San Jose Sharks Remain Best in the West

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San Jose Sharks Remain Best in the West
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

For the past eight or so seasons, the Detroit Red Wings have largely been the best team in the Western Conference, if not the entire NHL.

However, three short summers and the loss of key players such as Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, and Marian Hossa will take a heavy toll on the Wings. While they remain one of the best teams in the league, their title of "Best in the West" is being handed off to another team: the San Jose Sharks.

Since the lockout, the Sharks have been consistent underachievers. One early playoff exit after another has many analysts casting off San Jose's chances at the Stanley Cup. With the offseason moves made by GM Doug Wilson, many people's opinions of the Sharks should change this year.

Obviously, Wilson made quite a splash with his acquisition of sniper Dany Heatley, but it's the slight tweaks made that should see the Sharks have a longer playoff run this year.

What the Sharks lacked last year were third and fourth lines that could bring energy to the game and provide some solid hockey. With names such as Travis Moen and Mike Grier on those lines, it's surprising that this was a problem.

With the addition of Manny Malhotra, the Sharks finally have a bona-fide third line center. Malhotra is good on the draw, and since the lockout has consistently been in the 20-30 point range. Not bad at all for a player better known for his defensive play.

Another tweak that will pay off in the long run is the signing of Scott Nichol. The 5' 9'' center is exactly what the Sharks needed: A player with a mean streak who isn't afraid to speak up in the locker room. Last year's team always seemed too laid-back, and the addition of Nichol will ensure that guys will be held accountable.

Then there is Dany Heatley. 

The former Ottawa Senator gives the Sharks a natural goal-scorer, and as we've already seen so far, playing one of the best play-makers in the league with the second-best sniper in the league is always a good thing.

In other words, 18 points combined in only four games.

The only true question mark remaining on San Jose's roster is between the pipes. Evgeni Nabokov has been up and down through the first four games. However, what people need to understand is, when it comes to Nabokov's importance, he only needs to be solid for the Sharks. He doesn't have to play a Vezina-worthy season for the Sharks to have success.

All championship teams have had world-class goaltending in the postseason, something the Detroit Red Wings can count on Chris Osgood to provide every year. The same cannot be said for Nabokov. The Russian goaltender is however, much better than his play in last year's tilt with the Anaheim Ducks suggests.

With a smaller workload in the regular season, "Nabby" should be more fresh come spring time.

Which is where many Sharks fans have a problem. Thomas Greiss made a name for himself early on this year, and not exactly in the way he would have hoped for. The soft goal Greiss let in against Los Angeles have many thinking he is not up to the job as back-up.

What many people probably didn't notice is how much more fundamentally sound he is than Nabokov. You won't see the German native flopping around his crease like Nabokov does very often.

Greiss is also more solid with the puck. While Nabokov looks for the breakaway pass half the time, he will make the safe pass to a defenseman or ring it off the glass. The Russian's putrid puckhandling was best exemplified last night in the Shark's home opener against Columbus.

In a play where two forecheckers put pressure on him when he was behind the net, Nabokov sent a soft backhand pass right in front of the net. Had Dan Boyle not been there, it could have easily resulted in a goal.

Had Greiss been in that situation, he would have simply cleared it out of the zone using the glass.

Nabokov remains the better goaltender, but Greiss will prove to be a solid backup.

The Sharks also have had some surprises so far from the strong play of rookies Benn Ferriero and Jason Demers. If the young Sharks can keep this up, they will prove to be invaluable as the season progresses.

The blueline is as solid as ever in San Jose, with a good mix of veteran and rising talent. Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will provide the offense with spark, as the young Vlasic continues to grow into one of the league's best offensive defensemen under the tutelage of veterans Boyle and Rob Blake.

Chicago Blackhawks or the Vancouver Canucks are also being talked about as Stanley Cup contenders, but none of those teams have depth in every position as the Sharks have.

With all these pieces in place, the only thing left to do, that hasn't yet been done in the organization, is for the Sharks to bring it all together this season and bring home the Stanley Cup.

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