San Jose Sharks 2004-2005 season preview
Shark Roster News: Vincent Damphousse signed with the Colorado Avalanche. Mike Ricci signed with Phoenix. Curtis Brown signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. Free agent defenseman Jason Marshall signed with the New York Rangers. Free agent forward Todd Harvey, and restricted free agent forward Wayne Primeau are now the only unsigned San Jose players.
My lines for next year are:
1st line: Sturm - Marleau - Cheechoo
2nd line: Ekman - McCauley - Korolyuk
3rd line: Thornton - Goc - Zalesak - Michalek
4th line: Primeau - Smith - Parker - Dimitrakos
Jonathan Cheechoo should start on the first line. Thornton and Ricci struggled last year, but they made an extraordinary effort to get the puck to Jonathan Cheechoo, who scored from almost every area on the ice. Marleau and Sturm will create scoring chances with their speed, and Cheechoo will lead the team in goals as a result.
Ekman, McCauley, and Korolyuk will try to build on an impressive year. McCauley was injured in the postseason, and Korolyuk was mixed and matched to try to spark other lines. Nils Ekman did make an effort to raise his game defensively. The World Cup will wipe the slate clean and give him another chance to display his talent.
San Jose has been able to rely on a solid third line for a number of years. With the departure of Ricci, the line will bring something different to the ice. Sharks 2003 1st round pick Milan Michalek was injured 2 games into the season, but he wowed fans with his stick-handling and passing ability in the pre-season. He re-injured his knee during a short stint with the Cleveland Barons, but a lot of eyes will be on him to see how well he recoverd.
Sharks coach Ron Wilson referred to Marcel Goc as his closer in the playoffs [Mariano Rivera, the New York ace reliever]. Goc had a game winning goal and an assist in under 10 minutes of total ice time in two playoff games. Not a bad way to start your NHL career.
Miroslav Zalesak has had a brief look in San Jose on more than one occasion. Last year he led the AHL in scoring for most of the year, until prospect Brad Boyes was traded. Zalesak ended up tied for third with 35 goals and 40 assists in 72 games. He is gifted with the puck and a smooth skater, but my people in Cleveland and Slovakia tell me he needs to work more on his defense to play in the NHL full-time. Zalesak will have to clear waivers before he can be sent down to the Cleveland Barons again, so he should expect a long look with the Sharks next season. If there is a season of course.
When it comes to the fourth line, I always think about the Darryl Sutter line of Matteau-Sutter-Stern. They were not the largest, the fastest, or the youngest players in the league, but they were more than capable of shutting down an opposing teams top players. They played hard, but more importantly, they played simple. No end to end rushes, no cross-ice, rink-wide passes. 9 times out of 10 they would bounce the puck off the glass to get the puck out of the zone. But they got the job done.
Wayne Primeau is still negotiating with the Sharks mgmt, but San Jose will try to sign this key player for their fourth line. I expected a lot from Wayne Primeau and Chris Brown [now with Chicago] in the playoffs. I had both slotted in the role of defensive forward who could add some energy. To be honest, both underwhelmed. Primeau has size [6,4 - 230], and is one of the fastest players on the team. He deserves another year to see where he fits with the club. And unlike other coaches in the league, San Jose coach Ron Wilson gives ice time based on performance. Sign him for a year and give him the Korolyuk treatment.
Scott Parker had an injured wrist/hand for a large part of the season, but GM Doug Wilson made it clear there will be no intimidation of this team at any time. Any liberties taken on the ice should be answered by Parker. Mark Smith is an example of how deep the San Jose roster is. Three players who should start on an NHL roster did not start in San Jose last year [Smith, Zalesak, Fahey]. Fahey and Smith were effective in a reserve role. Smith's size is an issue [5,10 - 200], but pairing him with Primeau should work well. Niko Dimitrakos provided the most exciting moment of the 2004 playoffs for San Jose with his game-winning OT goal against St Louis. Dimitrakos has flashes of excellent play both on offense and defense, and has very soft hands with the puck, but he needs to show more consistency.
I can not really go into the specific defensive pairings because I do not remember them, and they were juggled fairly regularly. Here is how they rank on the Sharkspage depth chart, with my insightful commentary:
 Hannan - named to Team Canada, should have been an allstar.
 Rathje - his size and hockey sense changes the way teams prepare for the Sharks (rough quote from an opponent).
 McLaren - Marchment launched people at the blueline, McLaren launches players and TV analysts sideways along the boards.
 Stuart - hits hard, needs to take control of the power play.
 Preissing - straight from Colorado College to San Jose, smart.
 Ehrhoff - SJ lacks a true offensive-defenseman, Ehrhoff is that player.
 Davison - improves every year, and can throw down.
 Fahey - solid defensively, led the NHL in rookie scoring by defenseman his first year in the league.
In goal for the San Jose Sharks during the regular season:
Evgeni Nabokov [31-19-8, 2.21 GAA, .921 SV%, 59 GP]
Vesa Toskala [12-8-4, 2.06 GAA, .930 SV%, 28 GP]
While most San Jose Sharks previews will trumpet the regular season turnaround, the real story last year was in goal. The Sharks started with three legitimate #1 goaltenders: Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Vesa Toskala. When Nabokov held out and missed training camp and the start of the 2002-2003 season, Kiprusoff [5-12-0, 3.25 GAA, 22GP] struggled as the #1 goalie behind a weak defense.
After GM Doug Wilson traded Miikka Kiprusoff to Calgary for a conditional second round pick [part of the future considerations in the Lynn Lyons trade was making sure the Sharks obtained a 2005 2nd round pick], Kiprusoff went on to record the lowest goals against average of any goaltender in the modern era [1.69]. A number of NHL fans have emailed this site asking, "what was the GM thinking?". It was simply the best the market would offer at the time.
How did Nabokov respond after a disappointing 2002-2003? 4 losses and 4 ties to start the season. Like the previous start under Kiprusoff, this year's slow start was largely a reflection of the team in front of him. For the entire month of October, and the first half of November, the Sharks let teams come from behind, or win late to notch a horrible 3-7-8 record.
Nabokov injured his groin late in November only to see Vesa Toskala come in and go 5-2-1 in his absence. Evgeni returned to his role as a #1 goaltender, and backstopped one of the biggest turnaround seasons in the NHL. The Sharks were able to take a lot of chances up front because Nabokov would bail them out more often than not if they made a mistake.
Toskala played well in spot duty the rest of the season, notably against difficult teams such as Vancouver [1-1 (overtime loss)] , St Louis [1-1 (overtime loss)], Detroit [L], Colorado [W], and Dallas [L] among others.
In the playoffs, Evgeni Nabokov started all 17 games for the San Jose Sharks. He had 10 wins and 7 losses, with a .935 SV% and a 1.71 GAA. The team played well in front of Evgeni, and when they struggled to score he locked it down and gave them a chance to win. Getting past the Colorado Avalanche in the second round was a turning point for the franchise.
Nabokov and Toskala are only the tip of the goalie iceberg. The goaltending factory in San Jose has a track record of success at the NHL level, and it is percolating down through the other levels of the organization.
My prediction for next season? A top 4 finish in the Western Conference, another appearance in the Western Conference finals, another Pacific division banner [not so fast Phoenix], and the first 40+ goal scorer in San Jose since Nolan [if the season starts on time].
If there is no NHL season? I predict I will attend a lot of San Jose State Spartans hockey games, and photograph a number of other local sports.
[Update] A German reader emails to say that Marco Sturm is writing occasional "Sturm reports" for hockeyweb.de. In German of course, but there was a nice link to Marco Sturm's hockey school.