NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (See Also Sharks Eulogy): Second in the Western Conference (49-23-10, 108 points). The San Jose Sharks survived a seven-game series against the Calgary Flames, getting a four-point effort out of Jeremy Roenick and chasing goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. A clutch overtime goal by Joe Pavelski pushed a Game 6 in the Sharks' subsequent series against the Dallas Stars, but San Jose lost a extraordinarily tight series with a four-overtime defeat at the hands of Brendan Morrow.
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After falling short of a Western Conference title yet again, the Sharks cut ties with head coach Ron Wilson; something that probably should have happened in the previous summer. Wilson's tenure was one of massive regular season success, but three consecutive eliminations in the conference semifinals. Wilson found new life behind the Toronto Maple Leafs' bench; the Sharks went the Eric Mangini route and hired from their rivals: Todd McLellan, the 40-year-old former assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings.
Some significant additions and subtractions followed during the summer, but all of it led back to the usual questions surrounding the San Jose Sharks: Is this the year, and who's to blame if it isn't?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Joe Thornton has 302 points in 222 career games with San Jose. He's won a Hart Trophy while wearing teal. The team scores over three goals for every 60 minutes he's on the ice. He was the fifth-best scorer in the NHL last season, tallying more points than Vincent Lecavalier.
And yet there are only two numbers that matter when discussing Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks: 35 and 5.
The first number, 35, represents the playoff games he's appeared in with the Sharks. The second number, 5, is the goals he's scored in those playoff games. He's never been a prolific goal-scorer, cracking 30 just twice in his career. But his inability to put a single puck in the net against the Dallas Stars underscored what's eternally been the rap on both Thornton and his team: Great for 82 games, and then a different story when it counts.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Ryane Clowe was limited to 15 games last season thanks to a knee injury, but was one of the few Sharks who improved his output in the playoffs. His best NHL season saw him play 58 games and score 34 points. Playing up with Thornton and Patrick Marleau (hey, he's still here), Clowe could easily eclipse those stats. And he's playing for another contract.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): The team said goodbye to Craig Rivet, Brian Campbell, Matt Carle and Sandis Ozolinsh from its defensive corps. In Campbell's case, the Sharks made a serious push to bring him back before he chose the Chicago Blackhawks' massive payday. This reshaping of the blueline is a dramatic one; but it could be more to coach McLellan's liking.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): If McLellan's calling card is the power play, it's hard to imagine the Sharks addressing that need better than they did on defense after Campbell's departure. At 38 years old, Rob Blake is still a capable player offensively.
Dan Boyle is two years removed from a 37-point season on the man advantage. The duo gives the Sharks proven offensive depth on their blueline. In Boyle's case, he's in a city of his choosing and is ready to make a difference.
Shelley can certainly hang with the heavyweights:
As far as pests go: Jeremy Roenick's career rehabilitation from scoring star to lower-line agitator is complete. He's not making heads bleed, but he's getting inside of them.
Teacher of the Year: Todd McLellan had an Obama-like response when faced with taking over the Sharks from a veteran coach like Ron Wilson: "I think the inexperience is an asset right now. There isn't a label attached to me."
This is only partially correct. The label attached to McLellan is that of the Red Wings' legacy of success, and his own reputation for having successfully run the team's power play. And while inexperience means a fresh start for the Sharks, it also means that a team that's been unable to replicate regular season success in the playoffs can no longer assume success during the regular season with a brand new face behind the bench. They'll have a fight in the division.
He's a welcome change. But McLellan is still a remarkable one.
The Custodians (Goalies): Evgeni Nabokov was a revelation last season. Without the safety net provided by a "No. 1a" backup goalie like Vesa Toskala, Nabokov led the NHL with 46 wins and was third in GAA at 2.14, starting an incredible 77 games in the regular season. He had a few hiccups in January, but his net-minding was as critical to the Sharks' second-half hot streak as anything.
Whether he should start as many games this year isn't as important as whether he will. Brian Boucher will no doubt shave some starts off the total, but Nabokov will once again be one of the hardest-working goalies in the game and has given no indication during his career that his stats are about to slip.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Brian Campbell's departure after the season was more about indignation than anything else, especially when you consider how that gap in the lineup was ultimately filled. We'll say this for Soupy's tenure: There's no denying his 19 points in 20 games and 25 minutes of ice time a night helped turn the Sharks from a middling success to a legit Stanley Cup contender. The Sharks also scored 19 power-play goals while he was on the ice.
Depth is the name of the game for the Sharks, beyond Blake and Boyle. If Kyle McLaren is ultimately moved, San Jose boasts an impressive group that includes Christian Ehrhoff, bruising Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and veteran Brad Lukowich. If McLellan's goal is to have the kind of versatile defense the Red Wings pride themselves on, San Jose has a group he can work with.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Who else? Jonathan Cheechoo. As a primary offensive performer, he didn't produce much in the way of consistent offense. Cheechoo's 56-goal season is a distant memory now, and his ability to go months with regular contributions on offense is one of the most baffling things about the Sharks. Trade rumors dog him, although his contract status likely keeps him in San Jose for another season.
AV Club (Media): Drew Remenda and play-by-play man Randy Hahn handle the Sharks telecasts on FSN Bay Area. Both of them blog for the team's Web site in somewhat candid ways. And both of them are featured on NHL 2K9, which really passes the time while you're trying to figure out how to complete a successful pass with the Wii-mote.
When it comes to the Sharks on television, however, we must turn the mic over to Puck Daddy reader Patrick Castleton for a moment:
Remember that the local network jinx'd the Sharks in the playoffs. No one in this area got to see the first period of the 1st game against the Flames. The local station showed an A's game. When I wrote the Comcast station, they responded saying that they didn't expect the A's game to go so long. I guess having 4 days of prep time isn't enough to come up with a "Plan B." Even having Center Ice package I couldn't watch the game (another rant for another time).
For Sharks blogs, we've been reading PJ's Sharkspage for longer than we can remember. Mike Chen is one of the best hockey bloggers around, on or off the Sharks. Chuq Von Rospach has the unique ability to inform and infuriate on Two for Elbowing. And We Bleed Teal has filled an irreverent role. Working the Corners is a fabulous MSM blog as well.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Different year, same story. The Sharks' mental anguish increases the deeper this team goes into the postseason. The Western Conference continues to get tougher, and the Sharks are going to have to emerge from a difficult division. Once they do, the same questions about fortitude and labels about choking will dog them -- psychological issues that a black third jersey can't solve.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A (assuming the power play improves)
Prom Theme: Emily Hall's heartfelt parody of Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" pretty much captures everything that is being a frustrated Sharks fan. Brilliant stuff (song starts around 1:11 mark):
Expected Graduation: The Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars are going to provide all the challenge the Sharks need in the regular season, but San Jose will still make the playoff cut.
Once there, the team needs to find the clutch scoring that eluded it in the Dallas series. Joe Pavelski won them a game; they need Milan Michalek or Mike Grier or Devin Setoguchi or a healthy Torrey Mitchell to contribute a key goal here or there to get this team over the hump. Because it won't necessarily come from Marleau, Cheechoo or especially from Thornton.