High expectations for the San Jose Sharks in the regular season often leads to brutal disappointment in the post season, or at least that’s been the trend the last several years. Last year, the Sharks trounced the competition and strode into the playoffs as the NHL’s best team only to be ousted by Anaheim in the first round. The bitterness from that loss resulted in a slight overhaul in San Jose, but the expectations are just as high rolling into this season. Nothing short of a Stanley Cup victory will be acceptable, and the pieces are in place for that to happen.
The Sharks made one of the biggest off-season acquisitions by trading Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to the Ottawa Senators for sniper Dany Heatley. This move finally gives San Jose a dominant scoring threat night in and night out. After scoring 56 goals in 2005-06, Cheechoo’s production slowly declined over subsequent years and he couldn’t be counted on to be the wing man for Thornton. Heatley, however, is a two-time 50-goal scorer and still managed 39 goals in an “off” season last year with the Senators. Alongside center Joe Thornton, who has contributed 60 or more assists in each of his four seasons with the Sharks, Heatley could easily find his way into the 50-goal scorers club this season.
Players like Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Ryan Clowe supplement the secondary offense and are all capable of putting up 20 goals and 40-60 points a season. Setoguchi, who came out of nowhere and chipped in a stunning 31 goals in his first full season with the Sharks, might even find himself on the right side of the top line with Thornton and Heatley. If this happens, look for Setoguchi to improve his production from last year’s 65 points.
And don’t forget about the likes of former captain Patrick Marleau, who seems to be somewhat of an enigma in recent years. While Marleau can usually be counted on for nearly 30 goals and 70-80 points a season, trade rumors consistently pop up regarding Marleau’s departure and many media outlets have suggested that Marleau isn’t the least bit phased about losing the captaincy. As a possible free agent at season’s end, Marleau might be trade bait if his production doesn’t live up to expectations or if the effort isn’t consistent night in and night out.
Goaltending should again be quite impressive this season with Evgeni Nabokov in net. The 34-year-old goaltender won 41 of the 62 games that he started last season for San Jose and finished the season with a 2.44 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. Expect the Sharks to ride Nabokov hard between the pipes again, and expect a similar outcome. Nabokov is a vital part of San Jose’s success this season.
The problem with this team, however, seems to be effort and leadership. Each spring as the Sharks enter the playoffs, the team fails to take the next step to the level of play required night in and night out in order to hoist the Cup. There aren’t any players who get out on the ice and lead by example. Stripping Marleau of the captaincy was a great move by head coach Todd McLellan. Hopefully this forces someone to take the reins and be a real leader on this team and lead them to the Promised Land in June.
The Sharks have all the right pieces, and barring a huge meltdown or major injuries, the Sharks could easily swim their way through the regular season to become President’s Trophy winners again. But the Sharks have been there and done that. It’s now or never to step up and go all the way. The NHL’s biggest choke artists have something to prove this year, and they are reloaded and ready to begin their quest.