug Wilson to shake up the roster.

Trade Joe Thornton. Trade Patrick Marleau. Trade anybody.

Fans wondered when Wilson would make the big move. Instead, the congenial executive quietly reworked his checking and energy lines before he put two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley in his sights when the mercurial forward wanted out of Ottawa following a personality clash with coach Cory Clouston.

On Sept. 13, Wilson got his man as he sent wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, along with a second-round pick, to the Senators.

"There are not many guys in the League who have his skill set to score 50 goals and be the type of player selected to the camp of the team hardest in the world to make, the Canadian Olympic team," Wilson told "When you get a player of this caliber it can only make your team better, especially a highly motivated player and especially a guy who's just coming into his prime."

Wilson hasn't been gun shy in his quest to bring a Cup to the Bay Area. In the last few years, he's traded for Thornton, Brian Campbell, Bill Guerin, Craig Rivet and Dan Boyle.

And now Heatley. Time will tell if this is the move that puts the Sharks over the top.

Heatley has drawn strong opinions, for better or worse, from coast to coast for his request to leave Ottawa, his veto of a trade to Edmonton and his eventual acceptance of a move to San Jose. But there's no denying the talent he possesses.

Still only 28, Heatley has 260 goals and 543 points in seven NHL seasons -- a total which averages out to 37 goals and 78 points. He had 50 goals and topped 100 points in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the year that the Senators reached the Stanley Cup Final. Last season's "off" year still produced 39 goals and 72 points.

San Jose coach Todd McLellan has been breaking Heatley in with his potential linemates, Thornton and Devin Setoguchi.

"I think he makes us a better team," McLellan said. "I don't think our management group and us as coaches would be happy to move laterally. We gave up two very good players. But yet we feel we're a better hockey club right now.

"At this moment, we have work to do. But as we evolve, I think he makes us a better hockey club."

Thornton has fielded his own share of criticism this summer, but "Jumbo Joe" sacrificed some of his usual offensive numbers to fit into McLellan's system and still finished 11th in the League in scoring with 86 points. The big pivot could push toward 100 points again with Heatley on his left side.

Setoguchi is coming off a breakout 31-goal season as he rounds out what could one of the best lines in the NHL. But the Sharks' offense doesn't rest with those three.

Many teams would be thrilled to ice a second scoring line of Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. Eighty-three goals and 182 points were produced among the threesome, including a career-high 38 by Marleau last season.

There will be significant change among the bottom six. Cheechoo was dealt, Marcel Goc and Tomas Plihal were sent packing, Jeremy Roenick retired, Claude Lemieux retired again and Travis Moen and Mike Grier were allowed to walk.

Both Wilson and McLellan want more grit and, preferably, more scoring as the Sharks rarely got anything from their third and fourth lines. Torrey Mitchell, who missed the 2008-09 regular season because of a broken leg, will center the checking line once he recovers from tendinitis in his knee.

Following four seasons with Nashville, Scott Nichol signed a one-year deal to bring energy, display toughness and kill penalties. Versatile 10-year vet Manny Malhotra will take another spot. Former Colorado and St. Louis winger Dan Hinote is getting a long look in his tryout.

And there are the prospects vying for jobs. Jamie McGinn appeared in 35 games as a rookie and could be a natural fit on left wing. Benn Ferriero and Brad Staubitz, who also got 35 games in San Jose last season, have also impressed McLellan in camp.

The prevailing question with the Sharks has been whether they have the will to match their skill. McLellan and Wilson sent another strong message when they stripped Marleau of the captaincy, making sure no one is comfortable with perennial playoff disappointment.

"I don't think anyone felt comfortable as far as their job security goes," McLellan said. "Players have come to camp knowing that still exists. They've committed themselves to the program, to working hard.

"There are a number of teammates that were on this team last season that aren't anymore, for whatever reason. There's new bodies coming in, there's young players fighting for positions. There are veterans that have to reestablish themselves within the organization and within the league. If anybody's comfortable at this point, I don't think that's a real good thing."

Once Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich were dealt to Vancouver in order to clear cap room for Heatley and his large contract, it opened up two spots on the blue line.

McLellan is taking a close look at a number of candidates, some of which have a lot of miles on the odometer and some who have yet to leave the showroom. Among those being considered are veteran Mathieu Dandenault (who can also play wing), journeyman Joe Callahan and prospects Mike Moore, Derek Joslin and Jason Demers.

Nick Petrecki, a 2007 first-round pick, was sent back to Worcester of the AHL on Tuesday.

"The separation that we hope to get between the four or five guys competing hasn't happened yet," McLellan said. "We still expect one, maybe two of them to make the hockey club. If you ask me right now who they were, I couldn't tell you."

But the Sharks will have their top four to lean on.

In his first season in San Jose, Dan Boyle took on a leadership role in the dressing room and on the ice as he ate up many minutes and put up numbers (16 goals, 41 assists) worthy of his selection to the NHL All-Star second team. It wouldn't be surprising if Boyle winds up as the Sharks' next captain.

Veteran Rob Blake (10-35-45, plus-15) showed that he still had something to offer, though his play tailed off a bit toward the end of the season as he played with a foot injury. Still, the 39-year-old signed on for another season in the hope that this will be the year to add a second Cup to his resume.

At 22, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has solidified his role as a top-four defenseman and the Montreal native should see even more time of the power play because of his strong puck-moving ability. Vlasic has flourished in McLellan's system and could put up bigger numbers in '08-09.

Physical rearguard Douglas Murray, who played in a career-best 75 games last season, gives the Sharks some bite on the back end. Murray won't put up many points, but he will make forwards pay a heavy price in the offensive zone.

Kent Huskins is certain to land a spot after signing a two-year, $3.4-million deal. Huskins, who can skate and is a decent puck mover, will be making his official San Jose debut as he never recovered from a broken foot suffered while playing for Anaheim before his dealt at the trade deadline.

Evgeni Nabokov starts his 10th season in teal and black and his body of work has largely mirrored that of his team -- tremendous regular seasons followed by the inability to match that elite play in the postseason.


RECORD: 41-12-8
SV%: .910 | GAA: 2.44 | SO: 7

A two-time All-Star, Nabokov will likely be counted on for 70 or more games this season now that last year's backup, Brian Boucher, signed with Philadelphia during the off-season. It's not unfamiliar territory for Nabokov, who played in 77 games in 2007-08.

But it could be pivotal year for the 34-year-old native of Kazakhstan, who can be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010. Nabokov has won 87 games the past two seasons and has had six of more shutouts in each of the past three campaigns.

With Boucher gone, Thomas Greiss figures to get his first real shot. Greiss, who has just three NHL games to his credit, improved as last season went on as he went 30-24-2 for Worcester with a 2.47 goals-against average and one shutout.

How Greiss plays in the few starts he'll get will determine what kind of faith McLellan has in the German netminder as he considers when to give his workhorse Nabokov an occasional rest.

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