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Sharks again all talk, no playoff substance

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ANAHEIM, Calif. – There's going to be a new rule in San Jose starting immediately. The words "Stanley Cup" are hereby banned from being uttered by anyone connected to the Sharks' organization until the team wins a Western Conference title.

That's it. No more. The franchise is not worthy to talk about something that appears so elusive. The Sharks should feel too embarrassed over what happened the last 10 days to ever fall into the trap of talking about winning a championship again.

And don't hold your breath for the "Stanley Cup" ban to end. That Western Conference title is not right around the corner like fans have been led to believe time and time again.

"It's really disappointing with the expectations we had this year and we didn't come through again," goalie Evgeni Nabokov said in a very quiet, quick-to-clear locker room.

Joe Thornton, who tried to send a message to teammates on the opening faceoff by dropping his gloves in a fight with Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, was first off the ice after the traditional postseries handshake and was first on the bus. He was not available to the media.

Patrick Marleau was, however, the team captain didn't shed a lot of light on what happened.

"You don't expect this to happen when you have such a good team," he said. "We expected more out of ourselves and we didn't live up to that."

On Monday night, the Sharks exited the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 4-1 loss, six games into a run they fooled everyone into thinking would last until mid-June. The Presidents' Trophy winners are out in the opening round, after having managed only half as many wins as the eighth-place Ducks in this series.

What a cruel conclusion, the Sharks could look to the heavens for answers, but their view was blocked by Anaheim's 2007 Stanley Cup banner. Oh, did we fail to mention the Ducks have one of those? Two fewer seasons in the league and Anaheim has not only reached the pinnacle once, but reached the Finals on another occasion and who knows how far they'll go this time.

For the Sharks, it's all California dreamin'. Empty words. All talk. Not enough action. The Sharks now know what the Ottawa Senators feel like.

The enthusiastic fan base, criticized in the past for not being the most hockey savvy group, has come a long way and supported this franchise year after year. They are savvy now. And they are mad, as they should be.

They are sick and tired of listening to all the chatter, all the predictions. And they are sick of getting their hopes up. They, too, will not fall into this trap again.

It's a shame, really. All the work that went into assembling a franchise of high-end talent and quality personnel over the five seasons is down the drain. And it's time to start over.

They fired the coach after last postseason's debacle. A new one took over last fall, and rookie Todd McLellan was given an even better roster than Ron Wilson ever had during his five tries. The league's top record verified what more forecast beforehand – a tremendous season of success lay ahead.

But here we are again, the Sharks cleaning out lockers before the end of April. McLellan is safe. They won't fire a coach who has had only one year on the job after that kind of regular season. General manager Doug Wilson is probably safe, at least for another year. He engineered trades to give San Jose its best-looking roster on paper.

The players? That's another story. Well, that is the story. The core certainly can not return as-is. And that means some big decisions have to be made. It's a given veterans Jeremy Roenick and maybe Rob Blake are skating into retirement.

And there are plenty of other unrestricted free agents you probably won't see back – Mike Grier, Travis Moen, Alexei Semenov, Kent Huskins and Claude Lemieux. Too old, too slow, all replaceable.

Now, it's time to change the core, the kind of deals Wilson didn't want to have to pursue. We're talking about players from this group – Marleau, Thornton, Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek and Christian Ehrhoff.

If Wilson can maneuver his way around no-trade clauses, my guess is three depart – Marleau, Cheechoo and Nabokov, yes, the goalie, too. Marleau is the captain, and ultimately it will be decided that leadership didn't lead when needed most. The GM tried to surround Marleau, Thornton and the team's core of top players with veterans who were also leaders. Leadership by committee would rule the day.

Marleau will be 30 when the next season starts. Eleven years a member of the team, he has one year left at $6.3 million. They'll be lining up for his services, teams that feel they don't have to put the leadership tag on him yet are drooling for top-six forward help.

With two years at $3.5 million per season remaining on his contract, Cheechoo is too expensive of a third-line winger, and he can't be productive there anyway. He's not fast enough to play among San Jose's top six, but he'd be attractive to another team with less depth.

Nabokov is the tough one. He'll be 34 this summer, and he's moving past his prime. He has one year left at $6 million. San Jose's goaltending prospects aren't ready to assume Nabokov's job yet, so the team would have to acquire a starter.

These will not be easy times in San Jose, but is there really any other choice? Does anyone feel confident things will magically turn around with the same group next spring?

Didn't think so.