Friday, February 27, 2004 Updated: March 4, 1:32 PM ET
Between Periods: Sharks are elite team
By Jeffrey Morris
What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, the San Jose Sharks were already dusting off their golf clubs and preparing for summer cottage rentals and fishing trips.
This year, the Sharks have a chance to go deep into the playoffs as they have surprisingly become an elite team in the Western Conference.
Sharks fans will tell you it's no fluke as they have had an incredibly balanced attack over the past few seasons. Two years ago, for example, they had one of the best team offenses in the league despite not having any players in fantasy hockey who you would consider a top 50 player.
This year, the depth is again outstanding, and it involves more than just the offense. But the offense is a great place to start, especially as this team has seemed to improve even without recently departed All-Stars like Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan.
As of now, the Sharks have six players who have scored 10 or more goals this year. Another five are on pace to score 10, which would give them 11 for the season. Another impressive stat is that only one player on their entire roster - Mark Smith - has a negative plus-minus rating.
The man leading the charge offensively is Patrick Marleau, who is having his long awaited breakout year after having given fans a taste of brilliance while in junior with the Seattle T-Birds. As of Thursday, Marleau led the Sharks with 26 goals and 45 points, and also led the team in shots with 166. But Marleau is not a top 10 or even top 20 fantasy hockey player, yet he is a model of offensive consistency that, up and down your roster, can show you where San Jose's young stars can add to your depth.
"Patty Marleau did something at the end of last year where he could have easily opted out of the World Championships because there was some illness in the family," said Sharks GM Doug Wilson Wednesday in a conference call. "He went over there. He won a gold medal. He came back, and within a couple days, we got his contract done. He stepped up and showed leadership right then and there. He came into camp this year. And he plays hard in both ends of the ice, and he wants to be a great player.
"The one thing that people look at and say about our team is that we're a bunch of guys, you know, that people don't know that well. I tell you, we will have some dominant and star players in this league for a long time."
Marleau is not the only player the Sharks are developing for breakout years.
Marco Sturm has 19 goals and 37 points and is also an offensive player coming into his own with the Sharks. Jonathan Cheechoo is doing the same, as he is breaking out this year and has 18 goals.
A fourth breakout player is Alyn McCauley, who again has a monkey on his back for not living up to the expectations of a Canadian Junior Player of the Year Award winner. McCauley has honed his game at both ends of the rink and has become as premier two-way defenseman. He has 16 goals and 16 assists so far, he's a plus-8, he has five power play goals and he has 111 shots on goal. McCauley's true value to this team, however, is his ability to shut down the top line centers he goes up against on a nightly basis.
Chances are you have been watching these four players develop through the years, anticipating and waiting for a good season. But chances are the big year put in by Mils Ekman has blindsided you. With 16 goals, 20 assists and a plus-16 rating, Ekman is one of the many players on the Sharks that fantasy team owners are scrambling for down the stretch.
Beyond the offense, the Sharks have one of the best goaltending duos seen in recent years. Evgeni Nabokov, who had a very ugly start to the season, has bounced back and is playing outstanding hockey. Vesa Toskala has been even more spectacular as a backup. Nabokov is 20-15-7 with 7 shutouts, a .926 save percentage and a 2.05 goals against average. Toskala, who has played in 22 games to Nabokov's 42, has a 2.07 average, a 10-6-4 record, and a .931 save percentage. The Sharks are on pace to set a franchise record for fewest goals allowed in a season.
The Sharks have also shown big improvements in their specialty teams. They ranked last in the NHL in penalty killing last season. This year, they are a top 10 team.
Wilson often refers to his team as the Ottawa of the west. He is using the Senators blue print for developing a system and a core nucleus of young and talented players. With the upside and the depth of young talent on offense and on the blueline, he is right on target.
"I like what Ottawa has done, how they've built their franchise internally. When they traded Alexei Yashin, their captain, leading scorer, and power forward, was similar to us moving Owen (Nolan) and Teemu Selanne. You enabled your next group of players to step up and take over them, too. A lot of people forget that Marleau and Sturm are actually older than Havlat and Hossa. You see Redden and Phillips taking over the team. Our team is basically the same age as the Ottawa Senators. What you have is a group of players that have been in this league, that are ready for the responsibility to take over this team and have looked for that opportunity.
"Those guys have 500 games under their belt, Sturm and Marleau. You've got Brad Stuart, you've got Dave Hannan. These guys have played Game 7s against Colorado, they've played in the playoffs for many years. Our goaltending is the same type of experience.
"Some people would say we're rebuilding this year. To me, it was more of an adjustment. Some of the players, you know, McCauley, Kyle McLaren, Wayne Primeau, people like that, they've been able to come in and have good training camps, get off to a good start, and be part of basically the new era of the San Jose Sharks. It's these players' team now."
Barnstorming...:Patrik Elias of the Devils has five goals and a plus-8 over his last three games ... In his last four games, Steve Sullivan of the Predators has five goals and five assists for 10 points and has a plus-5 rating. Teammate Scott Walker is also hot with 10 points and a plus-5 in his last four games ... Mike Modano sat out the final two periods of Wednesday's game with a groin injury and is day-to-day ... Jay Bouwmeester of the Panthers is expected to return from his broken foot Friday. This can only help Roberto Luongo, who has been one of the hottest goalies in the NHL over the last two weeks ... Michael Nylander of the Capitals is also expected back from his broken leg this weekend ... Darby Hendrickson, who has shown flashes of offensive brilliance in his career, was traded to the Avalanche. In the right situation, he might be worth adding to your roster ... Rob Blake played 22 minutes Monday in his return from a broken leg ... Peter Forsberg has missed four straight games with a groin injury ..... Curtis Joseph's ankle sprain has turned out to be worse than originally advertised. Joseph worked out this week but is still a week away from playing ... Ladislav Nagy officially stuck a fork in the career year he was having in Phoenix. Nagy's dislocated wrist required season ending surgery ... Sergei Fedorov is pointless and a minus-4 in his last three games with the Ducks ... In his last four starts, Manny Legace is 3-1-0 with a 1.76 GAA and a .939 save percentage ... Martin Havlat of the Senators has eight goals in his last eight games played ... Scott Gomez of the Devils has 13 points in his last seven outings ... Daniel Sedin of the Canucks has seven goals in his last seven games ... Alexandre
Daigle of the Wild has seven assists in his last five games ... Over the last two weeks, Nashville has four players in the top six in power play scoring - Steve Sullivan, Scott Walker, Marek Zidlicky and Kimo Timonen.
That's all for now. Until next week, I'll be somewhere in the 80s, when scoring was up and there was no trap, listening to my Fine Young Cannibals CDs.
Prescott, Ont. native Jeffrey Morris is a former NHL beat writer who is the V.P. of Marketing at Pacific Trading Cards in Lynnwood, Wash. He can also be heard breaking down hockey regularly as "Ice Rink" on the Tony Bruno Morning Extravaganza. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.