September 25, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See Also Sharks Eulogy): First in the Western Conference and first in the Pacific Division (53-18-11, 117 points), in winning the President's Trophy. Lost to the Anaheim Ducks in six games that saw Jonas Hiller(notes) outplay Evgeni Nabokov(notes), the Anaheim top line outclass the San Jose's dynamic trio and the Sharks looking toothless in the postseason.
Everyone expected GM Doug Wilson to do something dramatic this summer. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Oh, look, Patrick Marleau(notes) was stripped of the captaincy! ... eh, not exactly dramatic. And waited. And waited. And ... wait as second: Dany Heatley(notes) is a San Jose Shark?
Arguably the most hated man in Canada who isn't also commissioner of a professional hockey league, Heatley's trade demand was finally fulfilled by the Ottawa Senators to a Dany-endorsed location (sorry, Edmonton) in a stunning move for the Sharks.
But as many headlines as Heatley generated, there were other smaller moves made by Wilson that could mean the difference between champ and choke this year. It's a critical year of redemption for San Jose, but it's also a vital one, as the window of opportunity for this version of the Sharks to win a Stanley Cup is closing.
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): If you were told the best team in the Western Conference (regular season edition) was adding a winger with 180 goals in the last four seasons, to a line with one of the best assist men in hockey, that team would likely be on your short list of Cup contenders, right?
Unless the team is the Sharks, and the player is Dany Heatley.
There's no getting around the fact that Heatley's trade demand from the Ottawa Senators, and insipid justification for it, have created uncertainty about his being a positive presence in the locker room. He carries a 747's-worth of baggage to San Jose, but sounds eager to prove the critics wrong. If he does, a Top 3 finish in goals-scored isn't out of the question.
The Heatley trade grabbed the headlines, but it's the smaller moves from GM Doug Wilson that should inspire hope. Adding gritty lower-liners like center Scot Nichol (Nashville), Jed Ortmeyer(notes) (Nashville) and most recently Manny Malholtra (Columbus) adds a different kind of hunger to this team than the bigger-named vets they had last season. In marine biologist terms, it's the difference between a Shark who craves human flesh and one that has a bunch of old license plates in its stomach.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Newly minted Senators Milan Michalek(notes) (23-34-57) and Jonathan Cheechoo(notes) (12-17-29) were different degrees of enigmatic, but neither of them was close to the kind of consistency a winning team needs. In Cheechoo's case, the waiting game for the fan favorite to regain his touch had run its course.
Christian Ehrhoff(notes), traded to the Vancouver Canucks with Brad Lukowich(notes) in a cost-saving move, scored 42 points that included 25 on the power play last season. He was erratic, but could be missed.
The other departures came in a subtle house-cleaning of the team's depth. Jeremy Roenick(notes) and Claude Lemieux(notes) hung up their skates. (In Claude's case, again.) Marcel Goc(notes), Mike Grier(notes) and Travis Moen(notes) were all unsigned. Backup goalie Brian Boucher(notes) went back to Philadelphia, where his life as a career backup goalie began.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Unfairly maligned as usual due to expectations born from his salary and his size, Joe Thornton's(notes) 86-point season was still down from previous totals. His five points in six playoff games was offset by getting dominated by the Ducks' first line and skating to a minus-3. But he was able to combine with Devin Setoguchi(notes) (31-34-65 in a star-making performance) and Patrick Marleau (38-33-71) to form one of the most lethal lines in the NHL.
This season, it appears to be Thornton/Setoguchi/Heatley on the same line. If it clicks, Jumbo Joe's a threat to break 100 points again. Just another reason why he's the center of the decade.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Winger Ryane Clowe(notes) has a new four-year contract and a new linemate, upgrading from Michalek to Marleau. He had 22 goals in 71 games last season, the first time he played more than 60 in a season. Should he remain healthy, his offensive numbers should increase with Marleau and returning linemate Joe Pavelski(notes) (25-34-59). The contract is a vote of confidence after news that Wilson was shopping him leaked during the summer.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): After escaping the petty "Mean Girls on Skates" back-fighting in Tampa Bay, Dan Boyle(notes) had a Norris-worthy season for the Sharks: 16 goals and 41 assists with an average of 24:46 time on ice per game. Fellow veteran Rob Blake(notes) had his highest point total in three years (45) and skated to a plus-15.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) is nicknamed "Pickles," which should be enough to endear him to you. He could see an increase on his 36 points from last season with some increased special teams responsibility. Douglas Murray signed a four-year contract last September and looks to play a significant role this season. Kent Huskins(notes) is entering his first year of Sharks action; he likes to jump into the play and inspires Haiku.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Evgeni Nabokov had a solid but typically underappreciated (especially by Vezina voters) season. His goals against average (2.44) increased, his save percentage (.910) decreased and he managed more shutouts (8) in 62 starts than he did in 77 in the previous season.
But in the postseason ... well, Nabby went as his teammates went. Played well in a Game 1 loss, but couldn't get his GAA below 3.00 -- save for a brilliant Game 5 win. He's in his walk year, with Thomas Greiss(notes) as his understudy. Expect a big win total, fluctuating numbers and, hopefully, more accusations that Corey Perry is a crybaby for claiming Nabokov kicked him.
The Inventor (The Coach): Todd McLellan made a difference last year, bringing an up-tempo, shot-happy (the Sharks were third in the League) approach that led San Jose to the President's Trophy. He also attempted to instill some of that Detroit Red Wings prestige and confidence into team. It worked for 82 games; six games into the postseason, they morphed back into underachieving playoff bumblers.
McLellan's mission: Turn adversity into mental toughness. The message in the coach's office reads, "Reputation. Everyone has one. Are you happy with yours? Collectively. Individually." He knows the answer, and it's on McLellan to turn that manta into a battle cry once the playoffs arrive.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A
"A potent top-6 forward core will see a significant bump with Ottawa's top goal scorer Dany Heatley joining Setoguchi and Thornton on the first line, and San Jose's top goal scorer Patrick Marleau joining Pavelski and Clowe on the second. Third and fourth lines never clicked at all last season, Manny Malhotra(notes) and Scott Nichol(notes) will provide effective minutes 5-on-5 and on the PK, and along with Thornton could finish top-10 in faceoffs (all 3 finished in the top 10 once over the last 2 years).
"With the loss of a puck moving Christian Ehrhoff, the Sharks lose a little bit of flexibility on the point and moving the puck up ice. For only the 4th time in NHL history four Sharks defenseman registered 30 or more assists in 2008-09 (Boyle 41, Blake 35, Ehrhoff 34, Vlasic 30). Kent Huskins and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be asked to fill larger roles on the blueline. In goal, a contract year Nabokov could be the key to the entire season (i.e. postseason). As goes Nabokov, so goes the Sharks nation.
"Over/under on fighting majors vs. Anaheim this season: 27."
"The only certainty for this team is uncertainty. Oh yeah, and shirtless Joe wrapped in the Division banner."
"Here's Doug Wilson's inner monologue: ‘Stanley Cup or bust. No, really this time. Seriously. We mean it. It'll be the last you hear from this group of Sharks. Promise, absolute, 100%.'
"Here's what's playing in my head -- cue The Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now?':
‘When you say it's gonna happen now, well what exactly do you mean? You see I've already waited too long...and though my hope is gone...'
"This is it for this group of Sharks. Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov hit UFA next year, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski will get hefty raises. Either it all comes together or San Jose's marketing department has to come up with new guys to stick on their season tickets. Oh wait..."
Don Draper Says ...
"The window is closing, gentlemen. You're either taking a deep, satisfying stream of fresh air into your lungs, or you're licking the glass like confused child. Your choice."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team):
Uh, we'll go with "elevating their play come the postseason, in what could be their last run with this collection of talent."
The regular season is practically beside the point. Last season's first-round exit proved that it doesn't matter where they're seeded; they need to find another gear when the games matter more.
With that in mind, the biggest issue is character. Do the veteran leaders have enough of it? Can the young grunts provide some more of it? Does Dany Heatley have any of it? And can Todd McLellan figure out how to get more out of all of them in the playoffs?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): The Sharks will be near the top of the conference and several players are going to have outstanding years on the stat sheet. Then the playoffs arrive, and everyone realizes that this is it: Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov are UFAs, other players are due more money and the Sharks as we've known them for the last few seasons will be no more (in theory).
Do they go out with a Stanley Cup or more ridicule for being the NHL's perennial postseason disappointments?