Going into the 2000-01 season, the San Jose Sharks looked pretty set in goal. Steve Shields had just finished his first season as San Jose starter (in fact, his first season as a starter in the NHL), and performed pretty well, putting up a .911 save percentage in 67 games. Behind him in the depth chart was Evgeni Nabokov, who had just gotten his first taste of the National Hockey League following the departure of veteran netminder Mike Vernon. Nabokov, however, wasn’t content to be a back-up; over the course of the year, he would take the starting job with a string of fantastic performances, eventually earning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year at the 2001 NHL Awards show.
The Sharks had put their chips on the young Russian starter, and Nabokov was ready to earn his club a hell of a payout. Over the next decade, Evgeni would be the starter of choice for every season. From 2001-2010, he would play 552 games, winning 209 of them, including a league-leading 46 wins in 07-08. In all but two years in that time, he would put up a SV% of .910 or greater, with the 05-06 campaign being his only cold year (a 3.10 GAA and .885 SV% in 45 games). He would make two Conference Final appearances with the Sharks, with his 2004 playoffs likely serving as the absolute apex of his career (17 games, 10 wins, and a .935 SV% in the post-season).
Nabokov, no doubt, was fantastic for San Jose. But his presence hid a couple of other quality netminders from the league. First of those goalies was Miikka Kiprusoff, who was drafted in 1995 by the Sharks; “Kipper” would play parts of three years with the team, with his third year proving rather poor (5 wins in 22 games, and a .879 SV%). He would be traded to Calgary in late 2003, clearing the way for the next back-up, Vesa Toskala. Toskala was much more successful in San Jose, proving masterful as a back-up, and serviceable as a 1a/1b option. Vesa would last until 2007, at which point he was traded to the Maple Leafs.
But let’s go back to Kiprusoff for a second. With Nabokov impossible to supplant, and Toskala coming up fast, Miikka was expendable. Dealt to the Flames for a 2nd-Round Draft Pick, Kiprusoff would be thrust into the starting job in Calgary, and it wasn’t long before his poor 02-03 season was in the distance. The Finnish goalie would play 38 games with the Flames that year, putting up league-leading totals in both GAA and SV% (1.69 and .933, respectively). His regular season success was no fluke, either, as Kiprusoff would lead the Flames to within a single win of the Stanley Cup – even eliminating his old team, San Jose, in the Conference Final.
Miikka had already become a Calgary hero, but he wasn’t done there. He would play no less than 70 games in each of the next seven year, before finally fading in the 2012-13 season (24 games and a pathetic .882 SV%). Which raises the question: did San Jose, ultimately, make the wrong choice? Could they have moved on to the Cup Final in ’04 with Kiprusoff in Nabokov’s place? Would “Kipper” have won that Cup for the Sharks? And could San Jose have reached further Cup Finals with a change of starters?
WHAT IF THE SAN JOSE SHARKS KEPT MIIKKA KIPRUSOFF INSTEAD OF EVGENI NABOKOV?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: As has been pointed out, Nabokov was going to be hard to supplant as the starter. He had three years as a starter under his belt, and looked set to be “the guy” in goal for the next few years. Kiprusoff had a good first two years as a back-up, but his play had dipped in 02-03. His spot wasn’t secure, either, with Vesa Toskala nipping at his heels behind him. Given the choice between an established starting goalie and an untested ‘keeper, there was virtually no way that the Sharks would choose the unknown entity over the goalie they were used to in Nabokov.
But let’s say they do. Let’s say, against all conventional wisdom, that the Sharks decide to cast out Nabokov to allow Kiprusoff his shot as a starter. What kind of a trade would it take for San Jose to deal away their top goalie? Well, it’s going to take a lot more than the 2nd-Round Pick that Calgary offered up for Kiprusoff in the OTL, that’s for sure. But to get a sense as to what it would actually take, we need to look at some comparable deals in the NHL since Nabokov’s debut, with a few key similarities:
- The goalie involved must have been a first-choice goalie for his team in the past two or three seasons
- The goalie involved must have had a SV% above or very close to the league average in each of those seasons
- They must not have been traded for another netminder (as Kiprusoff was not dealt for another goalie)
From the time of Evgeni’s debut to the point of the Kiprusoff trade, there was only one comparable deal. In December of 2002, Mike Dunham was traded by Nashville to the New York Rangers, with the Predators getting Rem Murray, Tomas Kloucek, and Marek Zidlicky in return. Murray, a long-time Edmonton Oiler, would play the rest of that year, as well as parts of the next two years, with Nashville, never managing to make much of an impact. Kloucek would play only three games in the 02-03 campaign for the Preds, before being dealt to the Thrashers early next year. Zidlicky, still with HIFK Helsinki in the SM-liiga, would not join Nashville until the next year, but would go on to spend the next four seasons with the Predators, racking up 175 points in 307 games.
So in the end, the package that brought Dunham to New York was a bottom-six forward, a scratched defenceman, and a European stand-out who had yet to travel over to North America. Obviously, considering the calibre of goalie that Nabokov is, it would take a little more than that to pry him away from San Jose. It would probably take the 2nd-Rounder that Calgary sacrificed for Kiprusoff, plus another high pick, even a 1st-Rounder if necessary. That would mean a total of five assets going to the Sharks for Nabokov; yes, it’s a steep price to pay, but Nabokov was an established #1 goalie, and at 28, still had lots of years left in him as an NHL starter. A goalie that good isn’t going to come cheap.
With Roman Turek having been injured for a month, the Calgary Flames were getting desperate for a goaltender to carry the load in his place. Jamie McLennan had been serviceable enough in his short time that year, but he had never played more than 38 games in a season, and would be a question mark down the stretch. And if he couldn’t do the job, then the Flames would have to go to Dany Sabourin, who had played four games that year, and looked poor in all of them. If Calgary was going to have any shot at a playoff place, they would have to act fast to get a new goalie.
Everyone knew a trade was coming very soon, but nobody could have expected the magnitude of the deal that took place on November 16th, 2003. Calgary hadn’t just acquired a goalie; they had acquired Evgeni Nabokov from San Jose. The former Calder Trophy winner was coming off a somewhat down year, but even his worst season in the NHL was still better than the league average. Within hockey circles, there was speculation that the Sharks still held a grudge toward Nabokov for his holdout in 2002, which lasted into the regular season before being resolved. Doug Wilson, who was not GM at the time of the holdout, denied any link between that dispute and the current trade, saying that the primary motivation for the deal was the large package that Calgary was willing to trade to pry Nabokov away.
And what a package it was. Calgary would give up five assets in total to acquire the former San Jose starter: depth forward Stephane Yelle, defensive prospect Mike Commodore, the rights to 2001 draftee Andrei Taratukhin, and 2nd-Round Draft Picks in 2004 and 2005. The Flames wanted to win NOW, and giving up a few future assets was, in the mind of GM/coach Darryl Sutter, worth the gamble. Sutter, after all, knew Evgeni well, having been in charge for Nabokov’s first couple of seasons in the NHL. Being re-united with the goalie that he had developed might be exactly what the Flames needed if they were to become consistently competitive.
FROM SAN JOSE’S PERSPECTIVE
2003-04: The news of the Nabokov deal was another crushing blow to San Jose fans, who were now seeing their team prepare for what looked to be a long re-build. No matter how large the return may have been, the Sharks still parted with a premier starter in the league, and one who was still relatively young. Having earned only three wins to that point, it looked as if the Sharks might be contenders in the Alexander Ovechkin sweepstakes, rather than any kind of contender. If there was one silver lining, it was that the goalie controversy was finally over at the Pavilion; for better or worse, this was now Miikka Kiprusoff’s team, and if he didn’t pan out, the Sharks could always turn to Vesa Toskala.
With the weight of controversy lifted off his shoulders, Kiprusoff blossomed. The poor results of a year prior seemed to be completely forgotten, as “Kipper” would play 45 games over the rest of the season, producing incredible results: 30 wins, a goals against average of 1.69, a save percentage of .933, and 9 shutouts. Both his SV% and GAA were enough to lead the entire league, and earned Kiprusoff a Vezina Trophy nomination for his efforts. His play lifted what was otherwise an anemic San Jose side; though six players managed to break the 40-point plateau, only two of them managed more than 50, with Patrick Marleau’s 57 leading the way.
Buoyed by the outstanding goaltending of Kiprusoff, San Jose bounced back in style from the previous year. They would claim the Pacific Division title with 106 points, putting them 2nd in the entire NHL behind only the Detroit Red Wings. Having been so good in the regular season, the opening post-season series against St. Louis was a chance for Miikka to show he was no fluke. The Finnish break-out star proved he could sustain his form, as his .922 SV% in the first round was enough to hold his team in each game. Even that wasn’t Kiprusoff’s peak, as in the next series against the mighty Colorado Avalanche, he would record a .941 SV% to lead his team to an upset victory in six games.
But as fantastic as Kiprusoff was in goal for San Jose, there was one other goalie that could match him save-for-save: Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov had led the Flames to a seven-game victory over the Vancouver Canucks, then produced a superhuman effort against Detroit, with his .958 SV% leaving the likes of Yzerman, Shanahan, Hull, and Datsyuk stunned. Nabokov wouldn’t be shy about wanting a bit of revenge in the interviews leading up to the Western Conference Final, and the clash between the two goalies was the focus of much of the marketing for that series. The difference, however, would come in scoring, as with the former NHL-leading goal-scorer Jarome Iginla on their side, Calgary had an edge. The Flames would win the series in six games, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
There were so many positives to take for the Sharks in their journey, but so many negatives as well. Yes, they had just advanced further than they ever had before, and yes, Kiprusoff was incredible in goal. But the fact that it was their former goalie that had beat them in the Conference Final still stung, no matter how far they had come. The Sharks would go into the 2004 Entry Draft as a team on a mission, and made a trade with Dallas during the 1st Round to move up to the 22nd Pick. With that Pick, San Jose would take Lukas Kaspar, a Czech forward from HC Chemopetrol. The 2nd-Round Pick they acquired from Calgary, meanwhile, would be used on American winger David Booth.
2004-05: The San Jose Sharks looked like they were back. It seemed like they had replaced one star goalie with another, and to all who saw them, it appeared as if all they needed to be a genuine Cup contender was a top-tier forward. Unfortunately, the Sharks would never get the chance to back up their results from 2004; the entire season would be wiped out thanks to the ongoing labour dispute between the NHL and their Players’ Association. While it would not be a fatal blow to San Jose fans’ enthusiasm, it was certainly a gut punch to the entire league as a whole, something the NHL didn’t need at a point when it was starting to fall firmly behind basketball in terms of North American arena sports.
When a collective bargaining agreement was finally negotiated in July 2005, business would resume as usual. The Draft would be held on the 30th, with San Jose active on the board AND the floor. The Sharks would trade up to the 8th Overall spot, taking Saskatoon Blades winger Devin Setoguchi with that pick, as well as trading D-man Mike Commodore to Carolina in exchange for a 3rd-Rounder, which they would use on Medicine Hat blue-liner Gord Baldwin. In addition to those two picks, they also used the last piece of compensation in the Nabokov trade, Calgary’s 2nd-Round Pick, on Quebec Remparts defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
2005-06: NHL hockey was back, and the rules had changed, with an emphasis on more scoring and competitive balance. A salary cap was implemented, but the Sharks were hardly affected by it, as they weren’t spending huge amounts on talent. In fact, their flexibility meant that San Jose could afford to go out and find the top-line forward they had been after since the end of the ’04 playoffs, and in December, one became available. After years of disputes with the Boston Bruins brass, Joe Thornton had enough, and would be traded to the Sharks in exchange for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau.
Thornton had an immediate effect on the Sharks, as he slotted in as the new #1 centre. He would be paired with the break-out sensation Jonathan Cheechoo, who would benefit from Thornton’s passes more than anyone else on the team; by the end of the season, Cheechoo would walk away with the “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer with 56 tallies. The new rules and new teammates also benefitted Patrick Marleau, who would set a career high with 86 points, third on the team behind Thornton and Cheechoo. In goal, Ron Wilson elected to cycle between his two goalies, with Miikka Kiprusoff getting only 45 games of work. Kiprusoff was still excellent, with his .923 SV% and league-leading 2.07 GAA proving good enough to earn him the Vezina Trophy – albeit by the slimmest of voting margins.
The Sharks now looked like a dangerous team heading into the 2006 playoffs. They may not have won the Pacific again, but their 105 points were enough to put San Jose in 4th place in the West. The Sharks would be matched up with the Nashville Predators, who relied on the speed of players like Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan to succeed in the “new” NHL. Thought the Preds prepared hard to deal with Kiprusoff, they were thrown for a loop when Vesa Toskala started the first game; Ron Wilson would blame injuries for “Kipper” not being in goal, and promised that Miikka would start if Toskala couldn’t get the job done. Surprisingly, Toskala would step up huge, recording a .927 SV% in the series – one which the Sharks would win in six games.
San Jose’s next test in the post-season would be the Edmonton Oilers, who were clearly eyeing the Cup with some of the moves they had made over the past year. Not only had they acquired Chris Pronger from the St. Louis Blues before the season, but they also swung trades at the deadline to get Sergei Samsonov and Dwayne Roloson. The veteran goalie Roloson proved every bit the match for Toskala, as his play kept the Oilers in the series after two Shark wins, as well as singlehandedly winning Game Three in triple OT. A horrible night for Toskala in Game Four meant that Kiprusoff was back in for the next one; Miikka would win two of the next three to send San Jose to the Conference Final for the second season in a row.
There was no controversy anymore. Miikka Kiprusoff was “the guy” again, and the Sharks now looked as if they were on course for a Cup Final appearance. They would clash with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Conference Final, a team that had gotten younger over the past couple of years. All of Joffrey Lupul, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Dustin Penner were getting significant playing time, and all of them were under the age of 25. Of course, they had veterans, too, with Scott Niedermayer leading the blue line, and Teemu Selanne still their primary scoring threat. But all of their young talent was no match for the goaltending of Kiprusoff, who stood tall to win the series for the Sharks in five games.
Gary Bettman could not have wished for a better Cup Final in his eyes. Here were two “non-traditional” markets, San Jose and Carolina, competing for the first Stanley Cup since the lockout. Both sides got to this stage on the strength of their goaltending, but only one of those goalies would last through the series; Miikka Kiprusoff would be knocked out of Game One after suffering a knee injury late in the contest. Vesa Toskala was back in, and although he was adequate, “adequate” just wasn’t good enough to win a Cup. The series would go to Game Seven, where the Hurricanes would win by a score of 3-1 to win their first championship – including their time in Hartford.
If the disappointment of two years ago was bade enough, this was a shot right to the heart for San Jose. They had gotten to the Stanley Cup Final, only to see their starting goalie go down to injury in the very first game. Virtually every Sharks fan was asking the same question: “What if Kiprusoff was healthy throughout the series?” Of course, just getting to the Final was an achievement, and a testament to the effect of Joe Thornton on this club. Thornton would become the first player to win the Hart Trophy after being traded during the season, having led the league with 125 points. That total, itself, represented a drastic change, as the last time the leading point-scorer had that may was Jaromir Jagr in 1999 (127 points).
San Jose would have the 26th Overall Pick in the 2006 Draft, but as was tradition for GM Doug Wilson, it would be traded in order for the Sharks to move forward in the queue. San Jose would move up all the way to #16, taking Prince George blue-liner Ty Wishart with that selection.
2006-07: The Sharks were now bona fide contenders. They had reached at least the Western Conference Final in each of the past two seasons, and seemed to adapt as well as just about anyone to the new skill-based NHL. They had a new talisman in Joe Thornton, and a few very good supporting players, not the least of which was last year’s leading goal-scorer Jonathan Cheechoo. In addition to their stacked attack, the Sharks just seemed to churn out quality goaltending, with Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala forming a very good tandem; Kiprusoff, in particular, proved essential, being nominated for the Vezina Trophy in both of his seasons as a starter.
Given a full season to work with the Sharks, Thornton set out to prove he was the league’s best playmaker, and his 92 assists would lead the NHL for a second year running. Jonathan Cheechoo was once again his favourite target, but the former “Rocket” Richard winner would still see his total dip to 37 goals this year. Much like the previous year, Ron Wilson would split the burden between Kiprusoff and Toskala, but it was “Kipper” that got the most games – 50 in total. In that time, Kiprusoff would record 26 wins, a GAA of 2.46, and a SV% of .917, stats good enough to earn him a third consecutive Vezina nomination.
San Jose found themselves in a dogfight for the Pacific, but they were back on top, if only by the slimmest of margins. Their 111 points put them in 2nd in the West, once again behind the Red Wings. Their first-round opponents would be the Minnesota Wild, who had nearly claimed the Northwest Division over Vancouver; so competitive was the West that even with 104 points, Minnesota were still 7th. The Wild had good scoring depth (five forwards with over 50 points), and a strong Finnish goalie of their own in Niklas Backstrom. Their offence, however, abandoned them against the Sharks, as Kiprusoff would put up a .929 SV% en route to a five-game series win.
The Sharks were rolling again, and they were staying in the Northwest for their next series against the division-winning Canucks. Vancouver had beefed up in goal over the past year, acquiring Roberto Luongo from Florida, and the former Islander draft pick proved every bit the superstar that Vancouver fans were expecting him to be. The combined goaltending of Luongo and Kiprusoff made the series extremely tight, with four of the seven games going to OT, including the deciding game; in that game, Matt Carle would score in the second over-time period to clinch the series for the Sharks. Though they were back in the Conference Final, the damage had been done; another clash with the re-named Anaheim Ducks was on the cards, and San Jose was just too tired from the Vancouver series to muster up a fight, losing to the Ducks in a sweep.
As far as San Jose was concerned, their finish was somewhat disappointing, even if they were still a Conference Final team. Doug Wilson knew that he had to find a way to make sure his team could get over the last couple of hurdles, but before he could do that, he had more deals to make at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The Sharks would receive an offer from Toronto for their “back-up” netminder Vesa Toskala, and Wilson would accept, sending Toskala and forward Mark Bell to the Leafs for three picks, including Toronto’s 1st-Rounder in 2007. This settled another goalie controversy in San Jose, cementing Miikka Kiprusoff as the team’s starter once and for all.
San Jose, as per usual, would move up in the draft, making a trade with St. Louis to advance to the #9 spot. With that pick, the Sharks would take Logan Couture from the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League. Thanks to another set of trades, the Sharks would also have the 28th Overall Pick, using it on Omaha Lancers D-man Nick Petrecki.
2007-08: The time was starting to come when Doug Wilson would have to find a move to go all-in for a Cup run, but that time wasn’t quite now. There were more pressing matters for Wilson in free agency, such as re-signing their core pieces; Joe Thornton would sign a three-year extension, while Milan Michalek and Patrick Marleau would do the same in August. The two big signings for San Jose in free agency were veteran depth pieces, with aging centre Jeremy Roenick joining before training camp, and Sandis Ozolinsh coming in just after the season began.
After a few years of his playing time being escalated upward, Miikka Kiprusoff was about to get a drastic increase in playing time. There were questions as to how he would handle the added load, and with a total of 77 games played, many of those questions were valid. Kiprusoff would see his GAA total rise to 2.69, while his SV% dipped to below .910 for the first time since he became a starter. Nonetheless, most of the year saw him keep his team in games they had no business being in, while winning many of the more competitive ones; his 48 wins would lead the NHL that year, tying the single-season record set by Martin Brodeur a year prior.
The Sharks were once again 2nd in the entire league, and once again, only the Red Wings were ahead of them. Ready to face San Jose in the first round were an old foe: the Calgary Flames. Like Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov played the vast majority of Calgary’s games, making 76 starts. Unlike Kiprusoff, however, Nabokov maintained some of his consistency over the course of the past few years, with his SV% of .910 only a slight drop from the previous year. While the key players for both sides stepped up (with all of Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, and Joe Thornton getting at least 7 points), it was a surprising name that defined the series, as Ryane Clowe would score 8 points to lead the Sharks. San Jose found themselves in for a fight, but they would eventually claim the series in seven games.
The next obstacle for the Sharks were the Dallas Stars, who had toppled the defending Cup champions Anaheim in the 1st Round. The Stars had a few veterans still kicking around (Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, and Sergei Zubov), but supplemented them by acquiring former Cup-winner Brad Richards at the trade deadline. Much like San Jose’s Conference Semi-Final a year earlier, this series saw four games go to over-time, but despite their experience from the Vancouver battle, the Sharks just didn’t have the stamina this time around. Marty Turco’s .941 SV% in the series would stand as the key performance as Dallas would win in six games.
For Doug Wilson, it represented a step back at a time when they needed to keep moving forward. Rather than sticking with what he had, the GM would make a quick move in firing Ron Wilson as head coach. Following the conclusion of the playoffs, former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan would be brought in to take Ron’s place; McLellan had masterminded the Red Wings’ power play since his hiring in 2005, and in his first full season, the Wings were tops in the league on special teams. He would be expected to bolster the Sharks’ attack, which was beginning to slow down over the course of the past couple of years.
San Jose would not have a 1st-Round Draft Pick in 2008, having traded their selection to Buffalo in late February in order to acquire Brian Campbell for the stretch run. Buffalo would use the 26th Overall Pick on Tyler Ennis, a small but skilled forward from the Medicine Hat Tigers.
2008-09: It was hard to find a coach with more pressure on them in their first year than Todd McLellan. He wasn’t taking over a bottom-of-the-barrel team that was in contention for a 1st Overall Pick; he was taking over the San Jose Sharks. In the past four seasons, the Sharks had made the Conference Finals three times, and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, only to lose out in Game Seven. Even if they had just failed to make the Western Final the previous year, they were still a stacked team, with a talismanic forward in Joe Thornton. If San Jose came out of the gate poorly, then the first-year head coach might already be in the hot seat.
By the end of November, McLellan wasn’t just away from the hot seat, but actually being hailed as the early Jack Adams Award favourite as the league’s top coach. The Sharks started the season guns blazing, losing only three games in the first two months of the campaign. They were getting contributions all across the line-up, with all of Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, and David Booth cracking the 30-goal mark. While not quite at the pace of previous years, Joe Thornton was still dishing out assists (61 helpers, and 86 total points). And if their help wasn’t enough, the Sharks got a ton of help on the blue line thanks to Dan Boyle (52 points), Rob Blake (45), Christian Ehrhoff (42), and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (36). Pretty much the only weak point for the Sharks was in goal, as Miikka Kiprusoff posted a .903 SV% in 62 games – his worst total since the Nabokov deal.
Not only were the Sharks a regular season juggernaut again, but they were the President’s Trophy winners by a sizeable margin with 124 points. Facing them in the first round would be the Anaheim Ducks, Stanley Cup winners from 2007. Their young core, which included Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan, was coming of age, and vets like Niedermayer, Pronger, and Selanne were still around. Though the Ducks had just snuck into the post-season, they were nonetheless a formidable opponent, and Randy Carlyle did his best to make sure his team was prepared for the San Jose onslaught. For all of the big names on the Ducks, their biggest star would be second-year goalie Jonas Hiller, who got the starting job for the series; Hiller would post a spectacular .957 SV% in six games, as Anaheim took a defensive series 4-2.
For all of the joy of the regular season, the Sharks found themselves out of the playoffs far too early. It could be chalked up to McLellan’s inexperience as a head coach, but a few writers were pointing to Miikka Kiprusoff’s play in goal as the primary culprit of their early exit; after a few years of being a top-tier starter, Kiprusoff had regressed hard over the past couple of years, and another year like this might be the cue for the Sharks to move on from him and find a new #1 goalie to take his place. With Thomas Greiss about to become waiver-eligible, it looked like it was time for him to slot in as Miikka’s back-up, and if he proved good enough, the German-born Greiss might just be a starter-in-waiting.
San Jose would once again not have a 1st-Round Pick in 2009 thanks to an off-season trade that saw the Sharks part with the pick, Matt Carle, Ty Wishart, and a 4th-Rounder in 2010 in order to get Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich. The pick (26th Overall) would change hands multiple times before finally ending up in the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, who would use the selection on U.S. National Team Development Program forward Kyle Palmieri.
2009-10: As far as San Jose fans were concerned, an early playoff exit in Todd McLellan’s first season in charge could be forgiven. After all, the Sharks had earned a league-leading 124 points the previous year, and if McLellan could adapt to the playoffs, they might be back to being contenders once again. But Doug Wilson wasn’t going to just sit around and hope the team just got better on their own; he would make yet another massive move, acquiring disgruntled sniper Dany Heatley from Ottawa in a massive trade that would see Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek go the other way. The hope for Wilson was that Heatley would give the Sharks a formidable first line, as Cheechoo had regressed badly since his 56-goal season, and Michalek was never quite able to carry much of the offensive load.
The Heatley trade worked out very well for San Jose in the first year. With Dany’s 39 goals, and Patrick Marleau’s team-leading 44, the Sharks had two deadly scorers, and with Joe Thornton feeding them passes all game, they were sure to get chances. The second line wasn’t bad, either, as both Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski cracked the 50-point barrier once more (Clowe with 57, and Pavelski with 51). The biggest drop-off was that of David Booth, and even he had an excuse; he would only play 28 games in the season after taking a devastating (and questionably legal) hit from Philadelphia’s Mike Richards in late October.
San Jose retained their regular place on top of the Pacific Division, earning 113 points. That total also put them on top of the Western Conference, but as recent history had shown, that didn’t guarantee much. The Sharks would face the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, a team in transition. Their top four scorers were all under 25, and goalie Craig Anderson was in his first full year as a starter; naturally, this meant that even as a playoff team, the odds were pretty stacked against them. Though Paul Stastny was pretty good for the Avs (5 points), and Anderson was stellar in goal (.933 SV%), Colorado was just no match for the Sharks, who won the series in six games. The Red Wings, in theory, should have been a much better opponent, having just reached two straight Cup Finals (winning in 2008), but they actually faded quicker, losing to San Jose in five.
The Sharks were now back in their customary position as a Conference Final competitor, but a new foe stood in their path: the Chicago Blackhawks. Far from the embarrassment they were in the middle part of the decade, the ‘Hawks had risen up the standings thanks to their collection of young talent, as well as the robust spending policy of owner Rocky Wirtz; Rocky had taken over the position following the death of his much-hated father Bill, and proceeded to send a message in the 2009 off-season by signing Marian Hossa to a massive contract. With all of their hyped stars like Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, Chicago looked poised to dominate the NHL for the next decade, but it was the unheralded Antti Niemi that broke out in this playoff run. Niemi, in his rookie year as a full-time NHLer, had taken the playoff starting job away from Cristobal Huet, and played some impressive hockey en route to this point. The San Jose series, however, would be his crowning achievement to this point, as his .949 SV% would pave the way to a four-game sweep in favour of the Blackhawks.
It was rather hard to place much blame on anyone in San Jose colours for their most recent playoff exit. Todd McLellan had done his job, getting to the third round. Miikka Kiprusoff, too, had improved drastically, putting up a .920 SV% in the regular season. The only factor that seemed to tilt the balance of the series in Chicago’s favour was the Blackhawks’ young talent; in order for the Sharks to keep up, they would have to find youngsters of their own to match. This meant that Rob Blake, the 40-year-old captain, would have to go, and Blake would retire in the 2010 off-season. It also meant that San Jose couldn’t afford to trade away any more 1st-Round Picks, as young prospects would be vital to keeping the Sharks a constant post-season threat.
San Jose would have their own pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, slotted at 28th Overall. The Sharks would take Charlie Coyle, a versatile forward from the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
2010-11: With little room under the salary cap, it was unlikely that Doug Wilson was going to go shopping for veterans on the free agent market in the 2010 off-season. The summer months instead became about team maintenance; top players like Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Thornton would be given contract extensions as the team looked to keep their core together. The team on opening night looked very similar to the one that closed out the previous year, and the hope was that the cohesion would lead to San Jose repeating – if not exceeding – their results from the 2010 playoffs.
On one hand, the top three of Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley slowed down a bit, as none of the three would break 80 points that year. On the other hand, the Sharks showed they have impressive depth, with Ryane Clowe actually topping 60 points, and Logan Couture’s first full season with the NHL squad going very well (56 points in 79 games, plus a Calder Trophy nomination). In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff looked more like the 2009 “Kipper” than the one who had led his team to a Conference Final the previous year; Kiprusoff’s .906 SV% in 60 games of work would be four points below the league average that season.
Once again, the Sharks were on top of the Pacific, but their point total dropped to 105, just a few ahead of Anaheim and Phoenix. They were still 2nd in the West, and would get the Los Angeles Kings in the first round; the Kings had recovered from some recent doldrums, led by the young duo of Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, but Kopitar would not be available for the series against San Jose due to injury. His absence was crucial in the Kings losing the series in six games; with three of those contests going to over-time, there’s no telling how the clash could have gone had the Slovenian been healthy. Having dodged a bullet, San Jose gained confidence going into the second round, and that confidence would help them to a seven-game victory over the Detroit Red Wings – the same team they had beaten in this round last year.
It seemed as if San Jose was destined to face young, up-and-coming teams in the Conference Final, and this time it was Vancouver that stood in the Sharks’ path. Having taken down the Flames and Predators en route to this point, the Canucks seemed to have all the ingredients to be a Cup champion: a #1 goalie in Roberto Luongo, a dangerous duo in the Sedin twins, forward depth like Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, and Mikael Samuelsson, and a collection of fantastic blue-liners such as Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. Vancouver was prepared for a Cup run, and against San Jose, they played like it, needing only five games to dispose of the Sharks and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
For San Jose, it was another near-miss, one they could hardly afford, considering most of their core were now past the age of 30. It wouldn’t be long before bodies started to break down, and the Sharks would have to consider a full-scale re-build. In the meantime, however, the front office could only despair at what was considered to be another lost season; so many regular season points, and nothing to show for them. Needing some immediate help, Doug Wilson would go back to the well on Draft Day, trading his 2011 1st-Round Pick, Devin Setoguchi, and Charlie Coyle to the Minnesota Wild to get offensive defenceman Brent Burns, as well as a 2nd-Round Pick in 2012.
With the pick that had been given to them in the Burns deal, the Wild would select Saint John Sea Dogs centre Zack Phillips 28th Overall.
2011-12: It seemed like nothing Doug Wilson did over the past few years was enough to finally get the San Jose Sharks the Stanley Cup. He traded up in the draft to get young prospects, and while they found a few gems (not the least of which was Logan Couture), nobody seemed to be that last piece the Sharks needed. Wilson traded away 1st-Round Picks to get established veterans, only for that to backfire. With Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle all above 30, the time was soon to come when San Jose would have to think about their future; Sharks fans could only hope that the team could find their way to a Stanley Cup before the time came to tear the team down.
There was good news and bad news all around for the Sharks in the 11-12 season. The good news was that Couture and Joe Pavelski both reached the 60-point mark, joining Thornton and Marleau in that regard. In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff was back to being the first choice, and recorded a .921 SV% in 68 games. But despite the positive signs, there were still negative ones; Martin Havlat, acquired from Minnesota in July for Dany Heatley, spent more time in the press box than on the ice thanks to nagging injuries, while a similarly hexed player, David Booth, was dealt to Vancouver in a package deal that saw veterans Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm join the Sharks. While Samuelsson had some effectiveness, Sturm looked hardly like the player he was in his first tour of duty with San Jose.
The Sharks had to scratch and claw their way to a Pacific Division title, but in the end, their 101 points were just enough. This also put the Sharks 3rd in the West, setting up a clash with the team that eliminated them in the 2010 post-season: the Chicago Blackhawks. Though the ‘Hawks had to navigate some salary cap issues in the 2010 off-season, most of their core was still intact, with all of Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, and Seabrook still part of the club. That core proved essential in this series, as Chicago found themselves having to grind out a seven-game series victory against San Jose.
For the first time in three years, the Sharks were out in the first round, and the warning signs were beginning to become very apparent. If San Jose could not muster a good run in the next year, then it would appear that time was up for the current core. Doug Wilson had done a pretty admirable job of keeping his team a consistent contender, but if this team was to be blown up sooner rather than later, questions would arise as to whether Wilson would be man to do it. Would he be too attached to the group he has built to this point, or would he put aside any loyalties to do what he felt was best for the team’s future?
San Jose would get the 17th Overall Pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. With that pick, they would select forward Tomas Hertl from Slavia Prague in the Czech Extraliga.
2012-13: It was a season everybody knew was pivotal for San Jose. It was the season that would determine whether this team was still a playoff team, or needed to be dismantled. It was the season that would likely decide the fate of both Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson. It was a season… that wouldn’t start until late January thanks to a lockout, which only got resolved at one of the latest possible opportunities. With the work stoppage over, it was finally time to test the Sharks’ mettle, even if it was in a shortened season.
When play finally began, it became clear that despite a few of their key players getting time in Europe to keep sharp, the Sharks were just not the same. Joe Thornton was still a great playmaker (33 assists), but he only managed 7 goals in the 48-game campaign. Brent Burns did pretty well with 20 points, but those came in 30 games, as he struggled with injuries. By far the worst decline, however, was in goal; Miikka Kiprusoff was finally showing his age, as he would play only 24 games, posting a shocking .882 SV% in that time to rank 2nd-last among all slarters. Thomas Greiss played well as a 1b (a .915 SV% in 25 games), but even he couldn’t make up for Kiprusoff’s decline.
For the first time in ten years, the Sharks would miss the playoffs, standing on the outside by the narrowest of margins with 54 points. The ownership group had seen enough, and decided it was time to clean house. Doug Wilson was gone, and Todd McLellan would not have his contract renewed, as the slate would be wiped clean for the near future. Former Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini would be tapped to become the new GM, while Dallas Eakins, formerly the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, would sign on to take the vacant coaching role. While Tambellini didn’t immediately say that the team was going to be re-building, he stressed the need to prepare for being competitive in the future, rather than going for another immediate Cup run.
The Sharks would have the 14th Overall Pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft as the best non-playoff team. With that pick, they would select centre Alexander Wennberg from Djurgardens IF in the Swedish HockeyAllsvenskan.
THE SHARKS AFTER TEN YEARS: For a decade, the San Jose Sharks were a constant threat to win a Stanley Cup. After that decade, however, all they have to show for it is a single appearance in the Cup Final, in which they lost to the Hurricanes. Now, as the NHL re-aligns in the 2013-14 season, San Jose is stuck having to start from scratch. They still have money committed to top guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but they don’t look to be around for long, as the new management group eyes players like Brent Burns and Logan Couture as potential building blocks instead. There might be one more playoff appearance in this group yet, but even that would be fleeting, seeing as how the Sharks now have to take down one of either Anaheim or Los Angeles in a potential first-round series.
The decision to let go of Evgeni Nabokov in favour of Miikka Kiprusoff was… sort of right. Kiprusoff, at his peak, was utterly unbeatable, claiming a Vezina Trophy in 2006, as well as earning two more nominations along the way. He was vital in leading San Jose to the 2006 Cup Final, and his injury during that series might have been the biggest reason why the Sharks didn’t hoist the Stanley Cup instead of Carolina. But for all his early success, he just wasn’t as consistent as the man that was traded away back in 2003. “Kipper” found himself struggling every other year later on in his career, and his last season, the 2013 lockout-shortened campaign, was utterly dismal by his standards. Having been let go as a free agent at the end of that season, Miikka would elect to retire, rather than look for another NHL job; he would go down as a San Jose legend, a true home-grown goalie, and it looks inevitable that his #37 will be retired by the team at some point.
But what about the other assets the Sharks acquired for Nabokov in the first place? Well, there was Stephane Yelle, who served as a bottom-six regular for a few years, before leaving in free agency. There was Mike Commodore, who was traded to Carolina for a 3rd-Round Pick in 2005; not only did the pick, Gord Baldwin, not make it to the NHL, but Commodore would go on to win a Stanley Cup against his former team in his first full NHL season. Andrei Taratukhin never made it to the NHL either, even after having gone through considerable trouble to sign in North America in the first place. The two draft picks San Jose acquired in the deal were clearly the highlights, with 2004 2nd-Rounder David Booth and 2005 2nd-Rounder Marc-Edouard Vlasic making the NHL. Booth managed a 30-goal season before injuries derailed his career, while Vlasic is still a valuable top-four blue-liner with the Sharks to this day.
On opening night of the 2013-14 season against Vancouver, the Sharks send out the following line-up:
F1. Tomas Hertl – Joe Thornton – Brent Burns
F2. Patrick Marleau– Logan Couture – Joe Pavelski
F3. Tyler Kennedy – Tommy Wingels – Andrew Desjardins
F4. Matthew Nieto – James Sheppard – Matt Pelech
D1. Dan Boyle – Matt Irwin
D2. Justin Braun – Marc-Edouard Vlasic
D3. Jason Demers – Scott Hannan
G1. Thomas Greiss
G2. Alex Stalock
All things considered, if this offence clicks again, they could be one of the most dangerous teams in the usually-stacked West. The top three of Marleau, Thornton, and Pavelski are all proven threats, and Logan Couture is quickly making a name as one of the best second-line centres in the league. The biggest question mark on the top six is Brent Burns, who typically plays on the blue line, but was moved to forward the previous year; though it may be somewhat of an unfamiliar position for him, Burns has more than enough offensive capability to make it work. The bottom six is a mish-mash of home-grown projects (Wingels, Nieto) and flame-outs from other organizations (Pelech, Kennedy, and Sheppard).
The defensive core is a solid mix of young and old, with attack-minded Dan Boyle and shut-down specialist Scott Hannan providing the experience on this team. The other four blue-liners are all in their mid-20s, and can be reliable for quite some time, although none of them can quite match the offensive output of Boyle. In goal, Thomas Greiss is now the anointed starter, with Miikka Kiprusoff having hung up the pads. Alex Stalock, who has been in the organization since 2009, is finally getting his first full-time NHL chance, but probably won’t get into more than 25 games, barring disaster.
Speaking of Greiss, he is the only player in this timeline who is now on the Sharks’ roster. Because they had Kiprusoff so many years, San Jose never feels the need to go out and sign Antti Niemi in 2010. And because they hold on to Kiprusoff until 2013, the Sharks now find themselves with a goalie crisis in the 2013 off-season. Knowing they can’t afford to lose both of their goalies in free agency, San Jose re-signs the German netminder, making him their starter going forward. (The Sharks also have Alexander Wennberg and Tyler Bertuzzi in the system; Wennberg replaces Mirco Mueller as a San Jose draft pick in 2013, while Bertuzzi becomes a Shark due to the fact that San Jose doesn’t trade up in the draft in this timeline.)
Next week is Part II of this series, detailing Evgeni Nabokov’s time in Calgary; of course, he already does face his former team a couple of times in the post-season, but would he improve his new team’s fortunes at all in this timeline?