All 25-year-old Owen Nolan has done in his five full NHL seasons is average 34 goals a year, play in the All-Star Game three times and put the fear of god into opponents. Last year, as an assistant captain of the Sharks, Nolan set a franchise record with 31 goals, kicked enough butt to get 155 penalty minutes and, in the All-Star Game at San Jose Arena, had a hat trick that sent the frenzied faithful into near delirium.
This season he's expected to do better.
Nolan, the first player chosen in the 1990 draft, is a rambunctious 6'1", 215-pound right wing who skates so smoothly and shoots with such dexterity that San Jose traded its best player, defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, to get him from the Avalanche nearly two years ago. However, the rap on Nolan is that as often as he has dominated games, he has played others with alarming lethargy. "For Owen, it comes down to how much he wants it, whether he'll work for 82 games," says Sharks center Bernie Nicholls. "The difference between being a good team or being an average team is whether Owen decides if he's going to be average or great."
The other player whose performance may determine whether the Sharks can go from the Western Conference's worst team (27-47-8) to a playoff contender is 21-year-old center Jeff Friesen, Nolan's linemate and one of the sweetest skaters in the NHL. After scoring 15 goals in 48 games as a rookie in 1994-95, Friesen—too young, too cocky, too unwilling to mix it up in the corners—scored the same total in 79 games the next season. It was not until last year, when he was demoted to the third line, that Friesen started producing. He had 20 goals and 49 points in his final 52 games, and he began playing with more grit. "I want to be a leader," he says. "For me, being a leader means scoring big goals."
The player whose goal is to stop the puck is netminder Mike Vernon, the playoff MVP with the Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings last season, who was obtained for two draft picks to add stability and plug the hole between the pipes. But San Jose's fortunes this season hinge on the performance of its two main men. That's why new coach Darryl Sutter grins when he mentions that Friesen worked all summer with a personal trainer and that Nolan practiced as hard as anyone in camp. "I don't know if that's been said about Owen before," says general manager Dean Lombardi. "It's what we need."