By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The San Jose Sharks were on the cusp of advancing to meet the Red Wings, less than 25 minutes away from the Western Conference final. They were circling and could smell blood. They just forgot to chomp.
The Sharks had a 3-2 series lead on the defending champion Avalanche in the Western Conference semifinal and were attempting to close it out at the Shark Tank.
Marcus Ragnarsson scored to put San Jose up 1-0 at 15:17 of the second period, but then it all unraveled. Steve Reinprecht scored 24 seconds later for Colorado, and the Avs went on to take Game 6 on Peter Forsberg's goal 2:47 into overtime. Colorado would close out San Jose 1-0 in Game 7 in Denver two nights later thanks to Patrick Roy's playoff magic.
A 99-point regular season was good, but the Sharks were done playing on May 13. Hopes of June hockey in the Bay Area were dashed.
San Jose accomplished its main goal of the offseason by keeping Teemu Selanne for the bargain-basement price of $6.5 million per season. The Sharks lost fourth-liner Stephane Matteau to Florida and defenseman Gary Suter to retirement, but the remainder of their core players are back.
"We knew that the challenge of keeping this group together was significant enough, without thinking we were going to be able to add personnel," general manager Dean Lombardi said. "So we really did focus internally. We didn't want to lose to our identity, we wanted to add to it. We didn't want to lose the fact that we play four lines and six defensemen and we're hard to play against and it's a playoff-type team.
San Jose has achieved a remarkable feat by improving its point total in the past seven seasons. To accomplish that in an eight season, the Sharks would have to hit the 100-point plateau for the first time in team history.
The Sharks have to be considered among the favorites in the West, assuming they can sign restricted free-agent holdouts Evgeni Nabokov and Brad Stuart. Then again, San Jose could struggle to win its own division, as the Pacific is stacked with playoff teams Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as highly improved Dallas and Anaheim. But if the Sharks can survive their own brutal division race, they could be battle tested enough to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Teemu Selanne, RW -- The Sharks have one of the top snipers in hockey, though his 76-goal rookie season seems like it was more 10 years ago. Selanne has just 36 goals in 94 regular-season game since getting traded to the San Jose from Anaheim in 2001. Skating on a line with speedsters Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm, Selanne plays the role of sniper, cruising the slot looking for one-timers. The flashy Finn needs to regain his scoring touch of a few years back if the Sharks want to move into the elite level and compete for the Cup.
"He hasn't shown us, other than maybe down the stretch, his best hockey," Lombardi said. "He's still a pretty good player. And his goal-scoring instincts is something you can't teach. At this stage of his career, he showed he is really committed to winning by coming back here and signing the contract that he did. What this guy did this summer is so unusual in sports and you hope that type of example rubs off on some of your other young players down the road. I think he's meant a lot to this franchise in a lot of ways, but I tend to think the best is yet to come."
Selanne picked up his production in the postseason with five goals and three assists in 12 games. While his 50-goal days may be behind him, the Sharks are definitely expecting him to tally more than the 29 he did last season.
Special teams -- The Sharks finished in the middle of the pack last season, but know they need to improve to contend for the title. San Jose ended up 13th in power-play percentage at 15.9, but only after making a push late in the season with 12 power-play goals in the last 12 games. San Jose killed off 85.8 percent of its penalties to finish 10th in the league.
"If you're going to move to the upper echelon, it's safe to say that your power play has to be up there and winning you some games," Lombardi said. "There are nights when playing three and four nights in a row that your talent is going to have to bail you out, even though you don't have all your legs and everything. And that's where special teams come in."
Selanne had just nine power-play goals last season, tied for his third-worst season for goals with the man advantage. Considering he has seasons of 25 and 24 power-play goals in his career, the Sharks could use an improved effort from him this season.
Owen Nolan needs to improve his special-teams play, as well. Nolan has scored 13 or more power-play goals five times in his career, but netted just eight last season. San Jose's captain needs to recapture his scoring touch with a man advantage to help his team reach the next level.
They aren't pretty, but they sure give their opponents fits.
Mike Ricci will never win a beauty content, but he could win a popularity contest with former teammates as being one of the best locker room guys in the league. A savvy veteran with a complete lack of fear, Ricci thrives on doing the dirty work, going into the corner after the puck with reckless abandon or sitting in the slot knowing he's likely to get a cross-check to the back.
Ricci's presence helped bruising power forward Scott Thornton post a career-high 26 goals at age 31 last season. Never a scorer until he arrived in San Jose two years ago, Thornton has 36 and 42 points in his two seasons in teal.
Playing on Ricci's right side is steady Niklas Sundstrom, a product of the Swedish hockey mecca of Ornskoldsvik, also home to Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins. Sundstrom doesn't have Thornton's size or Ricci's savviness, but he plays a great complimentary role and isn't afraid to mix it up a bit himself.
As for Ricci, he continues to get better with age. He posted 53 points last season, his highest total since he has 78 for Quebec in his third year in the league. Ricci boosted his play significantly in the postseason, scoring four goals and six assists in 12 games, while antagonizing the other team's top line on a nightly basis, too.
"It's a deep team," Lombardi said. "They are as important to our team as what might be characterized as the first line. Some night's Ricci's is our best line. So I know it gets the label the third line, but I'm not sure that's accurate. I tend to look at it as 1-12 [for our four forward liens] and our defense as 1-6 [for the three defensive pairs]. Our forwards 7-9, we'd put up against anybody in the league, and whoever that is on a given night can change."
Jonathan Cheechoo, RW, 6' 1", 210 pounds
Cheechoo scored 66 points in 75 games with AHL Kentucky in 2000-01 and 46 in 53 games with AHL Cleveland last season. He has nothing more to prove in the minor leagues and is ready to contribute to the Sharks a tough presence on the fourth line, with the potential to knock in an occasional goal or two.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.