More of Marleau
Seventh-year center proving to have more bite than bark for Sharks
More often than not, a team turns its play around over the course of several games, with sloppy play turning solid and scoring chances becoming goals.
But San Jose had a smack-your-forehead-obvious epiphany in Boston on Nov. 6. Looking back, it could be the moment which saved the Sharks' season and launched what they are hoping is a Mighty Ducks-like run to the playoffs.
Bruins right winger Glen Murray scored at 15:22 of the second period to tie the score at 3-3 in a game that would eventually end in a 5-5 tie. And Sharks head coach Ron Wilson sat down center Patrick Marleau for the remaining 24:38, punishing him for a lack of hustle.
Perhaps Marleau was tired from playing the sixth game in 10 nights as part of San Jose's seven-game road swing, or maybe he was just gassed at the end of a shift. But for whatever reason, he didn't backcheck after making a turnover in the offensive zone, and much like the ongoing John Tortorella-Vincent Lecavalier feud in Tampa Bay, a goal at the other end drew his coach's ire.
"He stood in our end and watched his guy score after like three guys had blocked shots," Wilson said. "I just said, 'That's enough.' He'd seemed indifferent and I had to grab his attention. He needed to be kicked in the butt and he got it. He got some pressure from his teammates to back up the stuff I was saying, and to his credit, he's played hard ever since. And that's including practice, which is important, too."
Marleau's complacency may have resulted from having stars like Jeff Friesen, Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne around to rely on for most of his first six seasons. But when Nolan was dealt to Toronto last season and Selanne left for Colorado via free agency, the onus fell squarely on Marleau's shoulders. The Sharks eliminated the glass ceiling that existed for him, but Marleau struggled with the transition to his new role early this season, scoring just six points in the first month.
The Sharks believed that Marleau was only playing hard when he felt like it, and Wilson's actions of benching Marleau in Boston and then skating him on the fourth line for a few games after were a direct message to let him know that his sporadic effort wasn't acceptable.
"To Patty's credit, he didn't really complain," Wilson said. "He slotted himself down to the fourth line for a game or two. He dug in. He dug his heels in and he hasn't had a bad game in like 20 games or so. That's a long streak for him. He's always shown signs of greatness, but it would be for a week or three games and then he'd kind of fall off. And he could do that because there were other guys who could get the job done, but we don't have that luxury anymore and he certainly realizes it."
The 5-5 draw against the Bruins dropped the Sharks to 2-5-6-1, and the 2003-04 season was off to a very similar start to the team's disastrous 2002-03 campaign. But Marleau has responded to the benching by improving his all-around play, and the 24-year-old center has led San Jose to a 13-5-5-2 record since, its 44 points good for a three-point lead over the Kings in the Pacific Division.
"I think he responded well," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "Ron obviously dictates who gets the ice time and who doesn't, and that's the ultimate reward for a player. But I think the entire team makes each other accountable. And that's the ultimate hammer in the dynamic of building a team.
"They had a team meeting which was at the right time by the right people. And what was said in that room stays in that room amongst the players. But at the end of the day what came out is: 'We're playing for each other.' I think that had a dramatic impact in that the players took over the team as they should. And they have not let each other down."
Marleau doesn't recall the specific play that led to his benching -- "I think maybe it was a few plays adding up to it," he said -- but he acknowledges that his play was sagging and that Wilson got his attention by telling him to have a seat for the remainder of that game.
"Anytime that you get sat down, you want to be out there playing so you aren't very happy," Marleau said. "My play has kind of turned around since then, but you can only control what you do out on the ice. That's the only kind of way of looking at it. Whenever you get out there just try to work hard and go out there and help the team win."
Hard work is a trait that characterizes this entire Sharks team. They are getting excellent secondary scoring from Jonathan Cheechoo and Nils Ekman, they are getting great goaltending from both Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, and they are getting improved defensive efforts from a solid core of blueliners led by Scott Hannan, Kyle McLaren, Mike Rathje and Brad Stuart.
The Sharks have had a balanced scoring attack, with Marco Sturm, Vincent Damphousse and Alyn McCauley all helping Marleau in the offensive end. Marleau has been spending most of his time on a line with veteran playmaker Damphousse and 24-year-old mucking right winger Niko Dimitrakos.
Marleau has always been a bit of a talent tease after scoring 125 points in 71 games with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL as a 17-year-old in 1996-97. That huge season led to him being selected second overall by the Sharks in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, behind Joe Thornton, but ahead of Sergei Samsonov and Marian Hossa, each of whom had more points than Marleau coming into this season.
Though Marleau has yet to crack the 30-goal plateau while Hossa has three times, the Aneroid, Saskatchewan, native already has four 20-goal seasons to his credit, including a career-high 28 a year ago. With 17 goals through 39 games, Marleau is on pace for 35 goals this season. But the modest Marleau is proving to be more bite than bark, letting his play do the talking for him.
"It's always nice when you get goals and when the team is winning," Marleau said. "But it's still fairly early and there is still a lot of work to be done this season. I haven't really set anything out there [for personal goals]. This is old, but my only goal is just to game-in and game-out try to do something to help the team win. I just want to work hard and try to get those good scoring chances."
Marleau's six-game point streak ended in Wednesday's 1-0 win in Columbus, but even in that game he did something to impress his coach. With about seven minutes left in what was then a scoreless game, Marleau rang one off the post after picking the puck up behind the Sharks' net and embarking on an end-to-end rush on which he beat two defensemen cleanly. It was the kind of play that is all too infrequent in today's trap-happy NHL, especially in a close game. Wilson is impressed that Marleau wants the puck in those key situations and that he is finally taking charge more on the ice.
"Patty Marleau has played as well as he ever has, or probably better than he ever has," Ron Wilson said. "And he's done it for a long period of time, too. I tend to think that it's just some of our young players are maturing and coming to accept responsibility that you need to take your game to another level. But Patty has just been awesome."
Marleau and the Sharks will get a true test with challenging road games at St. Louis and Vancouver on Saturday and Monday to wrap up their current four-game road trip.
And it's a pretty safe bet that No. 12 in the white and teal sweater won't just be standing around and watching the action.
Michalek close to returning
The Sharks are expecting Milan Michalek to start practicing with the team again within two weeks. San Jose made Michalek the sixth overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but he tore his ACL in Calgary in the second game of the season.
Michalek began skating on Dec. 14 at the Sharks' Christmas party and is on the ice for nearly an hour a day, but he the team doctors haven't cleared him for contact drills yet. The team wants to wait until he is 100 percent healthy so that he doesn't risk reinjuring the knee.
"We're certainly not going to rush him," Doug Wilson said. "He's a young man who is a tremendously important player for us, so we're real glad that he's worked his tail off. He's not your typical 19 year old -- he's lived in an apartment by himself since he was 14 and he's a man both physically and mentally. But he will be back this season. I don't know if I've ever seen anybody rehab as hard as this."
He should be ready for game action in late January or early February, and his return to the lineup will make a speedy Sharks lineup even faster.
Sad side trip in Chi-town
Doug Wilson plans to remain in Chicago after the team flies to St. Louis following Friday's game against the Blackhawks. Wilson played 14 years with the 'Hawks and is going to spend time with the family of the late Keith Magnuson, his teammate for three seasons at the beginning of his career and then his coach for 1 1/2 seasons.
"He had a tremendous impact on my life on many aspects of it, so it was very difficult," Wilson said. "He was my defense partner, my roommate, my coach when I had my best year and then I worked at Coca-Cola with him for 10 years. So both personally and professionally he's had a profound influence on my life and it's tough to see his family going through this."
Wilson attended Magnuson's funeral in suburban Lake Forest, Ill., on Dec. 21. While in town on this trip, Wilson is going to take Keith's son out to dinner on Saturday.
"They are hanging in there," Wilson said, referring to Magnuson's wife Cindy, son Kevin and daughter Molly. "They are a very strong and wonderful family."
World Cup repeat?
Ron Wilson hasn't had much time to think about it, but it's clear that he would like a shot to defend his title with the U.S. World Cup team. Wilson led the Americans to victory in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in a thrilling three-game finals win over the Canadians.
Wilson hasn't spoken with Blues general manager Larry Pleau or Thrashers GM Don Waddell about it, nor has he talked to anyone at USA Hockey. But he said he'll be ready and eager to talk about returning for another stint if they call.
"Obviously you'd like to coach a team like that," Wilson said. "Everybody has their plates full right now with their own team, so I have no idea what anybody is doing. That is the farthest thing from my mind. But I sometimes think that winning the last World Cup didn't count for anything. I've coached a lot more games than most of the guys whose names I've read are being considered."
Manic Monday in Finland
The United States and Canada appear to be on a collision course for Monday's gold medal game at the 2004 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Finland. Canada will meet the Czech Republic in Saturday's first semifinal, while the U.S. faces Finland in the second semifinal. DirecTV's NHL Center Ice package will show TSN's coverage of both games, as well as the gold medal game at Noon EST on Monday.
The United States has never won the title, coming closest in in 1997 when it lost to Canada in the finals. But tournament leading scorer Zach Parise has the Americans cruising along, and this is the red, white and blue's best bet ever to bring gold back to the States.
Canada's size could be tough to handle, though, as their big group of forwards may be too much to handle for Team USA's small, but mobile blueline corps. The Canadians have dominated in the corners and in front of the net so far during the tournament, and the Americans may struggle in puck battles and keeping the front of the net clear.
The 2005 tournament will be held in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn., beginning next Dec. 26, so a victory by the U.S. team would help boost the profile of the tournament in a country where it has largely been ignored.
Fans of Team Canada's World Junior exploits will want to check out Kevin Gibson's terrific book The World Junior Championships -- Team Canada From Eh To Zed. Gibson has 30 copies available directly from him for $20 Canadian plus shipping costs, as opposed to the $35 U.S. price being charged for the book at Barnes and Noble's Web site. If interested in this terrific, authoritative book that is sanctioned by Hockey Canada, you can contact Gibson via e-mail to reserve a copy.
Washington Times writer Dave Fay is battling throat cancer and went through 19 1/2 hours of surgery on Tuesday. The Professional Hockey Writers Association, led by president Kevin Allen of USA Today, is going to be conducting a charity auction on eBay beginning next Wednesday under the seller name PHWA to raise money for cancer research. Referee Paul Stewart, himself a colon cancer survivor, is among those to donate items to the auction thus far, including the jersey he wore in his 1,000th game, a puck, a signed photo and a significant cash contribution from his foundation. ... Evernham Motorsports and the National Hockey League and the NHL will unveil a special NHL All-Star No. 19 Dodge at the Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday. The special edition car will run in the 2004 Bud Shootout, likely with Jeremy Mayfield as the driver. ... Ducks goaltender Martin Gerber posted the best goals-against average (1.77) and save percentage (.936) during the 2003 calendar year, with his totals also being the best in any calendar year since Dominik Hasek's 1.76 GAA and .943 save percentage for Buffalo in 1998. ... Ducks defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh had surgery on his left shoulder Friday morning in Los Angeles to fix a torn pectoralis muscle and will miss approximately 10-12 weeks. ... Canadians who subscribe to Bell ExpressVu and have an interactive receiver will be able to use their remote to browse alternate camera angles, watch continuous highlights and enjoy other fun new wrinkles on Hockey Night In Canada Plus each Saturday night. ... Niclas Havelid's wife Anna gave birth to twins boys (Mattias and Hudo) on Friday, increasing their family to five, with the boys joining four-year old sister Victoria. ... Doug MacLean finished his year-long tenure behind the Blue Jackets' bench with an awful record of 24-43-8-4, a .380 winning percentage. ... Blues head coach Joel Quenneville recorded his 300th NHL victory on Thursday. ... St. Louis improved to 4-2-3 on New Year's Day. ... Felix Potvin won for the first time this season in Boston on Thursday, after going 0-2-3 in his previous five appearances. ... The Predators are 5-1-1-1 against Eastern Conference teams.
The Bruins might look at acquiring Eric Brewer, Dick Tarnstrom or Alexei Zhitnik if they can't pry Tom Poti away from the Rangers in their quest for an offensive defenseman. ... If the Panthers opt to deal Kristian Huselius, Anaheim would be the most likely destination because former Panthers general manager Bryan Murray is now, of course, the Mighty Ducks' GM. Murray drafted Huselius in the second round of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft and has always been enamored with his offensive skills. ... The Oilers would love to go with Ty Conklin as their starting goaltender, but no one is going to pick up Tommy Salo's hefty $4 million salary, meaning Edmonton is likely stuck with Salo. ... The Avs might finally be willing to part with Martin Skoula, who hasn't progressed as they thought he might, and has been the team's No. 5 defenseman this season, behind offseason acquisition Karlis Skrastins who took a lot of Skoula's ice time away. .. Brewer and Salo aren't the only Oilers available, as Kevin Lowe might deal Georges Laraque or Jason Smith for the right price, too.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.