After the San Jose Sharks exited the 2009 Playoffs in a first-round upset to the Anaheim Ducks, the message around the Bay Area for 2009-2010 was clear: Stanley Cup or bust.
It didn’t matter as much to fans how the Sharks performed in the regular season – though they finished as a number one seed again – but fans wanted to see a dramatic improvement when April came around. An improvement was seen as the Sharks made their way to the Conference Finals only to be swept by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Of course fans and the team were disappointed with the loss, yet their 2010 playoff exit was a lot less harsh as the organization seems to be moving in the right direction, again.
As the Sharks headed towards free-agency, question marks surrounded their top three free-agents – Who was staying? Who was going? For Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Evgeni Nabokov, their fates would seemingly come down to their playoff performances. Management felt Marleau and Pavelski played their way into extensions but not Nabokov. Since the age 35 rule did not apply, Nabby was looking for a front-loaded long-term deal to finish his career as a Shark. The decision not to re-sign Nabokov saw the Russian net-minder return to his native country to live out his days in the KHL with the long-term deal he was seeking.
For the first time in 9 seasons, the Sharks will have a new starting goaltender – Antero Niittymaki. The Finnish goalie signed a 2 year $4 million contract and is a former Calder Cup Champion with the Philadelphia Phantoms along with an all-star performance during the 2006 Olympic Games which earned him a silver medal and tournament MVP honors. Sharks fans may not see as much consistency in their goaltending during the regular season, but Niitymaki and Thomas Griess should provide ample goaltending for the team.
The restricted free-agent signing of Devin Setoguchi locked up the Sharks top six forwards for at least another season and, when healthy, these two lines are among the most talented in hockey. One player to watch coming into training camp is UFA Cameron MacIntyre. MacIntyre, a 6’1 205 lbs power-forward from Sooke, BC was one of the top UFA prospects coming out of college hockey this year. His last two seasons for the Princeton Tigers were riddled with injury, but he was a point-per-game player his sophomore year and many believe he has a good shot at making the team right out of training camp. Forwards Jamie McGinn and Logan Couture showed great improvements last season and should round out the scoring for the bottom two lines while Jamal Mayers and Scott Nichol provide physical tenacity.
Losing defenseman Rob Blake to retirement leaves the team without a captain and with Niclas Wallin as the veteran “grey beard” on the blueline. Willie Mitchell would have been a good addition to the defense, but was signed to a 2-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings earlier this week. With some cap room left, look for the Sharks to add another defenseman prior to the start of camp. Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray will provide leadership and continue to complement each other well. The extension given to Jason Demers shows the confidence management has in the young blueliner. There will be even more expected out of Marc-Edouard Vlasic this year, or he might find himself part of a trade-deadline package.
The 2010-2011 Sharks can expect to see a tougher regular season than the previous two years. LA and Anaheim have both improved this off-season, and with Phoenix looking to build off of last season’s momentum – even though they’ve lost some key players to free-agency – the division looks to be competitive. I don’t see the Sharks finishing as a number one seed in the conference, but it may serve the team well to face more adversity and have to battle for a higher seed down the stretch.
Training camp opens on September 18th and it cannot come soon enough.
About the Author
Written by Alex Wasserstrom
Native Californian, former minor league pro, and current men's league superstar, Alex Wasserstrom is ProSportsBlogging.com's San Jose Sharks correspondent. Wanna talk puck? Shoot him an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow him on Twitter (@Awassers).