Who were the best Sharks between lockouts?
With the NHL undergoing its second lockout in less than a decade, we count down the ten Sharks players who were most valuable to the team's run of seven consecutive playoff appearances between work stoppages.
We should be discussing the Sharks' upcoming clash with the Colorado Avalanche right now but instead we've been reduced to helpless observers of the league and union's continued non-negotiations as the lockout rambles on, well into its second full month. A lot has been made about this being the league's second lockout in less than a decade and there's an interesting discussion to be had there about how the NHL has operated under Gary Bettman. From the Sharks' perspective though, the defining characteristic of the period bookended by the 2004 and 2012 work stoppages was success. The past seven seasons have been unquestionably the Golden Age of Sharks hockey, with San Jose and Detroit having been the only teams in the NHL to qualify for postseason action every single year since play resumed in 2005.
Some of that success can be traced to the prior CBA that allowed a mid-market team like the Sharks to achieve spending parity with the Red Wings and Canucks of the league. A lot of it, however, was purely coincidental: several good bets that the franchise made in the draft started to pay off soon after the last lockout concluded. That coupled with some decidedly lopsided trades primarily laid the foundation for the Sharks' seven consecutive playoff appearances, including four straight Pacific Division titles, consecutive Western Conference Final appearances and a Presidents' Trophy. But which players were most important to the team during the best seven-year stretch of its existence? With precious little else of hockey significance to talk about, we count down the top ten most valuable Sharks between the 2004-05 and 2012-? lockouts.
10. Milan Michalek
After being selected 6th overall by the Sharks in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Milan Michalek's would-be rookie season in 2003-04 was cut short by an ACL tear just two games in. After an extensive rehab process that lasted the entire 2004-05 lockout, Michalek rebooted his NHL career following the work stoppage and almost immediately established himself as a difference-maker. Michalek's speed and puck skills were second only to Patrick Marleau over the duration of his tenure in teal and helped him eclipse the 20-goal mark every season he spent as a Shark save for his first one.
More importantly, Michalek's physical tools made him one of San Jose's most versatile forwards. He thrived on a sheltered scoring line alongside Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo in 2007-08 just as well as he drove play against elite opposing forwards with Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe in 2008-09, while also averaging nearly two minutes a game on one of the league's best penalty kill units. Michalek may have never reached his full potential before potting 35 goals on the Senators last season but he was still a multidimensional top-six forward during his post-lockout career in San Jose and a weapon in all three zones.
9. Logan Couture
Speaking of three-zone dynamos, Logan Couture's NHL career might be just two full seasons old (although he did appear in 40 games including postseason contests during the 2009-10 campaign, as Carolina Hurricanes fans loved to remind us) but he's already one of the brighter young stars in the league and one of the Sharks' most valuable players. Couture has finished fourth and third among Sharks forwards in on-ice Corsi (a shot differential metric that tracks closely with puck possession and scoring chances) in his first two full years in the big leagues and had an unbelievable start to his postseason career.
He carried San Jose for much of their uneven first half of the 2010-11 season to the extent that opposing coaches were sending out their top defense pair against Couture's line rather than Thornton's for a period of games. He also tied for the team lead in goals last year despite being hampered by injury down the stretch. For an organization bereft of dynamic players or prospects under the age of 25, Couture's 1989 birth year represents one of the few beacons of hope for the future. If you're placing bets on who's going to top the list of best Sharks between the current lockout and the inevitable 2017 one, it's hard to pick someone other than Couture. The only reason he isn't higher on this list is that we've only had the pleasure of watching him work his magic for 184 regular season games.
8. Ryane Clowe
Clowe is usually lauded for his fists and leadership but I feel that overlooks his real skill: elite puck-protection ability. Few players in the NHL can consistently come out ahead in as many board battles as Clowe does every single game. Some are likely disappointed that Clowe hasn't really been the prototypical crease-battlin', dirty-areas-dwelling power forward he showed promise of being when he first landed a full-time spot on the team back in 2006. Despite that, his possession skill and on-ice vision have made him an extremely important part of the team's forward corps over the years. In a lot of ways, he's a poor man's Joe Thornton on the wing and is often just as difficult to handle in the corners. He may be coming off a disappointing and injury-riddled season and playoffs, but only three Sharks scored more points than Clowe between lockouts.
7. Jonathan Cheechoo
It would almost certainly be different had the team actually managed to make it over the hump and win their first Stanley Cup, but despite all the regular season achievements and first- and second-round playoff series victories, perhaps the most heartwarming moment for Sharks fans over the last seven years was Jonathan Cheechoo permanently etching his name into hockey history with his 56-goal, Rocket Richard-winning season in 2005-06. No one in recent league history has been a more unlikely recipient of that award than the awkward-skating First Nations kid from the remote northern outpost of Moose Factory, Ontario.
Of course, the reason he isn't higher on this list after scoring more goals in a season than anyone other than Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos were able to manage since the last lockout is that he was never quite able to recreate the magic we witnessed in the immediate aftermath of Joe Thornton's arrival in San Jose. A double sports hernia, other teams figuring out who the hell this Cheechoo guy was, and regression all conspired to send Jonathan's production spiraling downward until his eventual inclusion as little more than a salary dump in the Dany Heatley trade. What many may not realize, however, is that Cheechoo did still end up averaging a more-than-respectable 28 goals per 82 games in the three seasons he spent in San Jose following his Richard trophy. He was still a valuable soft-minutes possession forward until the end and remains a fan favorite today.
6. Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Some might question the inclusion of a largely one-dimensional defensive defenseman on this list but those people probably haven't been paying close enough attention to Vlasic's role on this team. Debuting in 2006 as a babyfaced 19-year-old, Vlasic was thrown to the wolves by Ron Wilson in his rookie season as the former Sharks coach attempted to find situations in which the teenager would fail. He couldn't, and his successor Todd McLellan hasn't been able to either.
Vlasic has repeatedly been cast in some of the toughest minutes available on the Sharks blueline and in a ton of those minutes to boot. What's particularly impressive is that, despite his usage, he's consistently been able to win the possession and outscoring battles at even-strength and remains one of the team's better penalty killers even as the effectiveness of that unit has nose-dived in recent years. Playing behind elite forwards and alongside star veterans like Rob Blake and Dan Boyle undoubtedly helped Vlasic but it was primarily his on-ice composure, positional play and unparalleled stickwork that made him one of the premier shutdown defensemen in the league over the past six years. Vlasic's presence was a huge reason the Sharks were able to skate by with sub-par defensive depth almost every post-lockout season save the last one and 2008-09.
5. Evgeni Nabokov
Nabokov was a much better goalie before the 04-05 lockout than after it but that doesn't mean he wasn't an important part of the Sharks' success in some of the seasons between work stoppages. After a complete disaster of a 2005-06 season that ended with Nabokov ceding the starting job to Vesa Toskala of all goalies, Nabokov posted both even-strength and overall save percentages above the league average for starters in two of his next four seasons. Ironically, what was probably Nabokov's worst of those four seasons, 2007-08, was the only one in which he received a Vezina nod, revealing the extent to which GMs overvalued wins and goals-against average at the time. If Nabokov had been at least able to stop pucks at a league-average rate that year, the Sharks likely wouldn't have even needed their improbable season-ending run to secure a division title.
Of course, if Nabokov contributed to somewhat impeding the 07-08 Sharks, he more than made up for it with his performance in 2009-10. In the only post-lockout season during which San Jose was a mediocre possession team, Nabokov really saved their bacon, catapulting what was probably a mid-level playoff club to first place in the Western Conference. Even though Nabokov's relevant numbers were never quite off the charts save for perhaps that last season, he provided a ton of value to San Jose by being an absolute workhorse. Only Mikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Lundqvist started more games than Nabokov between the trade of Toskala to the Maple Leafs at the 2007 draft and the end of Nabokov's contract in 2010. With the Sharks cycling through backups from Dimitri Patzold to Brian Boucher, Nabokov's ability to take on a heavy workload and not allow his play to significantly slip proved essential. Nabby would be higher on this list if he had been able to carry over some of his early-career effectiveness into this era, particularly in the postseason where he frequently disappointed.
4. Dan Boyle
If the addition of Joe Thornton in 2005 turned the Sharks from a ragtag band of overachievers into a group expected to make the playoffs on a yearly basis, Doug Wilson's trade for Dan Boyle (and concurrent signing of Rob Blake) in the summer of 2008 upped those expectations to Cup or bust. That goal was never met but Boyle played a vital role in the Sharks finishing atop the Western Conference each of his first two seasons on the team. While the expertise Todd McLellan brought to the table from Detroit was an important ingredient as well, Boyle's presence on the team's blueline turned their power play from formidable to the best in the NHL by a mile and the club's greatest strength.
Boyle also evolved into far more than a one-trick pony over his four years in San Jose. Although he was initially used by McLellan as a power-play specialist who really only logged heavy even-strength minutes when the team needed a goal or two late in games, Boyle was cast in increasingly difficult roles every season he spent on the team--largely out of necessity as the likes of Christian Ehrhoff and Rob Blake departed--yet continued to be aces. His lack of size and perception as an offense-only guy prevents Boyle from getting his due league-wide but he was certainly in the upper half of first-pairing defensemen in the NHL over the past two seasons.
3. Joe Pavelski
We've sung Pavelski's praises plenty on this site, and it's not difficult to reason why. He was arguably the most complete player to wear a Sharks sweater between lockouts, continuously outpacing some of the toughest opposition in the league and providing a great deal of offense while doing so.
Pavelski is one of those rare talents whose value reverberates throughout the lineup. Between 2007 and 2010, Pavelski gave the Sharks a rock at second-line center that allowed Marleau to move into a permanent role on Thornton's left wing. When he was slotted into the third line in 2010-11, he transformed that unit into a possession monster; allowing the top two lines to start in the opponent's end far more often. In 2011-12, flanking Thornton on his right wing, Pavelski's consistent outplaying of the elite forwards he was matched up against opened up easier minutes for the rest of the team and was often one of the primary things keeping the Sharks in games at even-strength. As Brian Burke described him at the 2010 Olympics, Pavelski is a swiss-army knife of a hockey player and will probably be the greatest value draft pick in Sharks history for as long as the team is in the Bay Area.
2. Patrick Marleau
For all the criticism directed at him over the years, only five players in the NHL scored more goals than Patrick Marleau between the 04-05 and 2012 lockouts. And that obviously includes a 2007-08 season in which Marleau was ridiculously unlucky. Marleau will always be eviscerated by those who prefer their hockey players loud, imposing and with normal-sized eyebrows but when it comes to helping his team win games, there really isn't a rational argument to be made against Marleau's effectiveness. Despite at times being the black sheep in a system that de-emphasized transition offense, Marleau coupled his production at one end of the ice with responsible play at the other under McLellan, where he often assumed the center's defensive responsibilities even as a winger. The evolution of Marleau into a two-way force culminated in one of the two or three greatest individual seasons by any player in Sharks history when Patty netted 44 goals to go along with a +21 rating that was only slightly inflated by percentages in 2009-10.
1. Joe Thornton
It almost seems ridiculous to have to justify Thornton's place atop this list but I'll do it anyway. Only Alex Ovechkin scored more points between lockouts than Thornton's 657. The entire Sharks franchise changed that late-November day when Jumbo was acquired from the Bruins. Rather than skating on as under-the-radar overachievers, targets were sewn onto the backs of the club's sweaters as they became the team to beat--at least in the regular season--and the Stanley Cup darling of much of the mainstream media. Thornton unfairly bears the brunt of the Sharks' failure to win the Cup in this era but, in reality, he's the last one who should deserve blame. With his point totals steeply declining from the century mark he used to routinely flirt with, Thornton entirely reshaped his game when asked to by Todd McLellan and turned in perhaps the best all-around season of his career in 2011-12.
Honorable Mentions: Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Antti Niemi