(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN.)
By Fear The Fin
Canada: Joe Thornton
He scored more points than everyone but Alex Ovechkin between Gary Bettman's second and third lockouts. He became the first Shark to ever stake claim to the league's MVP award, picking up the Hart and Art Ross trophies the season in which he was traded to San Jose. He's still one of just three players in NHL history (alongside two other Canadians named Wayne and Mario) to record consecutive 90-assist seasons. Beyond the accomplishments and statistics, Thornton's arrival in the Bay Area left an indelible mark on this franchise.
Rather than skating on as under-the-radar overachievers, targets were sewn onto the backs of the club's sweaters as they became the team to beat--at least in the regular season--and the Stanley Cup darling of much of the mainstream media. With his offensive numbers in decline over the past few seasons, Thornton has really rounded out his two-way game and while it's more than fair to argue for Patrick Marleau's candidacy here, the totality of what Thornton accomplished from the day of his trade to the end of the decade eclipses anything the franchise's star-studded cast of heroes from the north, including former captain Owen Nolan, managed during their respective careers in teal.
Finland: Antti Niemi
If we're looking for the best Finn to ever put on a Sharks sweater, the answer is clearly the Finnish Flash himself. But Teemu Selanne's stint in teal deserves a footnote in his memoir larger than only that describing his disastrous campaign in Colorado. He's a surefire Hall of Famer and adored by the hockey world at large but the fact that Selanne's most memorable moment as a Shark involves him missing a wide-open net on a wraparound in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Semifinals says it all. Since the criteria on which I'm attempting to base these picks solely considers performance with the Sharks, I'm going with Antti Niemi.
Fresh off a Vezina-caliber season, what really needs to be established about Niemi is that he was a great goalie for San Jose even prior to his terrific 2013 campaign. Whether due to his aesthetically unpleasing style in net or the notion that he was the weakest link on Chicago's 2010 championship team (a notion that, by the way, is largely true), the success he enjoyed in his first two seasons as a Shark went somewhat overlooked despite the fact that he was eighth in the NHL in even-strength save percentage over that span. Throwing this past season into the sample leaves only three goalies (Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo) who have posted higher even-strength save percentages than Niemi since his arrival in San Jose.
His lateral mobility may sometimes be exploited and his glove hand might need a little work but, at the end of the day, the name of the game for a netminder is stopping pucks and Niemi does that at a higher rate than just about anyone else in the league today. His San Jose career may only be three seasons old but it already trumps that of any other Finland-born player in franchise history and Niemi stands a good chance of usurping Nabokov for the title of best Sharks goalie ever.
USA: Joe Pavelski
Joe Pavelski is one of the best all-around players in Sharks history and certainly outpaces the likes of Gary Suter and Tony Granato as the franchise's best-ever American. Pavelski is one of those rare talents whose value reverberates throughout a lineup. Between 2007 and 2010, Pavelski gave the Sharks a rock at second-line center that allowed Marleau to move into a permanent role on Thornton's left wing. When he was slotted into the third line in 2010-11 and again this past season, he transformed those units into possession monsters; allowing the top two lines to start in the opponent's end far more often.
In 2011-12, flanking Thornton on his right wing, Pavelski's consistent outplaying of the elite forwards he was matched up against opened up easier minutes for the rest of the team and was often one of the primary reasons the Sharks were in games at even-strength, not to mention the thirty goals Pavelski potted that year as Jumbo's wingman.
Pavelski's offensive game as a whole is often vastly underrated. Captain America ranks 46th in league scoring since 2009 (fifth among U.S.-born players), ahead of stars like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Zach Parise. Combine that with his elite two-way game, his excellence in the faceoff circle and his ability to play any forward position as well as man the point on one of the league's best power plays and you have a hell of a weapon.
As Brian Burke described him at the 2010 Olympics, Pavelski is a Swiss-army knife of a hockey player and is easily the greatest value draft pick in franchise history.
Sweden: Marcus Ragnarsson
The sentimental pick here for me would probably be Niklas Sundstrom, a key part of a third line with Scott Thornton and Mike Ricci that I have fond memories of watching wear opposing teams down with their cycle game in the offensive zone during the early 2000s. But Sundstrom turned out to be a largely interchangeable part, with Jonathan Cheechoo proving as effective in that role if not moreso following Sundstrom's trade to Montreal in 2003.
Johan Garpenlov is a contender too, a player who didn't spend a ton of time in San Jose but was with the franchise for its darkest days and brightest moments of the early 90's, posting a 66-point season alongside Larionov and Makorov in 1994.
But the player I'm going with is the understated but reliable Marcus Ragnarsson, a solid, minute-eating defensive defenseman who plied his trade in an era before that type of player became obsolete (something I can't really say about his countryman Douglas Murray).
Ragnarsson was never flashy but he played a sound positional game, using his size to clog up shooting lanes and keep things under wraps in his own end of the rink. His finest moment likely came in the Sharks' upset of the President's Trophy-winning Blues in the first round of the 2000 playoffs when Ragnarsson played a big role in keeping Pierre Turgeon off the scoreboard. Ragnarsson's ability to log heavy minutes ensured him a lengthy career with the Sharks; only Mike Rathje has played more games in San Jose as a defenseman.
Russia: Evgeni Nabokov
For a team that hasn't had an impact Russian skater on their roster for what seems like an eternity, there's an abundance of deserving candidates here. Igor Larionov was the franchise's first true star; a key cog in the legendary 1994 team that upset Detroit in the first round and the first ex-Shark to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.
His winger and countryman Sergei Makarov also featured prominently in that first round upset as well as the Sharks' dousing of the Flames the following postseason, ironically the team for which Makarov had been a prolific scorer in the early 90's. And Alexander Korolyuk, while decidedly a lesser-known name, was a fan favorite and underrated secondary scoring threat who never let his diminutive stature prevent him from making an impact.
But ultimately, the obvious choice here is the best goalie in franchise history, Evgeni Nabokov. San Jose's all-time leader in games played and wins, Nabokov was the team's go-to option in net from the moment he stormed onto the scene by replacing Steve Shields in a game on New Year's Day 2000, a year before his Calder Trophy season, to his departure from the club via free agency in the summer of 2010.
Nabokov gave the Sharks several elite years prior to the 2005 lockout, none more so than his 2003-04 campaign when he was perhaps the biggest factor in leading a relatively nondescript team to a division championship and final four appearance. Things weren't quite as rosy for Nabokov following the lost season but he did earn a Vezina Trophy nod in 2008 and arguably saved his best for last with a fantastic final season in the Bay Area.
Slovakia: Michal Handzus
I won't mince words here: Michal Handzus' Sharks career was a disaster.
But given that the only other Slovakian player in Sharks history was the great Miroslav Zalesak, he of twelve career NHL games, 'Zus gets the nod by default which is sort of the same way he ended up with a Cup ring this year. Brought in to center a third line the Sharks were intent on revamping, a decision that seemed like an overreaction to their 2011 Conference Final loss to Vancouver, Handzus was a black hole of puck possession and a non-factor offensively during his only full season in San Jose.
He was just as bad this season before being dealt to Chicago at the trade deadline. By all accounts, Handzus is a great teammate and all-around good guy so I was happy to see him win it all with the Blackhawks.
But, if I'm being honest, I'm even happier that he's no longer a Shark.
Czech Republic: Milan Michalek
Sharks fans have their fingers crossed that Tomas Hertl, the 17th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft and a good bet to make the team out of training camp this fall, winds up atop this category sooner rather than later but the honors here still belong to the team's last highly-drafted Czech forward (I'm pretending Lukas Kaspar never happened, if that's quite all right with you). Taken sixth overall in that magical 2003 draft, Michalek may be overshadowed by some of his fellow draftees but still gave San Jose several years of valuable service. After scoring his first goal in his first NHL game, Michalek's would-be rookie season in 2003-04 was cut short by an ACL tear just two games in, foreshadowing the injury concerns that still plague him to this day.
After an extensive rehab process that lasted the entire 2004-05 lockout, Michalek rebooted his NHL career following the work stoppage and almost immediately established himself as a difference-maker. Michalek's size, speed and puck skills were second only to Patrick Marleau over the duration of his tenure in teal and helped him eclipse the 20-goal mark every season he spent as a Shark after his first one.
More importantly, Michalek's physical tools made him one of San Jose's most versatile forwards. He thrived on a sheltered scoring line alongside Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo in 2007-08 just as well as he drove play against elite opposing forwards with Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe in 2008-09, a year in which he also averaged nearly two minutes a game on one of the league's best penalty killing units. Michalek may have never reached his full potential before potting 35 goals on the Senators in 2011-12 but he was still a multidimensional top-six forward during his post-lockout career in San Jose and a weapon in all three zones.
While it's hard to argue with a trade that in part produced consecutive Conference Final appearances, it's certainly still debatable whether swapping Michalek for Dany Heatley was the right move.
REST OF THE WORLD CATEGORY
Marco Sturm (Germany)
Since going with the Ireland-born but Canada-trained Owen Nolan feels like cheating, the pick here isn't quite so obvious. For years, the Sharks were scouting Germany when no one else really was which means most of the contenders for this spot hail from Deutschland save for a duo of Latvians who were significant components of the franchise's early years.
One of them is Sandis Ozolinsh. Dan Boyle a decade and a half before Dan Boyle wound up in San Jose, Ozolinsh was a supreme offensive talent from the blueline who still holds the franchise's single-season record for points by a defenseman (and was, of course, eventually traded for Nolan).
The other was goaltender Arturs Irbe, a fan favorite and one of the biggest reasons the Sharks shocked the hockey world by qualifying for the playoffs in their third season as a franchise and knocked out Detroit in round one. Irbe appeared in an incredible 74 games that year and finished 12th among starters in save percentage.
As for the Germans, Marcel Goc and Christian Ehrhoff have developed into valuable players, with Goc rounding into one of the league's most reliable checking-line centers and Ehrhoff coming off a season in which he posted impressive underlying numbers for a horrendous Buffalo team. But neither of them were quite as effective during their days in San Jose.
One German who was just as good as a Shark as he was following his trade to Boston for Joe Thornton is Marco Sturm, the speedy winger selected by San Jose in the first round of the 1996 draft. Sturm is one of just 40 active players to have posted seven or more twenty-goal seasons, three (and a half) of which he compiled for the Sharks prior to that fateful November day. Sturm brought the combination of speed and two-way savvy that many of those pre-Thornton era Sharks teams built their entire rosters around and he coupled that with a scoring touch to establish himself as one of the club's most effective all-around forwards of the early 2000s.
Ozolinsh's peak was a tad more impressive and Irbe's contributions to that iconic '94 team will never be forgotten but Sturm's body of work in teal earns him the nod here.