You would think that the eight-year-old Sharks, who have never had a .500 season, would have regarded 1997-98 as a modest success. San Jose closed the regular season solidly (25-20-8 in its final 53 regular-season games), secured a playoff spot and played the vaunted Stars tough before suffering a six-game, first-round loss. But Sharks coach Darryl Sutter wasn't impressed. He has reached the playoffs in each of his 12 NHL seasons as a player and coach, so such accomplishments are expected. "We have a long way to go," he says.
That echoes the sentiments of Dean Lombardi, who took over as San Jose's general manager in March 1996 and who, despite the Sharks' pitiful past, set his sights on the Stanley Cup. His strategy was simple: bring in young talent and surround it with experience and grit.
That plan seems to be working. Precocious centers Patrick Marleau, 19, and Marco Sturm, 20, both have exceptional skills. The main reason they've blossomed so quickly into respected NHLers is because they learned so much last season playing behind savvy veterans Mike Ricci, 26, and Bernie Nicholls, 37. "We know Marleau and Sturm can play," says Lombardi, "but what matters is to get them to the level where they can compete against centers like Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov."
The youth education program is also clicking on defense. During the off-season, the Sharks signed four-time All-Star Gary Suter, 34, and reliable Bob Rouse, also 34. These veterans are ideal models for such promising blueliners as Andrei Zyuzin, 20; 6'6", 240-pound rookie Andy Sutton, 23; and Brad Stuart, 18, the No. 3 pick in June's draft.
Aside from Jeff Friesen (31 goals), one of the Sharks' four unsigned free agents, San Jose lacks young punch on the wing. However, it has a goaltending tandem that fits perfectly into its scheme. Steve Shields, 26, was acquired to back up 35-year-old Mike Vernon. The Sharks hope Vernon's competitiveness will rub off on Shields because he may be the No. 1 goalie in a couple of years—about the time the Sharks should have made enough progress to draw a rave or two from their coach.