Examiner Hockey Report : Sharks

After becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer last season, Patrick Marleau took a lot of heat for the Sharks’ failure against the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals. The captain, who is approaching the 500-point mark for his career (he is at 491), failed to notch even an assist in six games against Detroit. The soft-spoken 28-year-old is coming off his best two offensive seasons (78 and 86 points, respectively), but will likely be a focal point should the Sharks sputter and not make a deep run into the playoffs. Despite his big numbers — especially on the power play — he is only a plus-9 for his career.

FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON

1. After two years of battling, the Sharks finally cast their lot with Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes. In 2005-06, Nabokov took a backseat while Vesa Toskala played the majority of games following the All-Star break and then took the Sharks to the Western Conference semifinals. Last season, Nabokov proved himself worthy of the No. 1 job by posting seven of his 34 career shutouts. Overall, Nabokov, who will be backed up by fellow Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, native Dimitri Patzold, went 25-16-4 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 50 games.

2. In front of Nabokov will be a defense that has never been confused with the Berlin Wall — at least in terms of stubbornness. The Sharks’ blue liners are imposing, with five of the nine on the opening-night roster at least 6-foot-3 and four checking in at 230 pounds or better. San Jose did finish tied for fifth in fewest goals allowed (2.40), but three of the teams ahead of them (Minnesota, Detroit and Dallas) also reside in the Western Conference. Newcomer Alexei Semenov (6-6, 235), who begins the season in the injured list, could provide the biggest difference, along with late-season pickup Craig Rivet. A steady season from Matt Carle would also help.

3. Joe Thornton is the unquestioned center of the universe when it comes to the Sharks’ offense. The 6-4 playmaking center finished second in the NHL in points (112) last season after leading the league in points (125, including 92 with the Sharks after the trade from Boston) and winning the Hart Trophy as MVP in his first season in San Jose. He will be asked to help ignite captain Patrick Marleau, who has been shifted to the top line with Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, who led the NHL in goals (56) in 2005-06, but dropped to 37 last season.

4. The expectations have been high at the Shark Tank for a few years now, but there is a sense of urgency to do something big this season. After a franchise-record 107 points netted them just the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, they must do a better job of getting the extra points. Last season, the Sharks were just 3-5 in overtime and shootouts.

5. Who will emerge as a key player this season? Cheechoo blossomed two years ago thanks to Thornton’s arrival, while winger Joe Pavelski and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic were pleasant surprises as rookies last season. Rugged right wing Devin Setoguchi, the eighth overall selection in the 2005 draft, has the most potential, a good finisher around the net who has a hard shot that helped him average more than 30 goals and 30 assists in the last three seasons in the Western Hockey League. The biggest roster surprise, though, is rookie center Torrey Mitchell, a fourth-round pick in 2004 who has played just 11 minor-league games.

COACH’S CORNER

Everyone in the Sharks’ dressing room is on the hot seat, but perhaps no one more than Ron Wilson. The personable coach avoided the ax dropping on him in the aftermath of last season’s playoff exit in which so many facetslet the Sharks down. You can bet Wilson will be at his sharpest — or else he will get an early jump at his other passion … golf.

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