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Ex-Shark of the Week: Owen Nolan

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Buster himself steps into the spotlight

Owen Nolan looks on
Owen Nolan looks on an early 2000s Sharks game.

Any Sharks fan over the age of 25 needs no introduction to Owen Nolan. If you don’t remember him as a Shark, you’ve probably seen a certain video clip of him. No? Let that be your introduction:

When new Sharks General Manager Dean Lombardi traded for Owen Nolan in 1996, he summed up Nolan’s game aptly:

"We don't score many goals, we don't pressure the offensive zone, we "don't drive the net -- that's Owen Nolan. Nolan was the first pick in the draft, and he's justified that selection. How many guys can you find who get 40 goals and over 100 penalty minutes?

Owen Nolan was a true power forward, the kind of player that Doug Wilson rightfully observed “doesn’t exist anymore” when Nolan announced his retirement years later. He scored, to be sure, but he was a dominant force on the puck, able to possess it for twenty seconds at a time and force other players to take short shifts. He was big and strong, and willing to hit other players as hard as he could with no fear for his own physical safety. He would fight when necessary, and was a leader in the locker room: after several years of turmoil, Owen Nolan wore the Sharks’ “C” on his chest for five full seasons of his storied 18 year NHL career. It’s no wonder that when he announced his formal retirement, he came back to San Jose to retire as a Shark.

Nolan fights with Jackman
Owen Nolan drops the gloves with St. Louis’ Barret Jackman on January 9, 2003.
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Owen Liam Nolan was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on February 12, 1972. At a young age, his family moved to Thorold, Ontario, where he promptly took up the sport of hockey. At age 16, he joined the Cornwall Royals of the Ontario Hockey League and proceeded to tear the league apart. In 1989-90, Nolan scored 51 goals and added 59 assists in 58 games, an astounding number for a 17 year old in the OHL. And he chalked up 240 penalty minutes on top of it.

As a result, Nolan was the cream of the crop of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft class. He was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in one of the finest first round classes ever chosen. After a brief stint in the AHL to start the year, Nolan made a dreadful Nordiques team as an 18 year old. It was widely regarded as a disappointing rookie year: he posted just 13 points in 58 games played.

OWEN NOLAN NORDIQUES
Owen Nolan started off his career as a Quebec Nordique — and would be the last active Nord in the NHL.

The initial struggles wouldn’t last. In 1991-92, Nolan established himself as one of the game’s premier young power forwards, scoring 42 goals and 31 assists in 75 games and adding 172 penalty minutes to go along with the production. In 92-93 Nolan broke the point-per-game barrier, netting 77 points in 73 games. That year also marked a major step forward for the Nordiques franchise. Flush with a great crop of young players from the Eric Lindros trade, Quebec improved from last place in the Adams Division in ‘91-’92 to second place the following season. The Nordiques lost to the eventual Cup champion Canadiens in six games in the opening round of the playoffs, but it was a sign of good things to come.

Sadly, success for the Nordiques and Nolan would have to wait a little longer. Nolan sustained an injury to his left shoulder in the playoff loss to the Canadiens. Initial MRIs should the shoulder was structurally stable, but within weeks of the season’s start it became clear that the injury was worse than team doctors had feared. Nolan’s season ended after just six games as he opted for surgery.

In a stroke of luck for Owen Nolan, the 1994-95 season was marred by a lockout, which allowed him to return at full health when the season finally began on January 20, 1995. Quebec (and Nolan) exploded out of the gate, winning 12 of their first 13 games and never looking back. The Nords finished first in the East, and Nolan finished first in goals (30 in just 46 games) on a stacked team. But all was not well: Quebec fell to the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, and during that offseason they were relocated to Colorado and became the Avalanche.

Owen Nolan’s tenure in Denver lasted just nine games into the 95-96 season. The Avalanche had no trouble scoring goals, but needed defensive depth (they would trade for Patrick Roy two months after Nolan left town). Nolan was expendable on a team with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Valeri Kamensky, and Scott Young around to score plenty of goals. So he was traded to San Jose in exchange for prized defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. Owen Nolan went from the Colorado Avalanche — a powerhouse of the late ‘90s – to the San Jose Sharks, who had yet to win a game that season.

Sharks V Ducks
Owen Nolan and Bernie Nicholls were two bright spots on a putrid 1996-97 Sharks team.

"Let's face it," said San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi. "When Owen got here, we weren't good." It was true. For two years, Nolan produced. The Sharks didn’t. Where Nolan rapidly became a fan favorite, scoring goals, checking bodies, and generally playing with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a 23 year old dynamo, the Sharks were lethargic. Nolan’s statline for the rest of 95-96? 29 goals and 32 assists in 72 games. He made the All-Star Team for the first time. His 96-97 was even better: again, in 72 games, 31 goals and 32 assists, plus that ballsy called shot on Dominik Hasek in the All-Star Game in front of the Shark Tank fans. Here are the other goals he scored at that game:

Then something funny happened. Before the 1997-98 season, San Jose finally looked like a team that was putting it together. They had forward depth, a developing group of defenseman, and a Stanley Cup-winning goalie in Mike Vernon. All eyes were on 25-year old Owen Nolan and 21-year old Jeff Friesen to lead the Sharks to success. From a Sports Illustrated profile on that Sharks team, published before the start of the season:

Nolan, the first player chosen in the 1990 draft, is a rambunctious 6'1", 215-pound right wing who skates so smoothly and shoots with such dexterity that San Jose traded its best player, defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, to get him from the Avalanche nearly two years ago. However, the rap on Nolan is that as often as he has dominated games, he has played others with alarming lethargy. "For Owen, it comes down to how much he wants it, whether he'll work for 82 games," says Sharks center Bernie Nicholls. "The difference between being a good team or being an average team is whether Owen decides if he's going to be average or great."

That’s an oversimplification, to some extent. Those Sharks teams, coached by Darryl Sutter, weren’t offensive powerhouses. It must’ve been a frustrating environment for Owen Nolan. Nonetheless, his production suffered. He netted just 14 goals in 97-98, and just 19 in 98-99. It was a steep drop-off compared to his usual near point-per-game standard, and certainly not quite what the Sharks expected. “They were ugly times," said Nolan in 2000. "We were a defensive team, we never had a lot of offensive players, and when I did get opportunities, I didn't take advantage of them."

Nolan was being too hard on himself. The team was growing into a perennial playoff threat, and Owen Nolan was growing into a more complete hockey player. Those two seasons saw him improve tremendously in San Jose’s defensive zone. He retooled his play off the puck, focusing more on clogging up passing lanes, and became smarter about when to use his physical strength. He grew as an intimidator and a leader, and prior to the 1998-99 season was named team captain. It was Owen Nolan, after all, who announced to the NHL that the Sharks were not to be trifled with during the 1998 playoffs:

In 1999-2000, Owen Nolan became a complete hockey player. He scored 44 goals(!!!) and added 40 helpers. Nolan played 78 games, the most he ever would in his career, led the league in power play goals, and finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting. He captained the Sharks to a major playoff upset. The 8th-seeded Sharks upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues, and Nolan was at the center of it all. For Sharks fans of a certain age (like me), this shot is one of their top 5 Sharks moments of all time:

San Jose lost to Dallas in the semifinals that year. Owen Nolan, it later turned out, played through that infamous Game 7 (and the ensuing semifinals) with a pulled lower abdominal muscle. For all of this, Owen Nolan was rewarded by the Sharks faithful. He firmly entrenched himself as the most beloved Shark of his day. Hell, he became the first Shark to make the cover of EA’s NHL series.

Owen Nolan tangles with an opponent
Owen Nolan tangles with Scott Lachance of the Vancouver Canucks during a 2001 game.

So, after a brief holdout to start the 2000-01 season, Owen Nolan was firmly entrenched as the future of the Sharks. He was their captain, he was just 28 years old, and San Jose had just extended him on a five-year, $35 million deal. He missed a few games while recovering from abdominal surgery, and then was suspended for 11 more after he sucker-punched Grant Marshall of the Stars in the head in response to being boarded by Marshall. It was an example of how pissed off Nolan could get, and how scary (if also reckless) he could be when challenged:

Through it all, Nolan kept scoring. In his last two full seasons in San Jose, Nolan combined for 115 points in 132 games. Only 47 of those were goals, to be sure, but he had players like Teemu Selanne, Patrick Marleau, and Marco Sturm around him to pick up the slack on that front. He made another All-Star Game. In 2002, he was named to Team Canada’s Winter Olympics squad and added 3 assists in 6 games on the way to a gold medal. San Jose dropped Game 7 in the playoffs to Colorado, but things were looking up for the franchise as a whole.

Then, in a stunning turnaround, the bottom fell out on the Sharks. 2002-03 comes up a great deal in these columns because it was cataclysmic for so many players, and for the franchise. Prior to the season, Ross McKeon was not alone in predicting that San Jose would win the Pacific Division. He said, “For the first time, the expectation of going deep into the postseason - advancing at least to the conference finals - is being put to the room from within the organization.”

Instead, the team fell apart. They played poorly, suffered from injuries, and generally turned into a laughingstock. It was clear things had to change. At 30, Owen Nolan wasn’t sure he’d be around for successful end of an impending Sharks youth movement. He had 42 points in 61 games on a disgustingly bad team. So, at the trade deadline, Dean Lombardi made his final major trade as GM of the San Jose Sharks. After seven and a half seasons in San Jose, Owen Nolan was a Toronto Maple Leaf, in exchange for Brad Boyes, Alyn McCauley, and a first round pick that the Sharks later traded to Boston in order to move up and pick Steve Bernier.

Nolan skates
Owen Nolan skates during his first game with the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 8th, 2003.
Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI

Owen Nolan wasn’t the final piece to the puzzle that Toronto hoped he’d be. In 79 games in a Leafs jersey, he registered 60 points and played out the remainder of that $13 million a year contract. He struggled with nagging injuries. After the 2004-05 season was cancelled, Nolan got into a long dispute with Leafs management about the player option he (rightfully) felt he was owed. He sat out the entire 2005-06 season to negotiate buyout terms with the Leafs, and to recover from various knee injuries. While most people assumed his career was over at age 33, Owen Nolan spent the fall working out at Sharks ice and diligently preparing for a comeback.

It worked. Nolan signed with Phoenix for the 2006-07 season and scored 16 goals for the Coyotes. The next year, he went to Calgary and scored 16 goals again. Owen Nolan had reinvented himself as a second or third-line checking forward who could bruise guys, corral the puck, and score a little. Perversely, he became a Shark killer: in 2008, he led the Flames to a 5-4 victory against San Jose by netting his first hat trick since 1999. Worse still, he scored the game winning goal in Game 3 of the 2008 quarterfinals against the Sharks, and he would’ve had another goal against San Jose if not for an astounding Evgeni Nabokov save in Game 2:

After the Game 7 loss to San Jose, Nolan signed a 2-year deal with Minnesota. Astoundingly, he scored 25 goals in 2008-09 in just 59 games. It was one of the finest showings of veteran strength in recent hockey memory, honestly. Look at this:

After playing out the second year of his deal and remaining effective (16 goals and 17 assists in 73 games as a 37 year old), Owen Nolan thought he had more to give. He went to Switzerland for 2010-11 and was a point-per-game player there, and even signed a tryout with the Canucks for the 2011-12 season. It didn’t work out. A few months later, Owen Nolan came home and announced his retirement as a member of the San Jose Sharks. You know the rest:

Tell me why San Jose hasn’t retired Owen Nolan’s jersey yet in the comments.