From 1994-95 through 2001-02 the Sharks made steady progress
until they were considered Stanley Cup contenders. Then last year
they collapsed. San Jose declined 26 points in the standings,
ending a string of four years in the playoffs, fired general
manager Dean Lombardi, traded captain Owen Nolan, didn't re-sign
free-agent star Teemu Selanne and wound up paring the payroll by
$10 million. Says new G.M. Doug Wilson, "We won't talk about last
year. We'll bury it, and bury the shovel, too."
The Sharks, who fell from ninth to 26th in goals allowed, must
rebuild around a defense that features workmanlike veterans Mike
Rathje and Scott Hannan, improving Brad Stuart, solid Kyle
McLaren and 21-year-old Christian Ehrhoff, the skilled German
defenseman who was the second youngest player at the 2002
Olympics. Ehrhoff is making his North American debut, and while
he might sometimes look uncomfortable amid the traffic on the
smaller NHL ice surface, he'll eventually be a blue line force.
Goalie Evgeni Nabokov could certainly use the help. Slowed by his
late signing three weeks into last season, Nabokov allowed an
additional .42 goals per game over his 2001-02 average, and his
save percentage dipped to a pedestrian .906, numbers that were
exacerbated by the league's worst penalty killing.
Another area San Jose must upgrade is its team speed. Checking
center Mike Ricci, who provided the Sharks with welcome grit
during their rise, has never been a speedster. Vincent Damphousse
still has quick hands, but he's 35 and no longer gets to his
spots as effortlessly as he once did; he might be shifted from
center, a position he has played since the mid-1990s, to left
wing. If Damphousse moves, the pressure is on 24-year-old Patrick
Marleau, who had 28 goals last year, to be the No. 1 center.
Respected coach Ron Wilson, who took over for the fired Darryl
Sutter last December, should be able to fix the penalty killing,
buck up Nabokov and keep the dressing room animated, but the road
back to being a Cup contender will be a long one. --M.F.
COLOR PHOTO: TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS (RICCI) MIKE RICCI
( 1 Best - 30 Worst )
POWER PLAY 12
PENALTY KILLING 24
G.M. AND COACH 12
Entering his first full season as the coach in San Jose, Ron
Wilson will have the Sharks playing a tough, enthusiastic and
more disciplined game.... The offense needs a jump start,
something that returning F Alex Korolyuk, who played in Russia
last season because of a contract dispute, can provide.... Don't
be surprised if second-year F Jonathan Cheechoo starts to blossom
offensively.... The club's only two forwards with blazing speed
are Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm.