After unrestricted free-agent right wing Teemu Selanne took a $3
million pay cut to re-sign with the Sharks in July, he did a more
remarkable thing: He told general manager Dean Lombardi, "You
haven't seen my best hockey yet." That's a positive sign for a
team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Selanne's 29 goals on San
Jose's second line led the team last season, and his decision to
stay with the Sharks keeps a deep, talented roster with a
league-high six 20-goal scorers intact. "He's a huge piece," says
Lombardi, who signed the 32-year-old Selanne to a one-year, $6.5
million deal. "What he showed in coming back here at this stage
of his career is so unusual, but it shows he's committed to
San Jose has increased its point total in each of the last seven
seasons, hitting a franchise-record 99 last year, and with its
key twentysomething contributors one year older, it is more
dangerous than the club that blew a 3-2 series lead against the
Avalanche in the Western Conference semifinals last spring.
Top-liners Vincent Damphousse (20 goals, 38 assists), Adam Graves
(17, 14) and Owen Nolan (23, 43) are solid point producers, but
retaining Selanne, who turned down a reported two-year, $15
million offer from an Eastern Conference team, allows the Sharks
to pursue their desired off-season plan of improving from within.
In postmortem meetings after the Colorado series Lombardi, coach
Darryl Sutter and other members of the front office identified 14
areas for on-ice improvement, foremost among them the mediocre
power play, which ranked 13th in the NHL.
With defenseman Gary Suter's retiring last month, the Sharks will
rely more on 22-year-old Jeff Jillson, a hulking 6'3"
220-pounder. Jillson has excellent offensive skills, and the
Sharks expect his power-play numbers (three goals, 12 assists in
48 games as a rookie last season) to increase dramatically.
"We're counting on him to play at a higher level," Lombardi says,
"but that can be a dangerous expectation with a second-year
Patrick Marleau, 23, will also be a power-play mainstay,
centering regular linemates Selanne and Marco Sturm. The second
pick in the 1997 draft, Marleau has been a middling 30- to
50-point producer in his five-year NHL career, but he caught fire
at the end of last season, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in the
final 10 games, and then adding six goals and 11 points in 12
postseason matches. In 2002-03 Marleau will get increased ice
time (he averaged just 14:04 last season), and his production
could finally meet the predictions the Sharks had when they
Assuming his stalled contract negotiations don't force him to
miss substantial regular-season time (as of Monday he was a
holdout), 27-year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who vaulted into
the league's elite last season with 37 wins, seven shutouts and a
.918 save percentage, gives San Jose a dominant netminder. No
longer content with year-to-year improvement, the Sharks feel
they're a Stanley Cup contender, and they're right. "When the
players went home in May, it was the first year they were ticked
off that they didn't advance," Lombardi says. "They thought we
should have won that second-round series."
And we haven't seen their best hockey yet. --D.G.H.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (SHARKS) [Regional Cover Inset] WHY THE SHARKS ARE CUP CONTENDERS MIKE RICCI
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Patrick Marleau
In each of the last seven years the Sharks have increased their
season points total: from 42 in 1994-95 to 47, 62, 78, 80, 87, 95
and then 99 in 2001-02.
CATEGORY SI SKINNY
OFFENSE 4 Good balance, but Nolan needs to score 40 again
DEFENSE 6 Underrated Ragnarsson, Rathje can shut down any
GOALTENDING 10 If Nabokov signs, all's well; if not, there's
SPECIAL TEAMS 6 Ricci, Sundstrom are penalty-killing aces
MANAGEMENT 6 Under the gun, Sutter signed only through season