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Bad times? Good times?
Changes ahead?
4/5/10 - By Ken Smyth

Lets' all get the bad jokes like "the Sharks are in playoff form a little early" out of the way. Many of them (at least the ones I made up) are not suitable for audiences outside of open-mic night at the Chuckle-Hut; and only after chugging the two-drink minimum. Based on evidence to date, the regular season after the Olympic break was a big let down for teams that had top players participating and the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks show an inordinate fear of playing the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.

Foolproof as it was, the Sharks' apparent strategy of losing all the remaining games was not executed well and they are doomed to another playoff appearance. There's the remote possibility they could lose the division championship to Phoenix. Not that anyone would notice. A first place finish for the Coyotes sending their diehard fans into a drunken frenzy might not be noticed; other than catapulting their season ticket base into the three digit range. Other than a Cabela's store, there's plenty of room for drunken frenzy between "Jobing-dot-com-Arena" and civilization.

By not taking the Sharks completely apart after the unbelievably inept showing against the Anaheim Ducks last April, General Manager Doug Wilson implied it was an option this year should they self-destruct again. It was a given the Sharks would make the playoffs this year, the first question was and still is whether the team will show an attitude and style of play once mid-April comes around suggesting they want to be playing in May or June. We find out soon enough.

Second question is that with big contracts to Evgeni Nabokov, Rob Blake, and Patrick Marleau expiring; who will be re-signed? Blake is almost certainly out, he's clearly not the player he was for most of last year and retiring this summer would let him keep both dignity and cartilage. Marleau is still a streaky player though now one averaging about a point a game. He's in what should be the peak years of his career.

Nabokov is the puzzling one. Nabby can steal a period when the team is flat and hold onto a game, he'll also let in a couple weak ones that visibly kill whatever momentum exists. He's had rotten first periods that the team doesn't recover from; whether that reflects more on him or his teammates is a topic for another discussion. He is a fantastic technical goaltender when things are going well, like others trained by Warren Strelow. But does he have that bit of nastiness that gets a top goaltender through a bad game?

Personally I've always preferred goaltenders who are a bit insane, 'cause you should get that way doing that job if you've got both a pulse and a brain. When I was a kid I watched Tony Esposito in Chicago and Ken Dryden in Montreal. Neither fit the molds for technique but they were both guys who'd fight (sometimes literally!) for their team and visibly hated to lose. Right now, it looks like 22-year old Carey Price has been judged and found wanting by the goalie jury in Montreal and could be had pretty cheap in a trade. Price might do well coming back to the west coast and out of a town that expects every goaltender to be an instant Hall-of-Fame candidate.

Nabokov has been a big part of the Sharks' successes and failures over the years, maybe it's time to move on. Even with a home-town discount Nabokov will be asking in the 5-6 million dollar range. At that price and his age (34) it's time for Doug Wilson to say no. Looking around the league since the lockout and into the salary cap era, it's the second-tier almost-up there teams that rely on stud goaltenders at the height of their careers.

It's hard for a top-tier team to justify a top-stats goaltender in the salary cap era, when every dollar spent comes from someplace else. Detroit (always a good example for proving a point!) won Cups before the lockout with top goalies on the downside of their careers (Mike Vernon and Dom Hasek) but won in 2008 with a solid but unremarkable Chris Osgood. Cam Ward (Carolina-2006), Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh-2009) and J. S. Giguere (Anaheim-2007) all had standout series when their teams won but were not considered superstars in the regular season. Though Giguere had a tremendous 2006-07 season he lost his starting job in 2009.

This season's top teams are counting on dependable starters or young up-and-coming players. Last year's Conference Champion Detroit is starting Jimmy Howard who is still a question mark, backing him up with Osgood. Chicago fans are wondering whether coach Joel Quenville will opt for Antti Niemi or Cristobal Huet for the playoffs; Niemi is hot now but Huet has the big bucks contract. Washington has Jose Theodore as #1; capable but not flashy, with youngster Semyon Varlamov as backup and heir apparent. Roberto Luongo is the man in Vancouver, and he's the closest thing to Nabby (better save percentage, worse goals against) in career regular season stats, but he's never gotten past the second round.

Many Sharks fans mention Shark-killer Marty Turco as a cheaper alternative to Nabokov. Turco is also 34 and also carries a "no good in the playoffs" reputation. He's also a great technical player. Marty is a smart guy and his troubles in the playoffs were more due to the team around him; still the best argument for bringing him here is that the Sharks would only face him in practice.

The Sharks also have Alex Stalock and Tyson Sexsmith down in Worcester. If the Sharks don't make at least the Conference Final, a training camp battle among Thomas Greiss, Carey Price (or whoever), Stalock and Sexsmith for the top job in San Jose will be a welcomed distraction from nasty questions over the summer. Even if the Sharks win the Cup, Nabby may be too expensive if Wilson want to hold the rest of the team together and keep some salary cap room.


Contact Ken at at Kenin210@eudoramail.com

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