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San Jose Sharks don't fear high expectations for next run at Cup @NHLdotcom

SAN JOSE, Calif. - When Jeremy Roenick scans the nameplates above the lockers in the San Jose Sharks' dressing room, a superlative springs wherever his eyes land.

From Joe Thornton's peerless playmaking and captain Patrick Marleau's leadership to rookie Torrey Mitchell's eye-popping speed, Roenick sees 23 reasons why the Sharks can live down their recent playoff failures - and live up to their hype as a fashionable pick to win their first Stanley Cup.

"Just knowing these guys and watching them skate every day, I don't see how we can't be the odds-on favourite," Roenick said Tuesday. "But with that comes a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure. We have to make sure that we don't sit on those accolades. We have to go out there and make sure they come true."

After making few changes to a roster that posted a franchise-record 107 points last spring, the Sharks are so loaded with largely homegrown talent that Roenick - the 495-goal scorer who signed 10 days before training camp - probably will be a healthy scratch when San Jose opens its season in Edmonton on Thursday night.

"I can be a cheerleader, and this is a great team to cheer for," Roenick said.

Though the Sharks are skating in striking new uniforms designed as a modern riff on the franchise's original teal jerseys, general manager Doug Wilson's club is built on consistency - even though last season's second-round playoff loss to Detroit fairly screamed for change.

Defenceman Scott Hannan and goalie Vesa Toskala are gone, but the core of last season's club is back. Instead of diving recklessly into the free-agent market, San Jose re-signed defenceman Craig Rivet and handed out contract extensions to Thornton, Marleau and Milan Michalek while preserving plenty of salary cap space for mid-season additions.

Though the Sharks operate on a budget, they insist they aren't cheap. Wilson thinks experience and patience can produce a Cup contender more reliably than slapdash overspending.

The Sharks are also betting that a club built mostly on remarkable speed and skill can thrive in the regular-season grind while preserving enough energy and toughness for playoff success.

That bet hasn't yet paid off: San Jose has been among the NHL's elite clubs in the two seasons since the lockout, but has only two first-round series victories over Nashville to show for it.

San Jose nevertheless has risen to the top of many prognosticators' lists of Cup favourites.

"I know I picked our team to win," Thornton said jokingly, through the space where his front teeth used to be. "My expectations are meeting everybody else's, finally. ... I think we've got a great combination of guys. We've got every piece you need on a team to win any game. It's just up to us now."

While the Sharks' grit will always be questioned until they finally raise the Cup, their strengths are easy to see - as long as you don't blink.

San Jose already was perhaps the NHL's fastest team before forwards Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi made the team in training camp, adding two more flashy skaters to a roster that Roenick calls "bleeping lightning-quick." The rookies will team up with Michalek on another line that's sure to disrupt defences.

"(We're) scary fast, and we just have to use it every night," coach Ron Wilson said. "I think we will. We've got the right kind of mix here. It's a team that's been together over three or four years in big games, and then we were able to add some veterans that will see the excitement in the young guys."

The Sharks finalized their opening-night roster Tuesday by putting centre Tomas Plihal and defencemen Alexei Semenov and Brad Norton on injured reserve. Mitchell and Setoguchi were the pleasant surprises of camp, while goalie Dimitri Patzold will begin the year as Evgeni Nabokov's backup.

And while Thornton was the NHL's second-leading scorer last year, Wilson decided his star centre could do even more. Thornton will begin the season on a line with Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo, putting last season's top three scorers together for the first consistent stretch of their careers.

"We believe in the organization," Thornton said. "Everybody loves playing with each other, and it's a great place to live. When you also have a chance to win every year, that's everything you want. I truly believe that in the next five, six years, we have a chance to win every year."

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