Hockey fans must be wondering how many seasons will pass before the San Jose Sharks finally develop an appetite for the Stanley Cup. Sadly, Team Teal has reached the postseason in six consecutive seasons, only to swim away from Lord Stanley every time. Last year, the Sharks defeated the Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs, and then punished the Red Wings in the Conference Semifinals. Yet, before they could stake their claim to the Cup, the Blackhawks delivered another sucker punch to San Jose fans and thumped the surging Sharks in the Conference Finals.
With last season behind them, the Sharks must prepare for the 2010-11 season without the services of Evgeni Nabokov, a terrific goalie who spent the past decade slapping away pucks with the Sharks. Rather than staying in the NHL, Nabokov will spend the upcoming season stopping biscuits for SKA St.Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in his native Russia. While there is no question that Nabokov will be missed in San Jose, his departure gave GM Doug Wilson extra salary cap room to re-sign Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi – a trio of core offensive players that combined for 89 goals and 81 assists last season.
Further, the Sharks know they have a very talented goalie prospect in their system named Thomas Greiss, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be counted on as the primary successor to Nabokov. Team Teal clouded the goalie picture with the dual signings of Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi and butterfly goalie Antero Niittymaki, in free agency. Niitymaki commonly draws comparisons to Miikka Kiprusoff, and since the Sharks have instilled faith in Niitty with a two-year deal valued at $4 million, he must perform at a high level to appease the Sharks faithful.
As for the team’s fantasy-friendly blue line, there are a few defensemen sure to benefit from the retirement of last year’s team captain, Rob Blake. Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic could be the most significant risers, with fringe role players like Kent Huskins and Douglas Murray set for plenty of shutdown work. Of course, there is also Dan Boyle, a dynamic rearguard who is often dangerous on the power play, and worthy of a high fantasy pick.
Finally, returning to the pine is well-respected head coach Todd McLellan. In two seasons as bench boss for the Sharks, McLellan boasts an excellent 104-38-22 record (a .634 winning percentage), which is a fine compliment to consecutive first-place finishes in the Pacific Division. Still, his biggest challenge is getting his Sharks to finally smell blood in the postseason. Without Nabokov and Blake, life out on the ice should only get tougher for the Sharks. Still, Team Teal is equipped with enough offensive talent to hang with any team in the NHL.
THE BIG GUNS
Joe Thornton (C): Drafting Thornton is a luxury in the world of fantasy hockey because he is a proven skater who consistently produces across the board, every single year. At 31 years old, Jumbo Joe remains an assist master – he has averaged more than 70 helpers over the past five seasons. Of course, if you’re Thornton, it never hurts to have fellow Canadian Olympic champs Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley as your linemates. No. 19 is a safe option in all fantasy league formats given his consistency, talented supporting cast and clean medical history.
Patrick Marleau (LW): A soft-spoken Marleau took plenty of heat for his team’s quarterfinal collapse against the Ducks in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, and despite ultimately losing his captaincy, he had fans thinking much differently of him just one year later. Following a regular season in which he tallied more points (83) than games played (82), Marleau became white hot in the postseason, amassing 13 points (8G, 5A) in 14 games. To put such a statistic into perspective, that number was more than 30 percent of the Sharks’ total goals, as a team, in the most recent postseason. Later showing his loyalty to Team Teal, Marleau inked a four-year contract worth $27.6 million. You would only be fortunate to snag him as a No. 2 or No. 3 fantasy forward in fantasy leagues.
Dany Heatley (RW): Sharks GM Doug Wilson brought in Heatley from Ottawa, hoping he would be the one to help vault the Sharks towards the ever-so elusive Stanley Cup hardware. Unfortunately for team brass, it was revealed that Heatley had sustained a groin injury in the postseason, which slowed him down a bit. Still, Heatley finished the regular season third on the team in points with 82 (39G, 43A), complimented by a plus-14 rating and nine game-winning goals, an NHL best. With so much offensive talent in San Jose, Heatley will be hard-pressed to go for 50 goals as he did twice is past seasons with the Senators, but a vigorous Heatley should easily dial in 75-plus points in 2010-11.
*Honorable Mention: Dan Boyle (D)
ON THE RISE
Ryane Clowe (LW): Last season, Clowe set career highs in assists (38) and points (57), and crushed a previous best with 131 penalty minutes. At 27 years old, he’s in his prime, yet often undervalued in fantasy hockey thanks to the aforementioned big guns getting most of the attention in San Jose. Clowe does have a tendency to endure a handful of scoring droughts each season, but he’s smart and aggressive, which usually translates to fantasy success. Consider drafting this second-line forward as your No. 3 option in fantasy pools.
Antero Niittymaki (G): Niittymaki is talented in his own right, but it’s by default that he is on the rise. Since the Sharks are much better than his former Tampa Bay squad, expect Niitty’s win total to soar as the partial successor to long time Shark goalie, Evgeni Nabokov. While it is easy to get excited about the prospect of the Sharks’ new puck stopper earning 40-plus wins, remember that in order to do so, he must bring his ‘A’ game early on to prevent Antti Niemi or Thomas Greiss from breathing down his neck. It’s entirely possible that the Sharks could use a three-headed monster in goal, which would stifle Niitty’s value.
Jason Demers (D): Demers simply hoped to make the team last season, but he did much more than that in his rookie year. He played in 51 games for the Sharks, posting four goals and 17 assists. His defensive play was often a liability, but fantasy players should take better note of the fact that more than half of his point totals came on the man advantage. The Sharks love two-way players, and with more experience, Demers should be able to improve his defense while preserving his offensive touch. Expect Demers to play an even larger role for the Sharks in a new season, with 30-35 points certainly attainable.
TWO TO AVOID
Scott Nichol (C): We’re just curious; does Nichol have to pay property tax for owning the faceoff circle? Nichol won 60.6 percent of his draws last season, helping him become an invaluable member of the Sharks. Further, he does all of the dirty work that doesn’t often show up in the box score, such as the 226 hits he laid on opponents in 2009-10. It’s tough to assign a quantitative value to Nichol in real life – he’s nearly indispensable – but in the fantasy realm, it would be smart to avoid him because his offensive output figures to be limited.
Kent Huskins (D): Huskins posted a career high in points last season (22), and he could improve on those numbers in 2010-11 since he should grab more ice time with defenseman Rob Blake retired. However, as an oft-injured blueliner, the 82 games that Huskins played last season should be considered an aberration. Plus, Huskins fell flat in the postseason - he went pointless and posted an ugly minus-five in 15 games. There are simply better fantasy options on the Sharks blue line, let alone across the league.
Logan Couture (C): Couture, who dominated the OHL in the past, is due for a significant NHL role in 2010-11, with the departure of Manny Malhotra clearing the way for this speedy playmaker. He should already be owned in keeper formats, with savvy fantasy owners in deep leagues also likely intrigued by this potential breakout player. He could be a true asset on the team’s third line this season.
Jamie McGinn (LW): McGinn is an accurate shooter with extensive junior and minor-league experience. Beginning in 2010-11, he could bypass the AHL shuttle to earn a permanent stay in the NHL.
Nick Petrecki (D): A punishing defenseman who is sure to rack up his share of PIMs in the NHL? Yes, the Sharks need him. Petrecki should arrive no later than 2011-12, but enforcers Brad Staubitz and Jody Shelley have departed San Jose, meaning the Sharks could use Petrecki’s physical boost sooner than later.
Alex Stalock (G): Stalock shined in his first AHL tour with the Worcester Sharks in 2009-10. He posted a 36-15-2 record, a 2.59 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. A WCHA title (and MVP honors) with the University of Minnesota-Duluth also stands out on his resume. Stalock is a confident leader and winner who could advance to the big stage of the NHL in 2011-12.