You would think that the eight-year-old Sharks, who have never
had a .500 season, would have regarded 1997-98 as a modest
success. San Jose closed the regular season solidly (25-20-8 in
its final 53 regular-season games), secured a playoff spot and
played the vaunted Stars tough before suffering a six-game,
first-round loss. But Sharks coach Darryl Sutter wasn't
impressed. He has reached the playoffs in each of his 12 NHL
seasons as a player and coach, so such accomplishments are
expected. "We have a long way to go," he says.
That echoes the sentiments of Dean Lombardi, who took over as
San Jose's general manager in March 1996 and who, despite the
Sharks' pitiful past, set his sights on the Stanley Cup. His
strategy was simple: bring in young talent and surround it with
experience and grit.
That plan seems to be working. Precocious centers Patrick
Marleau, 19, and Marco Sturm, 20, both have exceptional skills.
The main reason they've blossomed so quickly into respected
NHLers is because they learned so much last season playing
behind savvy veterans Mike Ricci, 26, and Bernie Nicholls, 37.
"We know Marleau and Sturm can play," says Lombardi, "but what
matters is to get them to the level where they can compete
against centers like Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov."
The youth education program is also clicking on defense. During
the off-season, the Sharks signed four-time All-Star Gary Suter,
34, and reliable Bob Rouse, also 34. These veterans are ideal
models for such promising blueliners as Andrei Zyuzin, 20; 6'6",
240-pound rookie Andy Sutton, 23; and Brad Stuart, 18, the No. 3
pick in June's draft.
Aside from Jeff Friesen (31 goals), one of the Sharks' four
unsigned free agents, San Jose lacks young punch on the wing.
However, it has a goaltending tandem that fits perfectly into
its scheme. Steve Shields, 26, was acquired to back up
35-year-old Mike Vernon. The Sharks hope Vernon's
competitiveness will rub off on Shields because he may be the
No. 1 goalie in a couple of years--about the time the Sharks
should have made enough progress to draw a rave or two from
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Jeff Friesen, 22, is the franchise's career leader in goals
(89), assists (107), points (196), game-winning goals (14) and
shorthanded goals (9). He's the youngest active player to lead
any club's lists in all those categories.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Power forward Owen Nolan, who had 30 or more goals in five
earlier NHL seasons, needs to rebound from a poor 1997-98,
in which he scored only 14 times.
--The veterans must keep the intensity level high because the
Sharks can't match the talent of the top teams in the West.