Darren Eliot
Monday October 26th, 2009

Coming off an impressive 4-1 win at Philadelphia that concluded a 4-2 Eastern road trip, one has to wonder just how good is this year's edition of the San Jose Sharks? Certainly, the great expectations are there -- both within and outside the organization. But once again the question is: can they live up to them?

Although the cloud of consistent postseason failure hangs over San Jose, on so many other levels the Sharks might just be one of the true success stories in the NHL. They are a perennial top team, always in the discussion of the league's elite. They draft well and augment their picks with bold moves by GM Doug Wilson. During his six-year tenure, Wilson has dealt for Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Dany Heatley -- star players all -- and added draft picks Joe Pavelski (2003), Torrey Mitchell and Thomas Greiss (2004), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (2005), Devin Setoguchi (2005), and Jason Demers (2008) to a roster that still includes such homegrown talent as Evgeni Nabokov (1994), Patrick Marleau (1997), Doug Murray (1999) and Ryane Clowe (2001).

Off the ice, as I've noted over the years, the Sharks have accomplished what Commissioner Gary Bettman hoped would happen in all of the non-traditional hockey markets that the NHL expanded into during the 1990's. That is to say, the Sharks found a way to become their community's team. You don't get that sense in Anaheim, Raleigh, or Tampa even though those expansion/relocation outfits won the prized Stanley Cup. The Sharks may be better entrenched despite their proximity to San Francisco's and Oakland's NFL, Major League and NBA teams. Being an approximately 40-mile drive or train ride south surely helps them maintain their own distinct identity, and it's largely an appealing one.

In fact, after a muddled beginning -- a mark for futility with 71 losses and a 17-game losing streak in the team's second season (1992-93) -- the Sharks have never been shy about setting high standards. From Darryl Sutter to Ron Wilson to current coach Todd McLellan, expectations of success have been central to the Sharks' makeup. That drive extends from the GM spot, first with Dean Lombardi and now with Doug Wilson as he strives to put the right pieces in place to get the Sharks over the proverbial playoff hump.

This season's go-around meant adding Heatley the scorer and Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol as gritty contributors. It also involved removing the captaincy from Marleau, who has been the team's best player thus far. Asked if Marleau's fine play is tied to being unencumbered, McLellan responded, "We think so. He doesn't have to deal with all of the demands that go into being a captain, like dealing with you guys, the media. Having said that, Patty has probably been more vocal and active in the room as a leader than when he was wearing that little piece of felt on his jersey."

Trading first-round picks (the Sharks haven't had one the last two years) and removing a letter from a mainstay are dicey decisions. Yet, they become easier when the direction is clear and the goal singular. As Wilson put it, "We embrace being in the hunt every year. It is what drives us."

And in McLellan's words: "We know who we are and who we want to be. Are we there yet? No, but we'll get better. We haven't been consistent, especially our starts. But, we put it on the players. We're not going to change too much of how we prepare. It is up to them to be ready to start games."

After that discussion, McLellan's team scored the first goal of the game in each of their final two games of the road trip -- both wins -- after tallying first just once in their first 10 games of the season. It's a little detail, but it may be an indicator that this team is ready to respond to challenges like never before. With veteran Rob Blake taking over as captain and the core group established and used to one another, the Sharks' room might be up to the task of self-direction -- a quality of every championship team.

Which, of course, is what the Sharks hope to finally prove they are. It's one thing to be the most firmly entrenched and successful expansion franchise of their era. It is another to be the best team on the ice as well. During the last four postseasons, the Sharks have been one of the league's highest-profile disappointments, failing to reach the conference final despite their status as a Cup contenders. Last season's first-round loss to Anaheim especially called the team's character into question and led to the removal of the C from Marleau's chest as well as the ouster of nine players from the roster.

Maybe this retooled group will be the one that delivers on its considerable promise. The Sharks' time appears to be now -- but, as always, only time will tell if now extends through May for the first time in franchise history. Perhaps a change in mental outlook as seems to have happened with Marleau, and the addition of some grit, will be what ultimately does the trick.

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