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They're not a sexy pick, not like in the old days when they were young and running through the Western Conference regular season with swagger, skill and the boyish enthusiasm that comes from knowing you're good, but not quite understanding the formidable challenges ahead.
They're not even a common pick, not with the alleged and much anticipated maturation of the Washington Capitals, the insightful revamping of the Pittsburgh Penguins' defense, the "our time is now" anticipation developing around the Vancouver Canucks, or the "we're still here" core of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and their young but now thoroughly seasoned stars.
Truth is, I imagine that more than a few readers (and colleagues) chuckled when I picked the San Jose Sharks to finally make their way through to the Stanley Cup Final and win the darned thing.
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Before you laugh out loud, consider at least some of the following:
* The Sharks didn't do their usual "el foldo" in the playoffs last spring. True, they lost in four straight to the eventual champion Blackhawks, but they lost in the Conference Finals (a rare position for them to even get to, based on past performance) largely because of a brilliant performance from Chicago goalie Antti Niemi.
* Niemi is now a Shark. In one of those "this could only happen in hockey" scenarios, San Jose GM Doug Wilson, a former standout defenseman for the Blackhawks, made a restricted free agent bid on Chicago blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson that pushed the Hawks further into a salary cap bind. As a result, the Hawks matched Wilson's four-year $14 million offer and walked on an arbitration award to Niemi, making him a late summer free agent. In stepped Wilson to offer Niemi a contract, and suddenly the swing player in a 1-2 race in the Western Conference goes from the Blackhawks to the Sharks.
That's not a good move. That's a great move, and it came about in part because Wilson made a smart move. He walked away from longtime goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and his $6 million per season contract demand and signed Antero Niittymaki, a young goalie still on the upswing and then Niemi, a young goalie who just happens to have a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and, seemingly, a hunger to win more.
It's impossible to understate the importance of that for the Blackhawks -- who now try to contend with the aged and questionable Marty Turco in goal -- and the Sharks, who can look behind them on any given night and know that the goalie who thwarted them last season is now tending the cage in their defense. Sure, it's a change from the comfort level of Nabokov, who served the Sharks well for many seasons. But getting younger and arguably better at the game's key position and being able to free up money to re-sign some scoring stars like Patrick Marleau, well, what good did comfort do for the Sharks anyway?
* The Sharks still have a formidable offense. Five of their top six -- Thornton, Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe -- are as good as any collection in the game. Their sixth, Devin Setoguchi, admittedly didn't have his best season in 2009-10 (20 goals, 36 points), but he did have 31 goals and 65 points the season before, and depending upon which center he draws, Thornton or Pavelski, he could easily have a bounce-back season and 50-plus points are not outside his reach.
* The offense drops off a bit after that, but are the Sharks any worse off with lines peopled by Logan Couture, Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn and offseason acquisition Jamal Mayers? Mayers' play can be spotty at times, but he could rise to a level demanded of him by both the coaches and peer pressure.
* The defense suffers a bit from the retirement of Rob Blake and management's inability to land Willie Mitchell, but Wilson has the time and perhaps enough cash to address that somewhere during the course of the season. Even without a fix, however, the unit is formidable with the rock solid and offense-minded Dan Boyle in his prime, a good stay-at-home in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and the rugged Doug Murray. It's a bit of a mix bag after that, but rookie Jason Demers shows promise as an offensive threat and he could rise to the level of point man on the second power-play unit.
* Intangibles also figure into my pick. Thornton had a good-to-great 2009-10 and seems to be over the "can't do it in the playoffs" rap -- he's led the team in postseason scoring in each of the last three years -- despite critics who still argue to the contrary. He's also playing for a new contract. Thornton is in the final season of his $21.6 million three-year contract extension, and in this era of shrinking returns on high-end forwards plus the threat of a strike/lockout after the current CBA expires, he needs this season to carry him from here (age 31) to retirement. That motivation is likely to produce a banner season and an extra-effort performance in the playoffs.
Thornton being named captain, from this viewpoint, is likely to work to his disadvantage, but management seems to be convinced that upping the pressure on Jumbo Joe is to their, and his, advantage. If they're right, it will pay off come playoff time.
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Another noteworthy intangible is that the whole world is no longer watching. The Sharks have been around the top of the West for what many think is far too long. Already this season there are reports that the Los Angeles Kings are the emerging power in the Pacific Division. That's true to an extent, but the blessing is that a supremely talented Sharks team with highly motivated and talented players won't be expected to do much of anything this season.
In some odd sense, the Sharks appear to have been handed the mantle of "yesterday's news" -- a sort of high-end Phoenix Coyotes scenario where no one but the players themselves believe they are relevant. The Coyotes turned that to their advantage last season, rising from obscurity to a playoff spot and even throwing a scare into the Detroit Red Wings before losing in a series that went seven games.
The view from here is that a talented, motivated team that finds itself out of the spotlight isn't a bad thing.
In fact, it might be the best chance this squad has of winning the whole thing.
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