Looking back

A stigma is an odd phenomenon. For one to exist, it has to grow over time. A history of failure, or an inability to perform in the clutch bring about the stigma of losing, a stigma the San Jose Sharks are quite familiar with.

But the funny thing about a stigma is that it doesn’t go away until we–the fans who criticize, analyze, and scrutinize every shift–say it does. Prior to last season, the Sharks were saddled with the burden of being one of the league’s best teams for six months of the season, and then one of the first to hit the links in April. They were happy to play the clown in our game of playoff puppets, amusing us for a brief week or so and then stepping aside while the real contenders staged the main event.

That was then, before Joe Pavelski scored nine goals and 17 points in 15 playoff games last spring, and the Sharks finally started to play like the cup contenders they’ve been for years. The magic lasted until the third round, and it’s here that we come back to the anatomy of a stigma. San Jose was swept aside after losing four tight games to Chicago, the eventual champions, and that ugly inability to finish crawled back from the dead.

Key additions

It’s a shame there has to be a business side to hockey. Because if there wasn’t a salary cap, Evgeni Nabokov would probably still be in the Sharks’ crease, although that’s a can of worms for another day. Instead he’s the newest netminder for the powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg, where he’ll enjoy the intensely cold winters of his native land.

Nabokov’s move left the Sharks searching for a new starter, a search that ended with a name that’s given writers nightmares for the past five years, and the now former goaltender of the defending Stanley Cup champions. Antero Niittymaki, who barely had more starts (46) than Nabokov’s wins (44), was brought in along with Antti Niemi, who was signed late in the offseason.

Key subtractions

Nabokov’s move to Russia was clearly the most significant development in San Jose, the city that claims Dublin, Ireland as a sister city. While Nabokov left for the comforts of home, veteran defenceman Rob Blake left for the comforts of home cooking, and the leisure of retirement. Despite his declining foot-speed, Blake was still effective in his own zone and his physicality will be missed on a team that severely lacks defensive depth.

Third-line centre Manny Malhotra is gone as well, whose tenacity as a bottom six forward and penalty killer will also be missed. Malhotra signed with the Canucks as an unrestricted free agent.

Offence

Getting pucks in the opposing goal was the least of San Jose’s concerns last year, and it will be again this season. Keeping pucks out of their own goal may be a bit of a problem, but more on that in a minute.

Only two division winners had three players finish inside the top-15 in points. One was quite predictably the Capitals, and the other was–also quite predictably–the San Jose Sharks. Patrick Marleau’s dismal 2007-08 campaign (only 19 goals) is now a distant memory, while Danny Heatley checked his baggage at the door in Ottawa and continues to threaten or surpass the 40-goal mark on a yearly basis.

Perennial playmaker Joe Thornton finished eighth overall in points and second in assists. But elite offensive performances from the likes of Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley are expected. What’s encouraging for the Sharks is the emergence and continued growth of players like Pavelski–who’s coming off back-to-back 25-goal seasons–and Ryan Clowe, the 27-year-old who scored a career-high 57 points. While the Big Three of Heatley, Thornton, and Marleau provide the heavy hammer, San Jose still has plenty of secondary scoring to lead a balanced attack.

Defence

Someone once said that the best defence is a good offence. Someone else said that offence wins games, and defence wins championships. The latter guy was one really corny dude, and the first guy was probably a big San Jose Sharks fan.

It isn’t necessarily that the Sharks are bad defensively. They’re mediocre, which is a less kind way of saying average. As a unit, the Sharks had the fourth best plus/minus in the NHL (+32), a number that can largely be attributed to their offensive firepower, and not so much the guys on the back end. Apart from the young and improving Marc-Edouard Vlasic–who finished the regular season +21–the Sharks’ defence was painfully average individually.

Dan Boyle, the offensive leader from the blueline, was +6, while Douglas Murray was +3. Niclas Wallin, who was acquired in February from Carolina, manage to pull his -5 while with the Hurricanes to an even zero, which also happens to be the league plus/minus average last year.

There are those who scoff at plus/minus numbers as an indicator of defensive success. But on a team that finished near the top of every offensive category, it’s interesting to observe the very average plus/minus totals for San Jose’s blueliners.

Goaltending

Sure, Nabokov was aging, a fact highlighted repeatedly by those in the anti-Nabby camp. But I’m not sure when 35 became the new 45 for NHL goaltenders. Elite goalies–yes, when you win 40 games for three straight years as Nabokov has, you’re an elite goalie–are often effective into their late 30′s.

Now Niittymaki and Niemi usher in a new era of goaltending in San Jose. Niittymaki earned the solid but not spectacular label last year while playing behind a far below average Tampa Bay team, finishing with a 2.87 GAA and .909 save percentage.

Meanwhile, Niemi will get the starting job due to his stellar play during Chicago’s cup run, but there has to be at least casual concern over a sophomore slump. Niemi was playing behind a championship team with a defence that didn’t rely on him for a bailout. The same can’t be said for San Jose.

Best case scenario

The Sharks pay a visit to Chicago, Niemi’s former place of employment, to see Wrigley Field and a team that defines doomed and has lived through a curse for over 100 years. Suddenly, winning a championship with a team brimming with talent doesn’t seem so hard.

The Sharks don’t need Niemi to be the next Nabokov, they just need the same calm, steady presence he provided for the Blackhawks.  San Jose finally makes it to the Stanley Cup final, winning a victory over the demons but still losing the cup in a tight, six-game series.

Worst case scenario

The crushing four-game debacle against Chicago casts a dark shadow over a team the karma police have been hassling for years. After being told for a year that he’s the weakest link on a championship team, Niemi gets used to the idea and plays like it. Lacking the punch and pugnacity that the good ol’ time knuckle pounders like Brian Burke love so much, the Sharks are pushed around without the muscle of Blake.

Missing their spine on defence and a netminder capable of providing insurance for their miscues, the Sharks are bounced in the second round, once again failing to live up to the lofty aspirations made possible by a high octane offence.

Prospecting

If the family ties are any indication, the Sharks’ first-round pick in the 2010 draft should pan out quite nicely. Of course, we all said the same for Brett Lindros, but I digress.

The Sharks selected Charlie Coyle, who is the cousin of Tony Amonte. The 18-year-old winger is still a few years away from contributing, and will spend this season with Boston University. Coyle scored 21 goals and 63 points over 42 games last year while playing South Shore of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

Defensively, 2007 first-round pick Nick Petrecki is looking to sneak in as a seventh defenceman. After seeing his ice time shrink last year in Worchester, the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, Petrecki’s booming blast has caught the attention of the Sharks’ staff during the YoungStars Tournament in Penticton.

All Eyes on…

Goal-scoring isn’t really a problem for a team that ranked in the top five last year in average goals per game (3.13). It was a prolific scoring punch that also led to the league’s fourth-best powerplay percentage (21.0%). You can never have enough scoring though, and apart from the big guns of Heatley, Marleau,Thornton, and Pavelski, more steady secondary scoring would be a nice asset, one that could provide that extra bit of staying power deep in the playoffs.

Two years ago it looked as though the Sharks were developing that secondary scoring source, and his name was Devin Setoguchi. After being drafted eighth overall in 2005, Setoguchi reached the 30-goal plateau in just his first full season, scoring 31 goals and 65 points in the 2008-09 season.

Call it a case of the sophomore jinx, but Setoguchi struggled mightily last year, and didn’t even come close to his 2008 numbers. His point production was nearly cut in half, and Setoguchi barely scored 20 goals.

When the stars stumble and the offence runs cold, it’s up to secondary players like Setoguchi to pick up the slack. Entering the summer as a restricted free agent, Setoguchi was signed to a one-year, $1.8 million contract, meaning this year will determine the Sharks’ faith in him as a long-term point producer.

Lyrically speaking

In the end it comes down to your thinking
And there’s really nobody to blame
When it feels like your ship is sinking
And you’re too tired to play the game

– Trooper, “Raise a little hell”