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Still chasing Cup, Sharks sporting new look in goal

by Dave Lozo
The San Jose Sharks showed last season that they solved the problems that led to the early playoff exits that had haunted them in recent years. But a sweep at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals showed they were still a ways away from winning a Stanley Cup.

It's hard to look at a trip to the NHL's final four as a disappointment, but that comes with the territory after winning a Presidents' Trophy. The Sharks finished with 113 points, the fourth consecutive season in which they had at least 107 points. Despite all that success, the Sharks haven't found a way to reach the Stanley Cup Final, never mind win it.

GM Doug Wilson was left with a tough decision this summer: with only so much money to go around under the salary cap, there was only room for either high-scoring winger Patrick Marleau or goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. In the end, Marleau signed a four-year contract and Nabokov bolted for the KHL.

The Sharks are hoping a few tweaks to their roster during the offseason make all the difference in 2010-11.

By far the biggest loss off the offseason was Nabokov. He won 131 games the past three seasons and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2008, narrowly losing to New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur.

But Nabokov's sub-par play in the West Finals seemed to be the final nail in his coffin. He allowed 12 goals in those four games and was outplayed by Blackhawks rookie Antti Niemi.

The Sharks -- and the rest of the NHL -- said goodbye to defenseman and captain Rob Blake, who called it a career at the age of 40. And it wasn't as if Blake was barely hanging on -- he was third on the team in ice time per game at 21:21. Replacing his presence on the ice and in the locker room will be a major challenge for San Jose.

Manny Malhotra's departure for the Vancouver Canucks didn't receive the same fanfare as Nabokov's, but it's a big loss nonetheless. The 30-year-old forward played the role of a checking forward who could chip in with a goal now and again while also acting as a rock on the penalty kill.

Also leaving the organization this summer was right wing Brad Staubitz, who was dealt to the Minnesota Wild for a draft pick.

Antero Niittymaki was signed to a two-year contract on July 1, signaling a changing of the guard -- or at least the goaltender -- for the Sharks.

The 30-year-old Niittymaki has a lot to prove. In six seasons, he's yet to win more than 23 games. He's coming off a season in which he was 21-18-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .909 save percentage for a poor Tampa Bay Lightning team. The most games Niittymaki has played in a season is 52 with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2006-07, when he posted a 9-29-9 mark with a 3.38 GAA and .887 save percentage.

But Niittymaki has shown steady improvement over the years and he's never played with a team as talented as the Sharks. It could be a recipe for success.

The Sharks added some grit in Jamal Mayers, a 35-year-old forward who spent last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and later the Calgary Flames after a trade in late-January that involved Dion Phaneuf. In 71 games between the teams, Mayers had 3 goals, 11 assists and 131 penalty minutes.

It's a risky move for a team as consistently dominant as the Sharks to trust the goaltending duties to someone as untested as Niittymaki. For all of the blame Nabokov received for the Sharks' poor showings in recent playoffs, he still had a career 2.29 GAA in the postseason and was a workhorse in the regular season. The loss of Blake will also be huge, but defenseman Dan Boyle is a strong leader in his own right and could be awarded the captaincy. The Sharks will most likely take a step back this season, but it shouldn't be a major one.

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