Mount Puckmore: The four faces of the San Jose Sharks

(Ed. Note: Welcome to Puck Daddy's August series, "Mount Puckmore" which will feature fans, bloggers and various media personalities of all 30 teams choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives. We'll be running these daily for the rest of the month. Today, representing the San Jose Sharks, is Jon Swenson of Sharkspage.)

By Jon Swenson

The San Jose Sharks will celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2010-11. From the inaugural two seasons played at the Cow Palace south of San Francisco, to a recent run that includes a Presidents' Trophy, four Pacific Division titles, and six straight playoff appearances at HP Pavilion in San Jose, the Sharks have created their share of memories and witnessed their share of memorable figures.

Nostalgia almost dictates a referential look back at the Cow Palace years. After being declined as a venue for the NHL's first go around in Northern California with the Oakland Seals, the former California State Livestock Pavilion served as a temporary home from 1991-93 while the new San Jose Arena was under construction. The Sharks inaugural lineup included former Norris Trophy winning defenseman and current GM Doug Wilson as captain, first-ever first-round draft pick Pat Falloon, fan favorite Kelly Kisio, a cult figure in enforcer Link Gaetz (326 PIMs), starting goaltender Jeff Hackett(notes), and rookie Arturs Irbe among others.

Nostalgia aside, the four faces of the Sharks Mt. Puckmore are all players from the current or not-to-distant era.

Patrick Marleau(notes), C

When current San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson succeeded former GM Dean Lombardi in 2003, Wilson stressed the desire to ice a young, up-tempo, offensively minded team. Patrick Marleau is the player most responsible for delivering on that promise, and in the process he has become the face of the San Jose Sharks, and for several years running, the face of the Bay Area's most successful sports franchise.

There are "five tool" players in baseball. At 6-2, 225 pounds., Patrick Marleau is the National Hockey League equivalent. A gifted playmaking center, Marleau moved to the wing alongside Joe Thornton(notes) and became an equally adept sniper/powerforward. In a contract year, he finished with a career-high 44 goals and the second highest point total of his career with 83. Marleau's work on special teams has been equally impressive, helping the Sharks become the only NHL team to finish top-5 in power play and penalty kill percentage in each of the last two seasons. In that span Marleau has registered 23 power play goals and formed one of the most dangerous penalty kill units in the league along with Joe Pavelski(notes).

Marleau is the San Jose Sharks franchise leader in games played (953), goals (320), assists (373), points (693), power play goals (97), game winning goals (59), and shots (2194), yet he is often looked at through the sole prism of playoff success, or lack thereof. Despite the fact that he leads the NHL with 12 game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2001, Marleau and Joe Thornton have borne the brunt of criticism after failing to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals after six straight opportunities.

The quiet, reserved aspect to his personality sometimes works against the Aneroid, Saskatchewan native (population: 45). When the Sharks changed the captaincy from Marleau to Rob Blake(notes), Marleau was not vocal about the fact that it was not a demotion, or the fact that it would not diminish his desire to win in San Jose.

The playoff questions for Marleau and the Sharks will remain. After signing a four-year contract extension along with Joe Pavelski in June, the fans in San Jose will have more bites at the playoff apple down the line.

BBC Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson recently said Formula 1 driver Jacques Villeneuve was spectacular on occasion, but Ayrton Senna was spectacular every time he stepped into a car. Marleau is spectacular in the playoffs on many occasions, but for the Sharks to reach the Promised Land they are going to need him to bes pectacular every time he steps on the ice.

Owen Nolan(notes), RW

There are few players in the NHL that can serve as a team's leading enforcer and leading goal scorer at the same time. Owen Nolan nearly accomplished that feat for the San Jose Sharks in the 1999-2000 season. Acquired in a trade with Colorado for Sandis Ozolinsh(notes) in 1995, Nolan finished with career high 44 goals. He also added 110 PIMs. He may have finished behind Ron Stern (151 PIMs), but Nolan simply dismantled other players on the ice. Irish-born but Canada-raised, when Nolan's anger was up he skated menacingly around the ice looking to rip players heads off. There was fear evident in opponents heading into the corners against Nolan, and for someone raised on Cam Neely, it was an example of what hockey is all about ... hockey played at the highest levels by mean Canadians.

For a goal-starved team under head coach Darryl Sutter, Nolan was the go-to scoring option but San Jose saw themselves passed by in the playoffs. Dallas, Colorado and St. Louis passed the Sharks by to the later rounds. Despite grueling, physical playoff battles, the frustration began to build until a rebuild mode was the only option. Nolan was traded at the 2003 deadline for Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes(notes) and a 1st round pick.

It was the end of an era for many Sharks fans.

Nolan authored several of the most memorable moments in Sharks hockey. His called shot goal against Dominik Hasek(notes) in the 1997 All Star Game in San Jose, his flying hit against Dallas Stars goaltender "Billion Dollar" Ed Belfour in the 1998 Western Conference Quarterfinals, and his 100-foot slap shot goal against Roman Turek are but a few of his highlights.

As an unrestricted free agent, one has to wonder if the expectations and circumstances for Owen Nolan and the San Jose Sharks could result in a Teal No. 11 finale. Owen Nolan is the type of player that could throw teammates through walls if they did not skate through it themselves. That might be just what the Sharks need.

Joe Thornton, C

As a Boston Bruins fan for 12-plus years before the San Jose Sharks received a franchise, I can identify with onslaught of Thornton opinions from fans on both coasts. The trade of Thornton for Marco Sturm(notes), Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau(notes) may go down as the Wayne Gretzky trade North for its impact on hockey in California. After Thornton's Art Ross Trophy and a Hart Trophy campaign in 2005-06, a trip to the local hockey rinks near San Jose would find young boys and girls trying to bank passes off of end boards, hockey nets, coaches, walls, pets, fans standing around the bleachers, bloggers.

"Be Like Joe" would have been a perfect advertising campaign in the model of Air Jordan's, but around the hockey playing community in the Bay Area it would have rung true. Thornton's infectious personality, humor, and penchant for doing interviews in as little clothing as possible has not only drawn casual and non-sports fans to Sharks games, it more than likely has kept several teammates playing in Teal.

One NHL front office member said that Thornton is the type of player that you build an offense around. He has the ability to transform a Jonathan Cheechoo(notes) into a 56-goal Rocket Richard winner, turn a Patrick Marleau into a 44-goal sniper, and help a second year Devin Setoguchi(notes) add 20 goals and 48 points to his rookie totals. Thornton does it all while being a genuinely fun player to be around.

Asked by me after the season whether he knew what it took to win in the playoffs after that Anaheim series, Thornton emphatically responded that he did. The next year he helped lead the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals. In a contract year, Thornton could light the league on fire and then roast chipotle fish tacos on top of it.

Expectations for No. 19 will always center around the playoffs, and 2010-11 will be another make or break season. There is not a team in the NHL that would not want to sign him as a UFA a year from now.

Evgeni Nabokov(notes), G

Arturs Irbe may be the first goaltender to appear on many best-of lists in San Jose, but for the last 10 years the Sharks have experienced an almost an unparalleled (outside of New Jersey) stability in goal. Much of that stability came at the lightning quick glove hand of Evgeni Nabokov.

After a brief 11-game stint in 1999-2000, Nabokov earned the starting reigns after starter Steve Shields was injured early in the 2000-01 season. No one knew at the time that Nabokov would finish out the year with a Calder Trophy, and that he would battle for most of the next decade to retain the starting role in San Jose.

The playoff spotlight that shines down on Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, also has to light up Nabokov. He helped carry underpowered and rebuilding Sharks teams to the playoffs early in his tenure, and during the peak six-year Stanley Cup Playoff run he gave the Sharks an opportunity to win every series. The highlight of his Sharks career may have come during a quadruple overtime Game 6 of the 2008 WCSF. Battling fellow veteran Marty Turco(notes), Nabokov traded Turco highlight reel save for highlight reel save until late the next morning. The series-deciding goal came on the power play, ending the playoff run for a 2007-08 Sharks team that may have been the most talented in franchise history.

Nabokov leaves the Sharks as the franchise leader in games played (563), wins (293), saves (13,463) and shutouts (50); faced more shots and played more minutes with a San Jose Sharks crest on his jersey (14,757, 32,492) than the next four goaltenders combined (Irbe, Shields, Vernon and Toskala).

Nabokov has set the standard for a goaltending corps in San Jose that has included himself, Miikka Kiprusoff(notes), Vesa Toskala(notes), Arturs Irbe, Mike Vernon, Steve Shields, Kelly Hrudey, Brian Boucher(notes) and Wade Flaherty among others. It will be up to Antero Niittymaki(notes), Thomas Greiss(notes) or Alex Stalock(notes) to surpass it.

Honorable mentions

Arturs "Like Wall" Irbe: He set the mould for a franchise whose perennial strength would be built from the goal out. The 5-8 goalie battled hard in net, and caused fans to hold their breaths when he traveled out of the crease to play the puck. In 1993-94, Irbe played 74 games and set a then league record with 4412 minutes played.

Doug Wilson: He was the Sharks first NHL All Star representative in 1992. Wilson brought credibility, respect and direction to the expansion franchise before retiring.

Igor Larionov: He made more players around him better and helped establish hockey in the South Bay with his flamboyant offensive style.

Jonathan Cheechoo: Some players attain a level of success, and maintain that over a period of time to become an All Star or Hall of Fame players in their sport. Cheechoo captured a moment in time. With 56 goals in 2005-06 he earned a Rocket Richard Trophy and helped the Sharks pick up where they left off coming out ofa disheartening lockout.

Cheechoo's breakout season actually occurred one season earlier in 2003-04. With Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton(notes) feeding him pucks on the third line, Cheechoo scored 28 goals from all areas of the ice, from his knees, and even with a stick between his legs. Injuries, including a double hernia which may have forced him out of San Jose, have slowed Cheechoo down but it was also a product of his hard-nosed playing style. In the opening game of the 2008-09 season, Cheechoo helped usher in the net front playing style developed by rookie head coach Todd McLellan. Cheechoo took a pounding in front of the net, but as was his trademark he was hard to knock off his feet and punched home two goals against the Anaheim Ducks.

Looking at a stat sheet does not tell you how he played the game, and Cheechoo remains one of the most popular players to ever play for the Sharks in the team's history.

Mike Ricci: Once named the sexiest man in Colorado, and currently a development coach in the Sharks front office, Ricci made his living being a handful for opposing goaltenders and defenseman in front of the net. Unlike melodramatic Corey Perr,y who flops anywhere from 15 feet out, Ricci was a bull in a china shop. Arms, sticks, skates and hair would all collapse usually under a pile of bodies around the crease. Ricci became the de-facto face of the Sharks in San Jose, and fans and teammates alike rallied around his competitiveness and passion for the game.

Main Mt. Puckmore photo created by B.D. Gallof of Hockey Independent

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