This time last season, the Sharks were about to open up their 12th training camp fresh off winning the Pacific Division for the first time, but several key players from the Division winning team were absent for training camp and later the start of season.
Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov was unsigned, Scott Thornton was battling nagging injuries, defenseman Brad Stuart was both injured and unsigned, while Niklas Sundstrom was stuck in Sweden awaiting his visa and missed nearly all of training camp. Perhaps all this was an omen of what was to come for the Sharks last season.
When it appeared that Darryl Sutter’s team was not going to improve for a sixth consecutive season, and in jeopardy of not making the playoffs, he and his coaching staff were fired. Replacing Sutter and crew were head coach Ron Wilson, who was strongly considered when Darryl Sutter was first hired, and assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, both former Sharks. General Manager Dean Lombardi was also fired later during the season with then Shark Director of Player Personal Doug Wilson, a defenseman on the inaugural Shark team, named as Lombardi’s replacement prior to the draft.
Shark fans later learned that Lombardi was pressured by the new ownership group to trade players to reduce salary and perceived failure to do so led to his demise.
The Sharks never regained the chemistry that lead to the division championship the season before and finished out of the playoffs and last in the Pacific Division.
Traded forwards last season included team captain Owen Nolan, leading scorer Teemu Selanne, winger Niklas Sundstrom and young right wing Matt Bradley. The blue line was retooled with Jeff Jillson, Marcus Ragnarsson, Shawn Heins and Bryan Marchment traded, while Dan McGillis was acquired and traded in a matter of months. Rookie defenseman Jim Fahey emerged as a NHL caliber player after being named an AHL All-Star, making Jillson expendable. Physical defenseman Kyle McLaren was acquired from Boston mid-season, while rookie blue liner Rob Davison made a strong push at the end of the season.
Acquisitions at forward last season included centers Alyn McCauley (Owen Nolan trade) and Wayne Primeau (Matt Bradley trade), while enforcer Scott Parker was acquired from the Avalanche for a fifth round pick at the Draft. Winger Nils Ekman, a contender for a spot on the team, was acquired from the New York Rangers for prospect forward Chad Wiseman. Rejoining San Jose after a season in Russia with Kazan is speedster Alex Korolyuk, who failed to come to terms with the Sharks last season.
Of note, veteran forward Adam Graves will not return to the team, citing general manager Wilson’s refusal to give him a guaranteed contract before training camp.
This year’s edition of the Sharks will be younger with a team payroll several million dollars less then last year. It will test the mettle of first time GM Wilson and Coach Wilson as they challenge for a playoff spot in the competitive west.
Recipe for Wins this Season
Last season’s Sharks team gave up 239 goals against – just behind Columbus for poorest in the Western Conference. This season Sharks will work to reduce goals against by at least half a goal a game.
“[Defense] is going to be the primary goal most of camp,” said head coach Ron Wilson. “Getting everyone on the same page as far as defense is concerned.”
Special teams will also be critical for Sharks success this season.
“It is proven throughout the year that the top 10 teams in the league in terms of defense, not only make the playoffs, but advance far. Our power play the second half of the season would have been first in the league, so we need that to continue.” said Coach Wilson.
Do the Sharks need more goal-scoring this season?
“I am not as concerned about us offensively,” said General Manager Doug Wilson. “I expect to score at least as many goals as we did last year and maybe more. If the penalty killing and goals-against, which are the epitome of team play, improve, we can play against anyone.”
Sharks management has also gone on record stating that the blue liners’ goal production needs to increase this season to around 30. This may give the more offensively skilled prospects an advantage at making the team.
Competitive training Camp
Unlike previous seasons where “holdout” was the password, only prospect Kris Newbury entered training camp this season unsigned. (Newbury has since been released) Coach Wilson and his staff should be able to install their system will the full roster in time for opening night on Oct. 9.
With last season behind the Sharks there is new optimism around the team, for in the first time in years, several talented prospects have a real chance to crack the roster.
“I’m glad that everyone will be at camp, but I would also like to be surprised,” said Coach Wilson.
“I’ll have a very open mind and let it sort itself out,” added Coach Wilson. “We have nine exhibition games to try out players in different roles.”
NHL teams must cut their rosters down to 23 players by the season’s start. While many veterans are locks for the team, each position has openings for challengers.
Goalie: Nabokov is a lock to start 60+ games this season barring injury. Challengers for the backup role are Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala.
Defense: Mike Rathje, Scott Hannan, McLaren, Stuart and Fahey are all veterans and locks for the top five positions. Contending for the sixth and seventh positions are Davison, Christian Ehrhoff, Tom Preissing, Jesse Fibiger and Matt Carkner.
Forwards: Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci, Jonathan Cheechoo, Todd Harvey, Mark Smith, Thornton, McCauley, Primeau, Korolyuk and Parker are all locks. Challenging for the final two forward positions are Niko Dimitrakos, Miroslav Zalesak, Brad Boyes, Marcel Goc, Milan Michalek and Ekman.
Up to five rookies could crack the Sharks opening night roster. Some challengers that don’t crack San Jose to start the season will be assigned to the AHL affiliate Cleveland Barons while other training camp players are expected to be dispatched back to their junior teams or one of the Sharks two ECHL affiliates: the Johnstown Chiefs and Fresno Falcons.
Note: Further in-depth analysis is available in the following training camp preview articles.
Improvement from the Inside Out
General manager Wilson has been open about the Sharks need to improve from the inside out. Depending on how training camp and the early season develop, the Sharks may get more aggressive in the trading market.
“I’ve had the luxury of seeing our guys in the summer camps, but I will let what I’ve seen play out in training camp,” said General Manager Wilson. “There were some options, but they were not an upgrade on what we have.”
“During training camp, things will become clearer,” added Wilson.
Regarding the addition of players from outside the organization: “We know what is still out there and I wouldn’t say that we have closed the book yet,” said Wilson.
Either way, all indications are that Wilson won’t make any short term deals that cost the team any current core players.
There is, however, a strong possibility that at least one veteran Shark will be available in the Waiver Draft, as the Sharks will likely opt to protect Zalesak and leave a fourth liner unprotected. Considering Harvey has a $1.3 million contract, compared to Primeau’s $900,000 and Smith’s $500,000 contracts, he may be the odd-man out. Recently acquired Ekman may or may not be protected, depending on his training camp performance.
Preseason Schedule and Camp Information
“The first two or three exhibitions games will see a lineup where we give the kids and prospects a chance,” said Coach Wilson. “The closer we get to the regular season, the more the lineup will look like opening night.”
Pre Season Schedule:
9/19 at Anaheim
9/21 at Bakersfield vs. Los Angeles
9/24 at Portland, OR vs. Phoenix
9/27 home vs. Anaheim
10/1 at Sacramento vs. Los Angeles
10/2 home vs. Vancouver
10/4 home vs. Colorado
Additional Camp Information:
Most practices will be held at Logitech Ice at San Jose and are open to the public starting 9/11. See San Jose Sharks official page for additional training camp roster and information.
New ECHL Affiliates
This season the Sharks will add two teams to their affiliate list: The ECHL Johnstown Chiefs and Fresno Falcons.
“We are pleased to add these two quality organizations as development affiliates,” said Sharks Vice President and Assistant General Manager and Cleveland Barons General Manager Wayne Thomas. “The Johnstown and Fresno clubs both have long-standing traditions of excellence in their markets – on and off the ice – and we look forward to their assistance in the development of Sharks prospects.”
The ECHL affiliates in 2003-03 were the Cincinnati Cyclones and the Richmond Renegades. The Renegades have since folded.