Summer of the Shark was Quiet this year

By Kevin Wey

While other Pacific Division rivals, such as the Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes, and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have made some notable transactions and acquisitions this past summer, the Sharks have been relatively quiet, with no major signings, trades, or management shake-ups. As the champions of the Pacific Division last season, San Jose was not too far away, but a second round play-off exit by the Colorado Avalanche proved the Sharks still have a ways to go before they are an elite, Stanley Cup winning team.

The biggest noise the Sharks made in the media this past summer was perhaps the try-out player that got away, Alexander Daigle, the first overall pick of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. Daigle, who last played with the New York Rangers’ organization, spent last season in Los Angeles attempting to break into the Hollywood movie production scene and also played defense in an adult league in the Los Angeles area. The rumors became so strong in the media that the Sharks issued a press release explaining the situation, how he was just being offered a try-out and nothing more. Daigle ended up signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where fellow Montreal native Mario Lemieux could end up mentoring the highly talented forward, whose playmaking abilities could work well with a finisher such as Alexei Kovalev.

Despite the Daigle situation, perhaps the most notable and telling story of the summer was the signing of right wing Teemu Selanne. Late last season many in the media were talking how it was only a matter of time before Selanne signed elsewhere because of clashes with head coach Darryl Sutter, but in a twist, Selanne signed for a $3 million pay-cut to return to the Sharks. The Sharks had been paying only $6.5 million of Selanne’s $9.5 million salary, while Selanne’s former employer, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, picked up the remaining $3 million. Selanne looks to be the highest paid Shark player, but his salary will no longer be fifty percent higher than any other Shark player. Selanne worked well with center Patrick Marleau from the end of January through the play-offs. Marco Sturm is the odds-on bet the rejoin Selanne and Marleau as the left wing on that speedy line.

Two Swedes will also be rejoining the Shark fold after signing contracts. Marcus Ragnarsson was the first; signing a one-year contract on August 9 just before his arbitration hearing was to begin for $2.3 million. Niklas Sundstrom, the other Shark scheduled for arbitration, which goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has rejected to pursue, was awarded, as reported by the Sharks’ official website, a two-year contract by an arbiter for $1.8 million this season and $1.95 next season.

The Sharks made a little noise at the NHL Entry Draft, besides the Sharks’ collegiate draft with a guest appearance by major junior forward Jonas Fiedler, by acquiring the rights to winger Theoren Fleury from the New York Rangers completing a trade that swapped sixth round picks. However, the scrappy winger was never really in the Sharks plans as long as Selanne re-signed with the Sharks. Fleury spent the next five weeks negotiating with a number of NHL teams before deciding to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost right winger Tony Amonte to the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Sharks have signed one other player with NHL experience this summer, defenseman John Jakopin. Jakopin, a 6’5” 235 pound physical defenseman, will serve as depth and likely strengthen the Cleveland Barons’ roster like veterans Steve Bancroft and Brandon Smith did last season. Jakopin played for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization last season after being claimed off of waivers from the Florida Panthers last October.

The Sharks have also faced a few subtractions to the roster. Unrestricted free agent Stephane Matteau signed with the Florida Panthers, rejoining former coach, Mike Keenan. The versatile left winger’s spot is now up for grabs, and will be determined by how things go between Adam Graves and Jonathan Cheechoo for a top-two line spot. Matteau is not the only Shark making his way to southeast Florida, as the Sharks traded winger Hannes Hyvonen to the Panthers on July 16th for future considerations. Hyvonen seemed poised to compete for a spot on the 4th line after earning accolades from Darryl Sutter for his play, but his status with the Sharks came into question when he signed with Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League.

Hyvonen’s status with the Sharks was resolved in the trade to Florida, whereupon Hyvonen quickly signed a contract. Hyvonen’s gritty style of play along with a fair amount of skill will be a welcome addition to the Panthers’ line-up, which has lacked grit. Center Andy Lundbohm will also be in the Panthers’ organization as he signed a contract with the team. Lundbohm, like fellow Cleveland Barons Adam Colagiacomo and Adam Nittel, was not offered a contract. Lundbohm is best known to Shark fans as the center in the organization who actively served in the Army after going to school and playing hockey at West Point. While Lundbohm’s hockey career has not been golden up to this point, the big center did serve at Fort Know while also playing for the Kentucky Thoroughblades.

Two other Cleveland Barons/depth players have also signed with other teams: defensemen Steve Bancroft and Brandon Smith. Bancroft played five games with the Sharks last season, earning an assist, while Smith was recalled last season on an emergency basis, but never played for the Sharks. Bancroft has signed with the St. Louis Blues while Brandon Smith signed with the New York Islanders. These departures definitely create two holes to fill, and John Jakopin is a veteran, but his style of play and abilities are different from Smith’s and Bancroft’s.

Three Sharks are heading to Europe to continue their hockey careers for the 2002-03 season. The first, Mike Craig, provided veteran leadership and scoring for the Barons in 01-02, and starred at the AHL All-Star Game. Craig will now be playing in Switzerland for SC Langnau in the Nationalliga A, the top league in Switzerland. Adam Colagiacomo first considered playing in the Italian Campianato A league with Asiago. However, Colagiacomo, a fourth round pick for the Sharks in 1997, recently decided against playing in Italy and is now pursuing other options in North America. Colagiacomo played three seasons for the Sharks in the ECHL and AHL and had good starts the past two seasons, but was unable to play all 80 games for Cleveland.

The bigger European story is the exit of forward Alexander Korolyuk, who is returning to Russia to play of AK Bars Kazan. The Sharks still own his NHL rights, but it is unlikely that the energetic Korolyuk will return to San Jose to be a healthy scratch for the majority of another season. While Marleau and Selanne have made changes to their game to fit in, the Sharks’ coaching staff is apparently still not happy with Korolyuk’s defensive awareness. Korolyuk’s uptempo, scrappy style should prove useful in the Russian Elite League.

The status of many Sharks is still to be determined, as these free agents have yet to come to terms. Headlining the list are goalie Evgeni Nabokov and Brad Stuart. Nabokov, who was the NHL’s Calder Trophy winner as the top rookie in the league for the 2000-01 season, was eligible for arbitration, but did not file, opting instead to go the free agency route. Nabokov’s salary last season was, according to the NHLPA, $575,000. Nabokov is likely due for a raise to the $2 million range. Jocelyn Thibault’s $2.9 million, Mike Dunham’s 2.5 million, and Martin Biron’s 1.9 million will likely be used as sources of comparison by Nabokov’s agent. Nabokov may wait to see what kind of contract Canadiens’ goalie Jose Theodore pulls in, but it appears likely that Nabokov’s salary will increase four to five folds.

Brad Stuart has established himself as one of the top young defensemen in the NHL, and will also likely ask for more than $2 million per season. Ragnarsson recently signed for $2.3 million, and it would not be out of line for Stuart to ask for similar money. Tampa Bay’s top young defenseman Pavel Kubina earned $2.25 million last season, but on the other hand, Ed Jovanovski made $2.2 million and Toronto’s Bryan McCabe, who had a breakout season, made $2.35 million. Also, for comparison, Ottawa’s Wade Redden made $2.8 million. Stuart should more than double his $975,000 salary from last season.

Other RFA’s include (with last season’s salary included), Scott Hannan ($700,000), Matt Bradley ($467,500), Mark Smith ($425,000), and Ryan Kraft (unavailable). By definition of the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA, all were at least offered ten percent raises. The Barons/Sharks also face to lose Joel Prpic, a big center who is a Group VI free agent, as Prpic is older than 25 and has played over three seasons professionally, but has played fewer than 80 NHL games in his career.

While the Barons look to lose Craig, Bancroft, Smith, Colagiacomo, and Nittel, they will be gaining David Cloutier from Cape Breton of the QMJHL. Cloutier, who was the captain of Val d’Or, also of the QMJHL, was traded mid-season and helped solidify Cape Breton’s defense, serving as Cape Breton’s top offensive defenseman, while also offering his intense physical game. The Sharks still have some graduated collegiate prospects who will likely be in Cleveland next season: D Jim Fahey, RW Niko Dimitrakos, and RW Willie Levesque. It is possible that all three have been signed and that their signings have not be publicly released, but none of the three have been listed as free agents, and none have been signed by other NHL teams like the Sharks did last season with Jesse Fibiger, (drafted by Anaheim), and Graig Mischler (drafted by Vancouver).

The Sharks continue to keep their management structure stable, with General Manager Dean Lombardi and his staff all re-signed. Sharks’ head coach Darryl Sutter was re-signed in June, as were assistants Rich Preston and Lorne Molleken. Goaltending coach Warren Strelow returns to the Sharks to continue to help develop all of the Sharks young goalies, a centerpiece of San Jose’s recent success. Roy Sommer will continue to head the Cleveland Barons as head coach, but assistant Nick Fotiu is moving on. At the ECHL level, Richmond and Cincinnati both recently signed agreements to serve as affiliates for the Sharks, although it is unknown how many players the Sharks will assign to either of these teams. It may be that these two ECHL teams are in the Sharks’ fold to help serve Cleveland if the Barons are depleted by injuries and recalls.

The biggest remaining question mark for the Sharks is Gary Suter, who is mulling whether to sign with another NHL team, re-sign with the Sharks, or retire. Lombardi has been quoted that Suter will likely retire. The Sharks’ lack of a true number-one defenseman has been cited as a perhaps the biggest hole on the team, and the subtraction of Suter makes this hole even more glaring. It does not appear as if they will be able to fill this hole with any remaining free agents. Jeff Jillson, Brad Stuart, Mike Rathje, and Marcus Ragnarsson will all be relied upon to pick it up offensively. Rathje has increased his offensive involvement in the past year, while Stuart’s physical game has seen a noticeable improvement to become one of the hardest hitting young defensemen in the NHL. Defenseman Rob Zettler is returning to San Jose, but as a broadcaster for the Sharks Radio Network. Former Shark forward and broadcaster Tony Granato has left the broadcast team to become an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche.

Captains’ practices have already begun in San Jose, but the real thing begins September 4 when rookies report; veterans report later on September 12. The month of September may hold some surprises, especially if some of the Sharks’ RFA’s do not come to terms before the beginning of the season. Vesa Toskala may get his NHL break sooner rather than later, as might some forward prospects that are not as high-profile as Cheechoo, such as Chad Wiseman and Lynn Loyns.