San Jose Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi
The San Jose Sharks are celebrating their 20th anniversary season in the National Hockey League. The team has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 12 of those 20 years. Unfortunately for the fans who flock to the Shark Tank, their heroes have yet to win the Stanley Cup.
The club has won the Pacific Division five times in their history. The Sharks have one President's Trophy in the club's showcase and has finished in the top eight in the Western Conference 12 times during its 20 year existence. In those 12 playoff appearances, the Sharks have not made it out of the first round four times. They did not get past the second round six times and have played in the conference finals just twice, losing each time.
The Sharks have had the talent to go deeper in the playoffs and perhaps win a Stanley Cup or two, but due to a variety of reasons, fans are still waiting for a parade.
This season, the club has a good blend of veterans and youth, which has them leading the Pacific Division. San Jose is currently in a tie with the Detroit Red Wings for second place overall in the Western Conference.
Here are 20 reasons why this could be the year the Sharks go from being perennial playoff flops to Stanley Cup Champions.
Antti Niemi has one Stanley Cup ring
In hockey, it is believed that teams build from the net out. The Sharks signed Antti Niemi away from the Chicago Blackhawks, the team Niemi led to the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2010. Winning the Cup culminated a fine rookie season for Niemi. One in which the native of Vantaa, Finland won 26 games, lost seven in regulation time and was on the losing end of four overtime games. He also posted seven shut outs along the way.
Niemi posted a goals against average of 2.25 and had a save percentage of .912. In the playoff, the 6'2" netminder cranked up his play winning 16 out of 22 games. He was stellar while putting up a goals against average of 2.63 and a .910 save percentage.
This season, Niemi has appeared in 54 games with San Jose, posting a 30-17-6 record. He has a 2.48 goals against average. His save percentage is at .917. He has five shutouts.
Niemi's experience from last season's playoffs will go a long way in determining how deep the Sharks will go on their road to the Stanley Cup. He has the ability to win games by himself, and he is determined to get his name on the Cup again, this time as member of the Sharks.
Should Niemi falter, San Jose would be in the capable hands of back up puckstopper Antero Niitymaki. Niitymaki is in his seventh NHL season and first with the Sharks.
Niitymaki, a 30-year-old native of Finland, is a former starter with the Philadelphia Flyers. He has appeared in 23 games this season and has been on the winning side of the ledger in 12 of those games while losing just 6 in regulation and three in overtime. The veteran netminder has a goals against average of 2.57 in 2010-2011.
His 233 NHL games have Niitymaki very well prepared to take over the reigns from Niemi should the need arise.
After goaltending, an NHL organization likes to find, evaluate and employ the best defensemen they can find. San Jose has one of the best groups of defensemen one will find.
Ask any man who plays between the pipes, and he will tell you how much he relies on his defensemen to clear loose pucks away from the crease and keep the opponents forwards away from rebounds or setting up screens in front of the net.
An NHL defenseman needs to be a quick, agile and mobile skater. He needs to possess excellent puckhandling abilities, a quick mind in order to make lightning quick decisions with and without the puck. A dependable defenseman also needs to be as tough as nails in order to dish out physical punishment along the boards and take it from the other team's forwards when they win a race to a loose puck.
As one NHL scout said one day, "If an NHL dman doesn't have quick feet, quick hands, and a quick mind, he won't be won't be an NHL dman for long.
The San Jose Sharks have a highly talented group of blueliners such as Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin leading the way.
The anchor of the Sharks defense is Dan Boyle. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2008, the 34-year-old rearguard has fulfilled expectations and more. Boyle has been the quintessential defenseman in teal and black.
The former Miami University Redhawk is one of the best skating defenseman in the NHL. His ability to change directions quickly enables him to start the transition from defense to offense smoothly. Boyle's speed allows him to join the rush and get back into position before opponents can take advantage of an odd man rush.
Boyle is in the top three defensemen in the league when it comes to handling the puck. He controls it deftly when pressured by forecheckers and makes tape to tape passes to his forwards on the break out. His coolness with the puck and quick mind make him a valuable asset at the point during the power play as he sees the ice well and sets up teammates for key goals. Boyle's 122 assists in 223 games as a Shark attest to his play making abilities.
The Ottawa, Ontario native has a hard, accurate shot from the point. Boyle has scored 37 goals from the blue line since coming to the Sharks from the Lightning.18 of those 37 goals have come on the power play. Overall, Boyle has scored a total of 159 points in a Sharks uniform.
Boyle was named a second team NHL All Star in 2007 and 2009. He has an Olympic gold medal from the 2010 Winter Olympics as a member of Team Canada and a Stanley Cup ring from 2004 when he played a prominent role with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Dan Boyle's skills, leadership and experience will be a valuable asset when the 2011 playoffs roll around.
Defenseman Douglas Murray is another hard hitting member of the San Jose Sharks defensive corps. At 6'3" and 240 lbs., Murray is a coach's dream. It is generally believed that big men are not the best skaters, however, Murray skates well enough to rarely be caught out of position. He moves the puck well to forwards for quick break outs, has a cannon of a shot from the blue line makes life extremely uncomfortable in front of the Sharks net for opposing forwards and of course, has the size and strength to hit like a truck.
Murray came to North America to play junior hockey for Henry Lazar's outstanding New York Apple Core program then applied his skills for four years at Cornell University. Along the way, Murray was drafted by the Sharks in the eighth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Considered a long shot to ever play in the NHL, the native of Bromma, Sweden did not let anyone tell him he would not make it. Not only is Murray in his sixth NHL season, all with San Jose, he has also played for Sweden in the 2008 World Championships. The 31-year-old rearguard has also appeared in one Winter Olympic Games as a member of Team Sweden in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Murray is not a big point producer. He has scored six career goals to go along with 42 assists during his career. He is the prototypical defensive defenseman. Shark fans have become accustomed to seeing Murray play against opponents' top lines. His punishing, physical, style of play, combined with his size, has intimidated many an NHL forward and will be counted on for a run at the Stanley Cup in the 2011 playoffs.
Niclas Wallin is to the San Jose Sharks as your best friend is to you. When you really need someone to have your back and be dependable, they are there for you. Wallin is that type of hockey player. He may not possess the puck handling abilities of a Dan Boyle or the size and brute strength of a Douglas Murray, but when the Sharks need a calming influence to take control of the puck and indeed, the game, Wallin is there.
Wallin is one of the most fluid skating defensemen in the NHL. His long strides generate the necessary speed to win races to loose pucks. His edge control enables him to avoid forecheckers in order to make adept passes to start San Jose's transition game.
The 36-year-old defender uses his 6'3", 220 lbs. frame to win physical battles in the corners and in front of the Sharks net. Opponents know when Wallin is on the ice and try to avoid making physical contact with him.
Wallin came to the Sharks on February 7, 2010 in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2006.
Wallin, who hails from Boden, Sweden, has the skills and playoff experience to be a leader in the Sharks quest for the Cup.
Ian White entered the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs and made a very good first impression. In his first five NHL games, in 2005-2006, White scored one goal and registered four assists. Leafs fans had anointed White as the next great offensive defenseman. Naturally, White's production cooled off as it would for just about any 20-year-old rookie. He finished the season with one goal and five assists in 12 games.
Since becoming a full time NHLer, White has averaged six goals per season, as he has totaled 33 goals since scoring his first and only goal in '05-06. However, White joins Boyle, Murray, and Wallin, in the skill department. His puck handling and passing skills have seen White pick up 106 assists in 395 career games. This season, White is tied with for ninth place in team scoring with fellow defenseman Jason Demers. Each defenseman has 23 points.
After spending six seasons in the NHL with stops in Toronto, Calgary and Carolina, Ian White has found a home in San Jose. Rumors swirled at this season's NHL trade deadline that White would be traded, but San Jose general manager Doug Wilson wisely decided to keep Wallin in teal and black.
This will be White's first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs but his offensive capabilities and a career plus/minus of plus-14 will be counted on to contribute in all facets of the game in the Sharks march to a Stanley Cup Finals victory.
Marc Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers, and Antti Niemi vs. Phoenix
Over the history of the NHL, every successful team has what is termed as "a nice blend" of youth and veteran presence. On the blue line, the Sharks have this mix firing on all cylinders.
Dan Boyle leads the veteran contingent which includes Douglas Murray, Niclas Wallin and Ian White.
The youth movement on defense is in the more than capable hands of Jason Demers, Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. They may not be highly touted offensive defensemen, but let there be no mistake, this group is valuable to the team and will be called upon to come up big in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jason Demers entered the NHL at 21 years of age with San Jose last season, playing in 51 games. The youngster registered four goals and 17 assists for a total of 21 points. The rookie blue liner also saw time with the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Worcester (pronounced Wooster), Massachusetts. In 25 games with Worcester, Demers another four goals and 13 assists, good enough for 17 points. Demers proved to management he was ready for more duty in San Jose. The native of Dorval, Quebec returned to California and saw action in 15 Stanley Cup playoff games. In those 15 playoff games, Demers scored one goal and four assists for five total points.
Although the NHL playoff points totals were somewhat disappointing, the 15 games that Demers saw action in will have him well prepared for this season's playoff run. As a matter of fact, one could argue that those playoff games gave Demers the confidence he needed to continue improving his game. This season, he has passed his numbers from last season as he has scored two goals and 21 assists totaling 23 points. He is second on the club in plus/minus with a plus-14.
Look for Jason Demers to play a regular shift in the playoffs. His play making instincts and plus-14 make him a valuable member of the Sharks defense.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just 23 years old, but he is in his fifth NHL season. He has played for no other team other than the San Jose Sharks. He has been a quick study and learned the NHL game much to the liking of management. The Montreal native's scoring stats have declined over the last two seasons, but the other facets of his game have made big improvements.
In 383 career games, the 2005 second round draft pick has compiled 16 goals and 90 assists for 106 points. While those are somewhat respectable numbers for a defenseman who is in his fifth season, the statistic that stands out the most is that seven of his goals have been scored on the power play. Can you say special teams expert?
Vlasic is getting it done in the defensive zone as well. He is second on the club in blocked shots this season with 131. He is a plus-nine. He is a plus-46 for his career. No wonder Vlasic is fourth on the team in ice time this season, averaging 20:50 per game.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is young in age, but his experience and outstanding numbers on the power play and in his own zone are gaining him respect around the NHL.
He is a player who can make a difference in more than one playoff game.
When one travels from northern California down the coast to the southern part of the state, the traveler will soon notice they have reached Hollywood. Can't miss it. There is a huge sign telling you that you are there, and anyone who is associated with the entertainment business will tell you that a production cannot succeed without a strong supporting cast. The same holds true in the NHL.
Every team that has won the Stanley Cup has had its star players. The Montreal Canadiens dynasties of the 1970's had Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, and Ken Dryden leading the way, but they may not have won five consecutive Stanley Cups without the likes of Doug Risebrough, Brian Engblom, and the late Michel "Bunny" Larocque playing specific roles for the club.
San Jose has its star players, but would they truly be star players without the likes of Ryane Clowe, Jamal Mayers, Ben Eager, Torrey Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi?
All of these players have specific roles on the San Jose Sharks, and without them, the Sharks would not be Stanley Cup favorites from the Western Conference.
Ryane Clowe fills many roles
Ryane Clowe has been with the Sharks for six seasons. In those six seasons, he has played in 316 regular season games. In those 316 games, Clowe has amassed 391 penalty minutes.
Clowe has taken to the roll of resident tough guy in San Jose and has done his job well. He has protected the star players when opponents tried to take liberties with them. In doing so, the stars received more room on the ice to play their style of game.
The one thing about Clowe's game that has gone unnoticed by many is that while his penalty minutes have increased, so have his point totals. This season the Fermeuse, Newfoundland native is fourth in team scoring with 60 points. His 24 goals is a career high. Clowe currently has 100 penalty minutes, and with six games remaining on the schedule, he should have no problem eclipsing his career high total of 131 which he achieved last season.
Clowe, the 175th selection (sixth round) of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, is honing his game and becoming a power forward in every sense of the phrase. How many Stanley Cup Champions can you name that did not have one of those?
When someone asks what a "grinder" is in hockey, just point them in the direction of Ben Eager. Eager is a fundamentally sound skater with average skills, but his heart is larger than almost every other NHL player's. He uses grit and determination to do his job as a supporting cast member, and he does it extremely well.
Eager has an abundance of speed, and he can turn on the jets to beat almost any defenseman in the NHL for a loose puck in the corner.
Defensively, he uses his speed on the backcheck to catch opposing puck carriers trying to get a scoring chance on his goaltender.
Eager has been in the league since 2005 and has been a 10-15 point scorer per season, but his general managers and coaches have not been concerned with his offensive output. Eager's job is to shut down the opponent's big guns, a job he takes great pride in doing, and he is one of the best at doing it.
The 27-year-old native of Ottawa has his name on the Stanley Cup as a member of last season's Chicago Blackhawks. General Manager Doug Wilson brought Eager in specifically for the playoffs. The odds are, Wilson will not be disappointed.
When discussing why the San Jose Sharks will end their playoff curse, the names of the big boys will always need to come up. Of course, those big boys, the players who will be counted on to step up and play better than they ever have are the stars; some might even call them, superstars.
Dany Heatley has been one of the most consistent scorers in the NHL since he first set foot in the league. After scoring 113 points in just 77 games at the University of Wisconsin, Heatley decided he was ready for the NHL and signed with the team that drafted him second overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, the Atlanta Thrashers.
After scoring 181 points in two and a half seasons in Georgia, he was traded to the Ottawa Senators, where he firmly established his reputation as one of the National Hockey League's elite goal scorers. In four seasons in Canada's capital city, Heatley had seasons of 50, 50, 41 and 39 goals. He eclipsed the magic 100 point mark In 2006 and again in 2007.
Heatley then joined the Sharks for the 2009-2010 season, where he continued his scoring feats by posting 82 points on 39 goals and 43 assists. This season has been a frustrating one for the 31-year-old winger, as he has played in 74 games but has been able to score just 59 points, his lowest point total since 2003-2004. For his career, the native of Germany has scored 323 goals and 361 assists for a total of 684 points in 663 games.
In 48 playoff games, he has put up 48 points.
The Sharks need Dany Heatley to score goals in bunches if they are to break the playoff curse. He is capable of doing so and fans are expecting him to do it.
Logan Couture is in his first season in the NHL, and the 22-year-old forward from Guelph, Ontario is making it look kind of easy.
Couture is an excellent skater with exceptional balance and speed. His quickness allows him to get to loose pucks or open for passes in the offensive zone. It also allows him to get to the front of the net to set up screens or pounce on rebounds for goals.
Couture was selected ninth overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and he has not disappointed. If anything, he has exceeded expectations from the first day of training camp and has not slowed down or hit the wall that so many rookies experience.
The 6'1" inch forward is currently second on the team in goals with 30. He trails Patrick Marleau by three goals. Couture has assisted on 23 goals and has 53 points on the season, ranking him sixth in team scoring.
His play this season has positioned him to be a leader on the ice in the organization's quest for the Cup.
Talk amongst people around the league has Couture a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award. Couture would gladly accept the award after he gets to hold the Stanley Cup high above his head prior to the awards ceremony in June.
Patrick Marleau entered the National Hockey League the same year he was drafted by the Sharks in 1997, the second overall selection in the draft that year behind teammate Joe Thornton. Since '97, Marleau, who hails from Aneroid, Saskatchewan, has played in four NHL All Star games, played on one World Cup of Hockey Champion, has two gold medals from the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and has one Olympic gold medal. The only thing that is missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup ring.
It is not for lack of effort that Marleau's name is not on the Stanley Cup. In 1,029 career games, he has put the puck behind NHL netminders 353 times. He has recorded 404 assists. The total points he has registered is 757. Add to that 75 points in 106 career playoff games, and one can see Marleau has never taken a night off during his illustrious career. He has had some ups and downs, but all players do. Marleau has been a consistent example to his teammates on how the game should be approached and played night after night.
This season, the 31-year-old Marleau is leading the club in goals with 33, and he is tied with Thornton for the team scoring lead with 64 points.
After 13 seasons in the NHL, Marleau is not slowing down. He appears to be more determined than ever to lead his team to a Stanley Cup victory. Marleau has the skills and the passion to make that a reality this season.
Captain Joe Thornton has become something of an enigma when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The regular season sees Thornton as one of the premiere dominant playmaking centers in the National Hockey League. He has career numbers of 989 games, 304 goals, 691 assists and 995 points. He also carries a plus-130. 109 of his 304 goals have come on the power play. He has also scored 49 game winning goals. Mind numbing numbers to be sure. Thornton is the only player in NHL history to be named the league's Most Valuable Player for the season in which he was traded, as he won the award for 2005-06, the year he was traded from the Boston Bruins to San Jose.
Thornton's statistics will be worthy of Hockey Hall of Fame consideration after he retires.
His playoff numbers, not so much.
In 91 career playoff games with both Boston and San Jose, Thornton has scored a paltry 15 goals. He used his superior play making skills to assist on 50 goals, resulting in only 65 points in the heat of Stanley Cup battles.Five of his 15 playoff goals have been game winners but he has only taken 185 shots on goal in those 91 playoff games. To make matters worse, his plus/minus statistic is a minus-23.
Fans on each coast have felt the frustration of watching Thornton dominate games during the regular season only to disappear once the playoff puck is dropped.
Thornton's numbers are among some of the best the game has ever seen. He needs to put up big numbers this spring. He is capable of that, and once he does it, the Sharks will have their Stanley Cup. It says here, Thornton will do just that this spring.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, special teams take on a more prominent role. One power play goal in your favor or in your opponents' favor can change a series, if not win it.
The Sharks have the third best power play in the National Hockey League and are scoring at a 23.3 percent rate. The club closely trails Chicago and Vancouver. A series against either team will most likely come down to special teams, and the Sharks have the power play personnel to win a series or two.
The San Jose penalty kill is ranked 24th in the league. Chicago and Phoenix are the only playoff bound teams that have worse power plays. The Sharks are killing penalties at 79.9 percent. That will need to improve before the playoffs begin.
San Jose head coach Todd McLellan is in his third season behind the Sharks bench.
Before taking the reigns in California, McLellan was an assistant coach for three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. In Detroit, McLellan was part of two Western Conference finalists, two Presidents Trophies, awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the season, and one Stanley Cup Championship.
McLellan has guided San Jose to one President's Trophy and one Western Conference Final.
McLellan knows what it takes and what is necessary for a team to reach the pinnacle of the hockey world.The Sharks have the right man at the helm for the club to win Lord Stanley's Cup.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been described as a tournament of attrition.
A team needs to execute game plans flawlessly.
Players need to remain healthy, while the ones who do not need to be replaced by players who can step in and play with the elevated intensity that accompanies playoff hockey.
The goaltenders need to be focused and fundamentally sound.
The defensemen need to skate quicker, handle the puck with unequaled deftness and make split second decisions, ensuring the opposing team does not take advantage of mistakes in the defensive zone.
The supporting cast, also known as the role players, need to play to the best of their abilities and take advantage of opponents break downs while keeping the other team from scoring.
The stars need to be superstars and take advantage of any and all mistakes the opponents make in all areas of the ice.
Special teams need to be operating at maximum output. Paying attention to detail is extremely important.
The leaders need to lead on and off the ice.
The head coach and his staff need to constantly adjust to new things they see their opponents doing. They need to come up with their own new systems to keep the other teams off guard.
The San Jose Sharks have these ingredients for a championship team. This should be the year the Sharks end the playoff curse.