Three years, three playoff births, three second-round appearances, zero conference finals. The San Jose Sharks enter the '08-09 season with a gigantic chip on their shoulders.
For the past three seasons the Sharks have been eliminated in the conference semifinals, each time losing in six games. In '05-06, it was the Pronger-run Edmonton Oilers that ousted the Sharks in six games.
The following season, the Detroit Red Wings eliminated the Sharks. And finally last year, Brendan Morrow of the hated Dallas Stars sent the Sharks home, scoring in quadruple-overtime.
For most teams, continuous playoff appearances would be good enough for the team to keep their coach—but there are higher expectations in San Jose. The Sharks fired their head coach, Ron Wilson, after five seasons with the team, and this offseason hired former Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan to replace him.
This season, unlike any other, the Sharks are primed to end the second-round curse and reach the Western Conference finals—if not the Stanley Cup. McLellan, fresh off his Stanley Cup championship with Detroit, knows first-hand what the Sharks need to be successful.
It starts with the blue line.
The Sharks have acquired veteran free-agent defenseman Rob Blake, and traded for Tampa Bay's puck-moving defenseman Dan Boyle. Both of these defensemen are capable of putting the puck in the net—which is exactly what coach McLellan is looking for.
Other than midseason acquisition Brian Campbell, the top goal-scoring defenseman last season for San Jose was Craig Rivet—who had five goals for the year. In order to get past the second round, the Sharks need to improve their offensive production from the blue line.
Unlike the 2005-06 season, Western Conference teams have figured out how to defend the likes of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. The Sharks' big guys up front draw a lot of attention from opposing teams, leaving the Sharks defenders open at the point.
But in recent years, the Sharks have been missing that vital, all-star quality, offensive defenseman. Now the Sharks blue line is loaded.
A potential starting six of Blake, Boyle, Douglas Murray, Christian Ehrhoff, Marc Edouard-Vlasic, and Brad Lukowich combines young talent with veteran leadership, physicality with speed, and big shooters with shut-down defensemen.
Another issue facing the Sharks in years past is that multiple hockey analysts have deemed them as "soft". However, last year's mid-season acquisition of enforcer Jody Shelley, along with up-and-coming power forward Ryan Clowe and punishing defenseman Douglas Murray, have helped silence those critics.
This team has no holes. They are big, fast, talented, deep, and extremely motivated. We all know they have world-class goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov, but they also have a playoff-experienced backup in Brian Boucher.
They have veterans such as Jeremy Roenick, and the possible return of former fan-favorite Jeff Friesen. They also have young stars such as Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell, and Milan Michalek.
And last but not least, they have the one-two punch down the middle of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
There is one and only one team that can stop them—and that is the defending Stanley cup champion Detroit Red Wings. Hockey fans around North America should be looking forward to the showdown of the two best teams in the NHL—the Sharks and the Red Wings—in the '08-09 Western Conference Final.