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Sharks still looking to become winners

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The trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup fell into an all too familiar trap last season. The San Jose Sharks struggled to find their offense early, then blasted into the postseason with a near perfect last quarter of the season.

Seemingly poised to make a breakthrough just like so many prognosticators suggested throughout the season, the Sharks instead reinforced their underachieving reputation by bowing out in the second round for the third straight spring.

This time, however, there were consequences to be paid.

Whether fair or not, coach Ron Wilson was out from behind the bench. The franchise's most successful head coach was fired within two weeks of San Jose's six-game loss to Dallas in the conference semifinals.

There were whispers that general manager Doug Wilson was more disappointed with the players than the coaches' work, but he couldn't fire the roster and he knew he had to do something. A second-round loss also happened the year before against Detroit and the year before that against Edmonton. The only difference was the Sharks let series leads against the Red Wings and Oilers slip away, while last season they fell behind Dallas 3-0 before rallying to fall in six.

The man delivering the new message this fall is Todd McLellan, the 40-year-old former three-year assistant of Mike Babcock in Detroit. Besides an impressive résumé including success on the minor-league level, McLellan favors more of an up-tempo attack than the previous coach, and he just might bring a few winning secrets from the Red Wings.

The other major change from last season is on defense where Doug Wilson, a former defenseman of significant accomplishment in his own right – 16 NHL seasons, a Norris Trophy winner and Chicago's fourth all-time leading scorer – changed the mix big time on what ultimately was an inexperienced and soft blue line.

Add veteran Rob Blake, who at 38 is confident he still can supply some quality minutes, even if they're closer to 16 or 18 a night instead of 22 to 24 as in his prime. Welcome aboard, too, the offensive-minded Dan Boyle and savvy role player Brad Lukowich, a pair of Tampa Bay Lightning veterans who each have a Stanley Cup ring.

Gone is short-timer Brian Campbell, who decided the up-and-coming Chicago Blackhawks were a more appealing option than piling up points with his childhood friend Joe Thornton. Gone, too, are Hobey Baker-winner Matt Carle and first-round pick Ty Wishart, who is on the verge of breaking into the league. Craig Rivet was a casualty due to salary-cap restraints, and he's the one they might miss the most.

The overall mix is good. But Kyle McLaren's balky knees become a concern, and there even is talk he could be on the way out, too, as Wilson still needs to trim at least a quarter of a million dollars from the payroll and probably would like to clear more for potential moves down the line.

Already the Sharks have been hit with some adversity. Speedy Torrey Mitchell, who enjoyed a solid rookie season and shows promise for the future, broke a bone in his leg on the first day of practice and is lost for two months. On the other hand, with all the young talent San Jose has up front – Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe – along with veteran leaders such as Mike Grier and Jeremy Roenick, the team should be able to forge ahead.

Last season: 49-23-10, 108 points, first place Pacific Division, second place Western Conference, third place in the overall standings. All those regular-season accolades added up to nothing more than a second-round playoff loss for the third straight postseason. San Jose opened the playoffs with a grueling seven-game victory over Calgary, the kind of hard-hitting series most expected. The hard-earned win may have cost the Sharks at the outset of their next series vs. division-rival Dallas, which won the first two games in San Jose. The Sharks couldn't dig out of an eventual 0-3 hole and were eliminated in six games.

Imports: D Rob Blake (2007-08 team: Los Angeles Kings), D Dan Boyle (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Brad Lukowich (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Brendan Buckley (Los Angeles Kings), C Cory Larose (Sweden), D Matt Kinch (Ottawa Senators).

Exports: D Craig Rivet (Buffalo Sabres), D Brian Campbell (Chicago Blackhawks), D Matt Carle (Tampa Bay Lightning), C Curtis Brown (Europe), D Sandis Ozolinsh (available free agent), D Ty Wishart (Tampa Bay Lightning).

Three keys to the season: It really is a make-or-break season for Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both are 29, both are in the absolute prime of their careers and both should help to make San Jose a power in the conference beyond the regular season. Doug Wilson pulled off a tremendous trade to join these two stars who were drafted Nos. 1 and 2 overall in 1997, but he'll have to seriously look at breaking up a combination that's not paying dividends if the team fails to knock on Stanley's door again. Thornton is being challenged to work closer to the front of the net, and Marleau simply has to rebound from an unexplainable poor regular season last year (19 goals, 48 points in 78 games).

Second, while the newcomers on defense are grabbing the headlines, the real key to San Jose's blue line success is the continued development of young vets Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray. All three should expect to get significant playing time each night. Ehrhoff, 26, and Vlasic, 21, could benefit most from McLellan's insistence on defense joining the rush and jumping into the play when it makes sense. Murray, who signed a four-year extension Wednesday, is an important cog because San Jose doesn't appear to have the most physical defense. McLaren can help in this regard, too, but his status is uncertain. And Blake can deliver the big hit, too, but you have to figure his impact almost will be a bonus in that regard.

Third, Evgeni Nabokov was spectacular last season and probably deserved the Vezina Trophy in the end instead of finishing runner-up. He doesn't have to start the first 43 games in a row this time around like last season because Brian Boucher is a trusted backup who only will be asked to play a couple of times per month. The sensible workload could result in an even better Nabokov, who has plenty of motivation to show he has arrived as one of the game's elite netminders.

On the hot seat: Marleau looks like he will continue as team captain despite the coaching change. His leadership has been questioned only because Marleau displays little emotion on the ice and generally is regarded as a quiet player. Insiders suggest he has no qualms about speaking up and leading by example with work ethic and fitness standing out, but he's going to have to produce numbers on the ice to support his leadership status.

Poised to blossom: Ehrhoff has been a diamond in the rough for too long. He can skate like the wind and fire the puck as hard as anyone on the team. But he needs to stay on the same page and find a radar for that cannon. McLellan could be just the coach who gives Ehrhoff that final burst of confidence to push him into the upper echelon on under-30 defensemen.

Analysis and prediction: It maybe is a lot to ask of a new regime to walk in and produce a Stanley Cup in their first season, but at some point the players have to be held accountable, and this is a very deep and talented roster. Yes, the West is loaded and there are pitfalls awaiting around every corner, but the Sharks are primed to make something happen or this won't be the same roster again next season.