For the past 10 years the Western Conference has been dominated by the Avalanche, the Wings and the Stars. Now a new wave of teams are ready to take over as lead dogs in the West.
The cream of the crop is the San Jose Sharks. With an excellent young nucleus, several more prospects on the horizon and depth at all positions, the Sharks are in great shape for several years of contending for the Western Conference title.
Goaltending is the team’s biggest strength. And keep in mind, they not too long ago moved world class goalie Mikka Kiprusoff. Their top player is Evgeny Nabokov. As he goes, so go the Sharks. Often overshadowed due to playing in obscurity out west, he is one of the best goalies in the league. He has experienced enough playoff growing pains to take the next step. The Sharks also have one of the league’s top backups in Vesa Toskela. And with young prospect Dmitri Patzold playing well for their minor league affiliate, the future is strong in goal for the Sharks.
The Sharks have one of the best defence cores in hockey. Scott Hannan is the ultimate warrior. He is like a younger version of Adam Foote. If you are building a team and you want a shutdown guy on your defence, Hannan is the man. But not only that, the Sharks also have monsters Mike Rathje and Kyle MacLaren. Both are over 6’4 and 230 pounds and love to pound on their opponents. This makes it near impossible to venture into the Sharks zone without getting punished. you throw in the strong two-way play of Brad Stuart and you have an excellent top 4 on defence. All 4 are in the prime of their careers with lots of hockey left in them. But the Sharks have some solid youngsters up and coming with Rob Davison, Tom Pressing, Jim Fahey, Doug Murray and Christian Ehrloff. Ehrloff is the best of the bunch with his big point shot and the capability of being a top 4 guy in the future.
Their forwards are pretty strong too. Patrick Marleau is developing into one of the game’s top players. not only does he have great size and power and top end skill but he is also a great skater. But he also does the little things like win faceoffs and defend his own end well that makes him one of the league’s stronger two-way threats. Offensively they also have Marco Sturm, Alex Korolyuk and Jonathan Cheechoo. All 3 can both put the puck in the net and skate like the wind. Cheechoo reminds me of a young Glenn Anderson with his game breaking speed and willingness to go to the net. But the team’s strength is their defence and they have a host of forwards like Alyn MacCauley, Nils Ekman, Scott Thornton, Wayne Primeau, Nik Dimitrakos, Mark Smith, Scott Parker who are all heady defensive players. MacCauley has the potential to be a future Selke Trophy winner. As you can see there is a nice balance between defensive forwards and offensive ones. and the best part is Scott Thornton is the only forward over 30 years old. This team has plenty of good years left together to get to the top. And they have more good players on the way. Milan Michalek and Marcel Goc have potential to be top end offensive players. Miroslav Zalasek is a very skilled winger as is Steve Bernier and they have a potential leader in Mike Morris at Northeastern on the horizon as well. So not only is the present strong but the future looks bright too for the Sharks.
With such a well balanced team, the Sharks have a great chance of being dominant for years to come. they perhaps could use a bit more experience and maybe more scoring depth but if their youngsters develop as they should, scoring shouldnt be a problem. Their style of play is also a model which all teams should follow. They are strong defensively but dont really trap. They use their team speed to choke off opponents as well as to generate a counter attack and jumpstart the offence. They are pretty fun to watch as there is always lots of motion and the players are always flying out on the ice. Perhaps their success from building within and being patient with what they have will turn them into a winner.