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2 SAN JOSE Sharks
Daniel G. Habib
October 14, 2002
A maturing team prepares to make a bona fide run at the Stanley Cup
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October 14, 2002

2 San Jose Sharks

A maturing team prepares to make a bona fide run at the Stanley Cup

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INSIDER

CATEGORY

SI RANKING

SKINNY

OFFENSE

4

Good balance, but Nolan needs to score 40 again

DEFENSE

6

Underrated Ragnarsson, Rathje can shut down any line

GOALTENDING

10

If Nabokov signs, all's well; if not, there's trouble

SPECIAL TEAMS

6

Ricci, Sundstrom are penalty-killing aces

MANAGEMENT

6

Under the gun, Sutter signed only through season

After unrestricted free-agent right wing Teemu Selanne took a $3 million pay cut to re-sign with the Sharks in July, he did a more remarkable thing: He told general manager Dean Lombardi, "You haven't seen my best hockey yet." That's a positive sign for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Selanne's 29 goals on San Jose's second line led the team last season, and his decision to stay with the Sharks keeps a deep, talented roster with a league-high six 20-goal scorers intact. "He's a huge piece," says Lombardi, who signed the 32-year-old Selanne to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. "What he showed in coming back here at this stage of his career is so unusual, but it shows he's committed to winning."

San Jose has increased its point total in each of the last seven seasons, hitting a franchise-record 99 last year, and with its key twenty-something contributors one year older, it is more dangerous than the club that blew a 3-2 series lead against the Avalanche in the Western Conference semifinals last spring. Top-liners Vincent Damphousse (20 goals, 38 assists), Adam Graves (17,14) and Owen Nolan (23,43) are solid point producers, but retaining Selanne, who turned down a reported two-year, $15 million offer from an Eastern Conference team, allows the Sharks to pursue their desired off-season plan of improving from within. In postmortem meetings after the Colorado series Lombardi, coach Darryl Sutter and other members of the front office identified 14 areas for on-ice improvement, foremost among them the mediocre power play, which ranked 13th in the NHL.

With defenseman Gary Suter's retiring last month, the Sharks will rely more on 22-year-old Jeff Jillson, a hulking 6'3" 220-pounder. Jillson has excellent offensive skills, and the Sharks expect his power-play numbers (three goals, 12 assists in 48 games as a rookie last season) to increase dramatically. "We're counting on him to play at a higher level," Lombardi says, "but that can be a dangerous expectation with a second-year player."

Patrick Marleau, 23, will also be a power-play mainstay, centering regular linemates Selanne and Marco Sturm. The second pick in the 1997 draft, Marleau has been a middling 30-to 50-point producer in his five-year NHL career, but he caught fire at the end of last season, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in the final 10 games, and then adding six goals and 11 points in 12 postseason matches. In 2002-03 Marleau will get increased ice time (he averaged just 14:04 last season), and his production could finally meet the predictions the Sharks had when they drafted him.

Assuming his stalled contract negotiations don't force him to miss substantial regular-season time (as of Monday he was a holdout), 27-year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who vaulted into the league's elite last season with 37 wins, seven shutouts and a .918 save percentage, gives San Jose a dominant netminder. No longer content with year-to-year improvement, the Sharks feel they're a Stanley Cup contender, and they're right. "When the players went home in May, it was the first year they were ticked off that they didn't advance," Lombardi says. "They thought we should have won that second-round series."

And we haven't seen their best hockey yet.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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