Despite failing to muster a winning season in their nine-year
existence, the Sharks fill the San Jose Arena to some 99% of
capacity year after mediocre year--and it's not just because
Silicon Valley mints millionaires @ broadband speed. The Sharks
have hooked hordes of teal-clad faithful with a few sensational
playoff upsets, including last spring's first-round thriller in
which they upended the No. 1-seeded Blues. San Jose has also
portrayed itself as a fresh team with a bright future. That
future may be at hand.

"You can feel the confidence in the room," says left wing Scott
Thornton, who signed as a free agent after going to the finals
with the Stars last season. "I think everyone in hockey knows
this team has a very strong nucleus."

Thornton is a 6'3", 216-pound bruiser, and he can help empower
that nucleus by relieving the physical pressure on rugged right
wing Owen Nolan, one of the game's most impassioned leaders.
Nolan followed an inspiring 44-goal, 110-penalty-minute season
with eight goals in 10 postseason games while playing with a torn
stomach muscle. The 28-year-old Nolan, who at week's end was not
with the team because of a contract impasse, is revered as a
mighty elder by the 25-and-under forwards at the core of this
team.

Superbly conditioned left wing Jeff Friesen, 24, sweet-skating
center Patrick Marleau, 21, and tenacious two-way forwards Marco
Sturm, 22, and Niklas Sundstrom, 25, are all former first-round
draft picks who appear on the verge of raising their play to new
heights. "In the past when we've talked about this team really
putting it together, this is the year we've had in our minds,"
says Steve Shields, who for the first time starts the season as
the Sharks' first-string goaltender. Management felt so confident
that Shields was ready to be the No. 1 guy that it traded veteran
netminder Mike Vernon last December. Shields (27-30-8 with a 2.56
goals-against average) played unevenly down the stretch but was
outstanding against the Blues, particularly in winning Games 3
and 4 at home.

The Shark Tank was rollicking for those games, and some fans in
the stands even toted faux Stanley Cups. The Sharks--still
vulnerable on defense--aren't ready to win the real thing, but
they should, at long last, give fin fans a winning team.

--K.K.

Fast Fact
Right wing Owen Nolan was the NHL's most productive special
teams player last season with 18 power-play goals and four
shorthanded scores.

Insider

CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY

FORWARDS 19 After holdout Nolan, not enough scorers

DEFENSE 10 Stuart and Hannan are good and will get
better

GOALTENDING 16 Shields did a solid job last season

SPECIAL TEAMS 23 Need to take more shots on power play

MANAGEMENT 23 Sutter gets his team to play hard every
night

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)