The San Jose Sharks had to wait until right up to the start of the preseason for the big trade everyone was anticipating after last season's flameout, and in the end general manager Doug Wilson didn't disappoint.
Acquiring Dany Heatley(notes) from Ottawa will be viewed as a huge gamble by many outsiders, but Wilson knows something about making a blockbuster and never looking back. Or did everyone forget how that 3-for-1 – Marco Sturm(notes), Brad Stuart(notes) and Wayne Primeau(notes) for Joe Thornton(notes) – turned out?
The Sharks dealt Milan Michalek(notes) and Jonathan Cheechoo(notes) for a reason. Michalek, while still young at 24, had plenty of chances to dispel the notion he couldn't lift his emotional game and not let his production slip in the postseason and he just never did it. Edmonton targeted him in 2006 and took him right out of a second-round series. Michalek managed only one point, a goal, in the six-game loss against Anaheim.
Cheechoo is a mere shadow of the player who scored a career-high 56 goals in 2005-06. As the game has gotten faster since the end of the lockout, Cheechoo has battled injury, inconsistency and slipped from the first line to the third. He can't seem to get into the scoring spots on the ice like before, and he's not getting any faster. The Sharks could not afford to pay him $3 million annually to play on the third line.
Heatley goes from the fish bowl of Ottawa, where every move was scrutinized on and off the ice, to a market that is loyal to a fault and will allow him to eat in peace and not scare him away from going to the mall. He should have peace of mind in San Jose and know he's going to have support behind him.
But that's not what matters here. Heatley gives the Sharks their best first-line left wing in the history of the franchise. Heatley and Thornton have chemistry and they've worked well together during international play as members of Team Canada. Adding the speedy and talented Devin Setoguchi(notes) to the duo will give San Jose potentially the most potent top line in the league.
And how about this for a power play – Heatley the sniper, Thornton the set-up man, Ryane Clowe(notes) the Tomas Holmstrom(notes)-type body in front of the net, Dan Boyle's(notes) clever puck handling and creativity from the blue line and Rob Blake's(notes) booming shot from the point?
Back to even strength: Once dealing with that first line, imagine the matchup problems a second line of Patrick Marleau-Joe Pavelski(notes)-Clowe could provide for the Sharks' attack. But, just like last year, and the year before and the year before, etc., it all looks good on paper. Now let's see how it performs on ice.
Last season: 53-18-11 (117 points). First place Pacific Division, first in the Western Conference and the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy by finishing first overall in the league with a team-record 117 points. The splendid regular season was quickly forgotten after the Sharks bowed out in the first round, losing to Anaheim in six games.
Exports: LW Milan Michalek (Ottawa), RW Jonathan Cheechoo (Ottawa), D Christian Ehrhoff(notes) (Vancouver), D Brad Lukowich(notes) (Vancouver), C Marcel Goc(notes) (Nashville), RW Mike Grier(notes) (Buffalo), LW Travis Moen(notes) (Montreal), LW Lukas Kaspar(notes) (Philadelphia), D Alexei Semenov(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), D Kyle McLaren(notes) (N.Y. Rangers), G Brian Boucher(notes) (Philadelphia), RW Riley Armstrong(notes) (Calgary), C Jeremy Roenick(notes) (retired) and RW Claude Lemieux(notes) (retired).
Salary cap: Doug Wilson had to move salary, represented by veteran defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich, to re-sign Torrey Mitchell and Brad Staubitz, and he needed to match salary again with Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo heading out the door to take on Dany Heatley's fat pact. Wednesday's signing of Manny Malhotra pushed the Sharks right up to the ceiling of the cap so if they want to sign any more tryout players, someone else will have to go.
Three keys: The focus on leadership, or perceived lack thereof, became the popular belief as to why things fell apart in the end. What got overlooked was that the team's fast-paced play out of the gate was tough to maintain beyond the 55-game barrier. It also caught up with veteran legs and others who maybe weren't in good enough shape to pull it off for an entire season.
Those injuries couldn't be rectified in time for the playoffs to re-establish a feel-good mood about how the team could play. Third- and fourth-line call-ups didn't contribute enough and guys rushing back from injury didn't work out. The momentum stopped three quarters through the season.
Players were asked to get in the best shape of their lives, to work harder in the offseason than ever before. That will be the key to sustaining coach Todd McLellan's plan to attack from the start to finish of games and the season.
Second, the top two lines need support from the third and fourth lines, unlike last year when the last six forwards played musical chairs. The key is getting speedy two-way threat Torrey Mitchell 100-percent healthy so he can assume the third-line center role. He's battling tendonitis stemming from last year's broken leg and the start of his season could be stalled. The signing of Malhotra means Mitchell could line up on a wing when he returns.
Scott Nichol was signed to replace the vanilla Marcel Goc as fourth-line center, and other journeymen vets including Dan Hinote(notes) were invited on a tryout basis to compete with and or push San Jose's borderline NHLers – Jamie McGinn(notes), Tomas Plihal(notes) and Brad Staubitz – over the top. Manny Malhotra was given a contract on Wednesday.
Third, the defense continues to develop and evolve. Kent Huskins(notes) will join the regular rotation and it's assumed Derek Joslin(notes) has a strong chance to crack the lineup now with Ehrhoff, Lukowich and Semenov out of the picture.
It's time to jell as a group along with Douglas Murray(notes), Boyle, Blake and Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) defining roles and finding a way to get in sync with goalie Evgeni Nabokov(notes), who wasn't always comfortable with the system last season. Better communication and more cooperation are needed.
On the hot seat: Speaking of which, the veteran Nabokov has all the motivation he needs to play strong from start to finish. He's 34, and it's a contract year. Nabokov took heat for the lost postseason; he was outplayed by Anaheim's Jonas Hiller(notes).
Evgeni Nabokov is entering the final year of his contract.
Nabokov has been up and down the last several seasons, and he said publicly he would waive his no-trade clause if the team didn't want him. Apparently the Sharks do, so now it's Nabokov's turn to convince the Sharks he should be awarded an extension or kept long-term.
Poised to blossom: He stepped into the league as an 18-year-old and played dependable, mistake-free minutes while taking regular shifts on a good team's blue line. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 22 now, and ready to let the offensive side of his game match the contributions he brings defensively.
Christian Ehrhoff's departure should allow Vlasic to gain more power-play time, and the confidence will build quickly. He rocketed his offensive numbers from two goals and 14 points in 2007-08 under Ron Wilson to six goals and 36 points under Todd McLellan last season. And there's a lot more upside.
Time has passed: The Sharks really have to be mindful not to overuse Rob Blake, who is as key to the team's power play as anyone on the ice. The 39-year-old defenseman bruises a little easier these days. He was hurt late last season, tried to play through injuries, but wasn't nearly as effective as early on.
Prediction: Just like each of the last four seasons, all the ingredients appear to be in place for a long run. The Sharks can't be expected to get off to the lightning start they did a year ago – opponents know how they are going to play. But in San Jose it's all about how you finish, and that will again define the Sharks' season. It's anyone's guess right now, but only a fool would predict a Stanley Cup. The time for talk is over. And the window of opportunity closing isn't far behind.