Challengers with some chomp
Sharks have talent to compete with Wings, Avs in WestPosted: Wednesday October 09, 2002 8:23 PM
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- The San Jose Sharks must be getting really good. Even The Hockey News is starting to pay attention to them.
Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse were on a recent cover of the newspaper that is the bible of their sport. Below them was a curious headline: "The Best Team You Don't Know."
California hockey fans know all about the Sharks, who have improved their record for six straight seasons capped by their first Pacific Division title last spring.
When the regular season begins Thursday night against the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the Sharks will continue building a Cup-worthy team. General manager Dean Lombardi believes they have the talent and the experience to go deep into the playoffs -- and to make everyone pay attention.
"Every year, you try to take a step and move further forward," Lombardi said. "We took a step last year, and we took a step the year before. This step is harder, but they're all harder."
San Jose won its division last season and made the second round of the playoffs, where they lost in seven games to Colorado after leading the series 3-2.
The Sharks made no significant additions to their fast, gritty team in the offseason, but their only significant loss was Gary Suter, who retired as one of the best offensive defensemen in NHL history. Lombardi still thinks the Sharks will be improved with another year of chemistry and cohesiveness.
"I just think it's important that we stick together and build a real team," said forward Teemu Selanne, who re-signed with the Sharks during the summer for $6.5 million -- less than what he probably could have made elsewhere.
"We all know each other a lot better than most teams do. We've got a good core, and we can do a lot more sophisticated things than some teams because we're all familiar."
But not everything is sunny in San Jose. The Sharks will be without star goalie Evgeni Nabokov for at least the opener and perhaps longer as he negotiates a new contract. The Sharks' career leader in victories missed all of training camp.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Nabokov's talented Finnish backup, will be the Sharks' No. 1 goalie until Nabokov signs.
In addition, defenseman Brad Stuart is still holding out for a significant raise. His absence and Suter's retirement leaves a hole in the Sharks' defense -- particularly on the power play.
"I'm going to have to step up and play better, and so are a lot of guys," said second-year defenseman Jeff Jillson, who will be one of the power play leaders. "I'm a lot more confident in my ability to do that role than I was last year. It's all about experience, and I've finally got some."
The Sharks' strengths are speed and depth. Selanne, Nolan and Damphousse are all hoping to improve on their mediocre point totals from last season. All three are considered offensive stars, but all three failed to put up numbers that were among the best of their careers.
Selanne hit his stride late in the season when he was put on a line with center Patrick Marleau, who roared down the home stretch and into the playoffs with the best hockey of his career. San Jose is banking heavily on another fine campaign by Marleau, who's entering his sixth NHL season at age 23.
Left wing Scott Thornton will be out at the start of the season with a shoulder problem, which will lead to a temporary breakup of his line with Ricci and Niklas Sundstrom. That line was a big key to the Sharks' success last season when its defensive pressure and opportunistic goal-scoring abilities often tipped games in San Jose's favor.
Seldom-used veteran Stephane Matteau also left in the offseason, which opened up a regular playing spot for rookie Jonathan Cheechoo, a two-time AHL All-Star in the Sharks' farm system. In fact, Cheechoo spent part of the preseason on the Sharks' top line.
With veteran experience at every position and four quality lines, the Sharks are built to survive the regular season with enough energy and ambition left for a postseason run. If they start slowly, Sundstrom thinks it's no reason to worry.
"We're all focused on getting in position for the playoffs," he said. "We've been thinking about getting back there since May."