Sharks Youngsters Stepping Up

By Mike Delfino
As the Sharks’ 2000/01 campaign passes its 1/3rd mark, one can not discount the impact of several Sharks youngsters such as Mark Smith, Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, and of course, the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November, Evgeni Nabokov. One thing is for certain, if not for the Sharks’ core of young players, they would not be in a position where many teams are beginning to key on the Sharks as one of the top teams.

“It’s a real eye-opener that top clubs are getting ready for us now. We’re not going to sneak up on people anymore,” said Jeff Friesen after a tie against the Western Conference Champion, Dallas Stars.

For the Sharks to continue their development they will have to continue playing well and beat teams like the Dallas Stars, and others who are perennial favorites to win their respective divisions. It is one thing to beat the teams you are supposed to beat, however, to make the next jump to the next level, the Sharks must begin beating the top teams in the league. To do that, they will need help from every source available.

To start the year, the Sharks began with two rookies at forward, Mark Smith and Matt Bradley. The return from injury by Owen Nolan, impressive play of Tony Granato, and inconsistent play has resulted in Bradley being assigned to the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL after being a healthy scratch in several games. Not having Matt Bradley on the roster for the Sharks results in a slight loss of team speed, and an extra player who has the ability to pinch in offensively as well. If he can simply improve his consistency, and maintain his defensive zone better, he should find himself back in San Jose before long.

One thing is for certain about Mark Smith—he showed a lot of heart and determination after coming back only two weeks later after suffering a concussion after a hit from Bates Battaglia in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Not only did he return to action after missing seven games, he maintained his chippy, in-your-face style of hockey the entire time.

Throughout his career, Smith has been one of the best in his league at winning faceoffs. That ability has remained consistent this year, as he has won 54 percent of his faceoffs. That ability to control the puck not only in the faceoff circle, but while carrying the puck as well, has earned Smith regular shifts on the penalty-killing unit.
While not a setback, losing a longtime teammate in Matt Bradley isn’t helping Smith with the difficult adjustments to the NHL.

“It’s good to play with him. I know what he does, and he knows what I do. We’ve played together for a couple years, so it’s only natural now,” said Smith in regards to playing with Bradley, his longtime partner on his right.

A key player to the team’s chemistry and special teams has been Marco Sturm. Not only has he been an important element of the Sharks’ special teams units this year, he is also included in a group of about half-dozen Sharks players who have contributed to an increased offensive production on all fronts. He has scored seven goals this year, four on the special teams. His speed and aggressiveness in killing penalties has resulted in three shorthanded goals, and has also scored one goal on the powerplay.

One of the keys to the Sharks success this year has been the cohesive and productive nature of the Sharks lines. One of those lines has been the combination of Sturm on the left, Patrick Marleau centering, and Todd Harvey on the right. Each plays a role for what makes up either one of the best 3rd lines in hockey, or a solid 2nd line, a distinction which is often difficult to discern on a Darryl Sutter-coached hockey club.

The trio has been nothing short of excellent this year, as Sturm has not only done an excellent job of drawing pressure away from Marleau, but has contributed himself when the opposition keys on other members of the line.

Clearly, Marleau has been the dominant goal scorer on the line, but only the greats in the game can carry a line on his own. Harvey’s role on the line is to open up space for the two by grinding the puck out of the corners and getting it to the open slot. Sturm’s role is often one of which where he is allowing Marleau to skate through the zone without being the target of a double or even triple team effort.

Last year, Sturm’s offensive capabilities were not being used, and thus, the opposition was able to focus on other players such as Marleau. This year, Sturm is much more of a threat, and has allowed Marleau to flourish.

To start the year, I claimed that Sturm could very easily turn into one of the team’s unsung heroes by the year’s end, and so far, that is turning out to be very true. He has done everything expected and more of him this year. In the past, Darryl Sutter has commented that Marco Sturm has “captain potential” for the future. It only stands to reason that we will be seeing that element of his game developing in the future.

It’s hard to imagine that a rookie would be getting the majority of the press time over a 21-year-old who is leading his team in goals with 14, and is 2nd on his team in points with 22, but due to the impressive play of rookie goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov, that’s exactly what’s happened to Patrick Marleau this year.

If it were not for Nabokov’s achievements, the talk around San Jose would certainly be about the surge of the Sharks young center. Marleau has certainly rebounded from last season where he struggled with every aspect of the game. This year, it is as though he simply got every one of his problems fixed over the summer, as everything he was doing wrong last year, is exactly what he’s doing right this year.
Marleau is proving why he was drafted 2nd overall in 1997, as he has been one of the best players in the league, let alone among players so young. Teams now come into San Jose, and are aware that Patrick Marleau is now a major player for the Sharks. Despite this, he has maintained his level of play, and is proving to be just as effective.
Clearly, Marleau has been a critical part of the Sharks lineup this year, especially during Owen Nolan’s absence from the team. Now that Nolan has returned, Marleau has not stepped down his play, and is only treating Nolan as an addition to the team, instead of simply allowing Nolan to carry the team like he, and other teammates did in the 1999/00 season.

If it were not for Marleau this year, it is hard to tell where this team would be. They would probably still be doing ok, but would they be one of the top teams in the league as they are now? The next step for Marleau is to prove that he can not only help this team win on a consistent basis, but lead this team as one of their best players in future years when players such as Vincent Damphousse and Owen Nolan may not be able to be counted on due to retirement, injury, or whatever the case may be. If this year is any indication, the Sharks have no reason to worry.

What can anyone say about the Sharks’ dynamic goaltender who seemingly came out of nowhere to suddenly become one of the top goaltenders in the league? Evgeni Nabokov has done nothing short of amaze the entire league this season. Last year, Nabokov was nothing more than a backup to Steve Shields, and would most likely play somewhere around 20 games this season. However, after an ankle injury to Steve Shields, Nabokov proved that he is not just a backup goalie, and has made it impossible for Darryl Sutter to take him out of the lineup.

In 25 games this season, Nabokov has allowed more than two goals only four times, gave up only one goal seven times and has recorded two shutouts. His goals against average (1.79) and save percentage (.934) are among the best in the league, and he has shown maturity far beyond that of a rookie.

What is most impressive about Nabokov’s season so far is that not only is he making the saves and winning the games, but he is doing so with remarkable poise between the pipes. Often, a young goaltender will allow himself to get frustrated and unfocused after letting in a goal he may have been able to stop. That is not so with Nabokov.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to get ready for the next (game),” Nabokov said after being pulled from a game for the first time in his NHL career after a 6-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, where he gave up two goals on only eleven shots.

Not only did he get ready for the next game, he helped beat the New York Rangers, allowing 2 goals, and making several spectacular saves along the way. He could have allowed that rough outing to negatively effect his next game, but was able to put the game behind him, and solidify his spot as the team’s new #1 goalie even more than before.

It is not uncommon for a young goaltender to look wild and out of control when making a spectacular save. Often, this may be the case of a goalie who is making the save based on athletic ability alone, a trait that lasts for a fairly short time until teams catch on, and figure out ways to beat him. While Nabokov uses an incredible amount of athletic ability, he remains very calm, and incredibly focused. He does not allow himself to lose track of where the puck is at any time.

One can’t help but have some empathy for Steve Shields. Shields has done nothing to lose the starting job, but Nabokov has done everything to win it. Shields is now faced with a similar situation that his mentor in San Jose, Mike Vernon, was faced with when he won the starting job. How can Darryl Sutter tell the NHL’s November Rookie of the Month, Sharks’ Player of the Month for October, and the NHL’s leader in wins to sit down on the bench while they play Shields? The simple answer is that he can’t.

If the Sharks’ young players continue to contribute the way they have this season, there’s no telling how far this team can go. The Sharks are no longer part of the group in the “average” category and have taken the next step into the “very good” category. Now the question is whether they can be put into the group of “great.” For the answer to that, check back in May of 2001.

It would be easy to go into detail about the contributions of other youngsters such as Brad Stuart who has been one of the team’s best defensemen, Scott Hannan who has chipped in with his share of heroics, and Shawn Heins who has been a pleasant surprise not only on defense, but also as a 4th line wing. So that’s exactly what’s going to happen in a future article, which you can look for inside the next two weeks.

I apologize for the lack of articles in recent weeks. I have recently started two separate business adventures which both have potential to significantly change my life. It’s understandable that most of my energy has been directed towards setting those up. Fortunately, one of those is well on its way to fruition, and the other should be set up shortly as well, which will allow me to start cranking out articles at what will be a record pace. I promise, that before 2001 ends, I will do everything possible for you to know more about the future of the Sharks, and hockey, than you’ve ever wanted to know.

Thanks for sticking with me, Mike Delfino