While the Sharks roster is virtually set to return the same lineup that went to the Western Conference Finals in 2004, with the addition of three prominent players who were not there for that stretch run in Marco Sturm, Milan Michalek and Marcel Goc, the Sharks bid farewell to their longest tenured player in Mike Rathje who signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers today.
Despite making a significant multi-year contract offer to Rathje during the exclusive period that each NHL team had to negotiate with their Group III Free Agents before they hit the open market, Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson and his staff knew this was a distinct possibility.
"We were aware and prepared for the possibility of Mike signing elsewhere," said Wilson. "We have tremendous respect for Mike and we thank him for everything he did for the franchise and honor his decision making process."
Rathje, 31, played all his 671 NHL games in a Sharks sweater, a franchise record. He leaves the franchise ranked first among all-time Sharks defenseman in goals and points (27 goals, 128 assists for 155 points).
"Under the new system, I can't blame Mike for taking the five-year deal offered at this point in his career," said Wilson. "With all of the rule changes and with three big, quality defensemen leaders in our line-up in Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart and Kyle McLaren, we feel our defense will remain among the top groups in the NHL. This creates an opportunity for players like Tom Preissing, Christain Ehrhoff, Jim Fahey, Rob Davison, Doug Murray and Matt Carkner to step up, just like the opportunity created in 2003-04 when we earned 104 points for guys like Patrick Marleau
, Marco Sturm, Scott Hannan, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Alyn McCauley with the departure of Owen Nolan, Teemu Selanne, Niklas Sundstrom and Marcus Ragnarsson."