Key additions: Josh Langfeld, RW/LW (FA - OTT); Marcel Goc, C (D - 2001, 1/20); Milan Michalek, LW/RW (D - 2003, 1/6); Steve Bernier, RW (D - 2003, 1/16); Ryane Clowe, RW (D - 2001, 6/175)
Key losses: Vincent Damphousse, C (FA, Retired); Mike Ricci, C (FA - PHX); Alexander Korolyuk, RW/LW (FA - Europe); Curtis Brown, C (FA - CHI); Mike Rathje, D (FA - PHI); Jason Marshall, D (FA - NYR, ANA); Todd Harvey, LW/RW (FA - EDM); Miroslav Zalesak, RW (FA - WSH); David Cloutier, D (FA - Europe); Aaron Gill, C (FA)
Key players unsigned: None
Forwards: On paper, the Sharks have lost a lot up front since the end of the 2003-04 season, especially down the middle. Gone are Shark mainstays Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci, who had been with San Jose since last century (literally as well as figuratively), as well as pivot Curtis Brown and wingers Alexander Korolyuk and Todd Harvey. Interestingly, these forwards, especially Damphousse and Ricci, will be most easily replaced on paper, as their leadership may be more difficult to fill than their on-ice production. Almost all of the increased production will need to come from within the organization, as the Sharks have done next to nothing in the offseason in terms of bringing in talent. Not to worry, though - the Sharks have a number of talented young players poised to take their game to the next level, led by Marcel Goc, a two-way center coming off a strong year in the AHL and Milan Michalek, a versatile but snake-bitten winger. Wings Ryan Clowe, AHL Cleveland's 2004-05 scoring leader, and the hulking (6-2, 235) Steve Bernier also will have a chance to make the Sharks out of camp. Like 2003-04, however, the majority of the Sharks' scoring load will be carried by Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm on the top line and Alyn McCauley and Nils Ekman on the second line. Jonathan Cheechoo, a clunky skater with a knack for finishing, will ride shotgun on one of those two lines and either Michalek or Niko Dimitrakos will likely skate on the other. Wayne Primeau and Scott Thornton will anchor the checking line, and tough guy Scott Parker will handle the bulk of the pugilism from the fourth line. The Sharks have a good nucleus of young forwards with more on the way. What they lack in leadership and experience, they make up for in skill and effort. San Jose will once again be in the top half of the League in most offensive categories.
Defensemen: In Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren, San Jose has an outstanding trio of young defensemen. Stuart plays suprisingly good defense for a top power play specialist, Hannan is emerging as one of the League's premiere shut-down defensemen, and McLaren is a bear of a blueliner who set a career high in assists in 2003-04. In fact, add in Tom Preissing and Christian Ehrhoff, who had little trouble adjusting to the NHL game as rookies in 2003-04, and the Sharks have the most talented quintet of young defensemen in the League. The sixth defenseman on most nights will either be Jim Fahey, another offensive-minded blueliner, or Rob Davison, a strictly-defense rearguard. As with the forwards, the Sharks have lost some experience and leadership on the blueline, as Mike Rathje has moved on to Philly, but even without Rathje San Jose has one of the best defensive corps in the League and they should only get better.
Goaltenders: Former Calder Trophy winner Evgeni Nabokov is a human highlight reel in net, and, with the exception of a sub-par 2002-03, has put up numbers to match his showmanship. Goals against averages of 2.19, 2.29 and 2.20 and save percentages of .915, .918 and .921 in his three other full NHL seasons put Nabby squarely amongst the NHL's elite netminders. In 2003-04, he finally was able to translate his regular season accomplishments into post-season success as he carried the Sharks to within two games of the Finals before falling to former backup Miikka Kiprusoff, the circle thus complete. When Kiprusoff left Nabokov, he was but the learner. But now he is the master. Only a master of ev- wait, where were we? Oh yeah. Nabokov is stellar and has a great defense in front of him. There's no reason not to expect another great year from him. Spelling Nabokov in order to keep him fresh for what the Sharks hope to be a deep playoff run will be Vesa Toskala, whose numbers in limited NHL action (2.13 goals against average, .929 save percentage) are especially impressive, considering his small (5-10) stature.
Bottome line: In one season (from 2002-03 to 2003-04), Ron Wilson's Sharks went from missing the playoffs to winning two games in the Conference Finals. How? The defense got a lot better and Nabokov rebounded from an off year. Of course which of those two was the cause and which was the effect may be up for some debate, but no doubt each contributed to the overall leap in the standings from 25th to 3rd. With a young core of forwards and defensemen who only seem to be getting better, it is unlikely that the Sharks will miss the playoffs again any time soon. Perhaps the most exciting part for Sharks fans is that the team has spent less than two-thirds of the $39 million salary cap, so the team is in an excellent position to add a player or two at the deadline, which is good because this is a team that is only a player or two away from being a contender for the Cup.