Marleau, Sharks Look to End Cup Drought

As the NHL regular season inches closer and closer, hockey fans across the world are eagerly anticipating that first puck drop. In particular, the anticipation oozing out of Northern California is unprecedented.

Sure, San Jose Sharks fans have been saying “this is the year” each and every year for what feels like forever. Naturally that will happen when a franchise has qualified for the postseason in 12 of the last 13 seasons.

But the Sharks haven’t just been making the playoffs consistently. They have legitimately held Stanley Cup aspirations each and every year since the 2003-04 campaign—the most successful in franchise history. San Jose won 10 playoff games that season, still a franchise high to this day.

Thus, over the last six years fans expectations have been to win the Stanley Cup.

And neither the team aspirations nor  the fan expectations have changed heading into the 2011-12 season.

So what is different this year you ask? Well let’s rewind the clock for a second…

Last season the Sharks were coming off a Western Conference finals appearance but started the year with a second line defensive pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Niclas Wallin—probably, at best, an average second  defense pair. (Losing Rob Blake to retirement before the season had left a huge hole in the lineup)

The year prior (2009-10) the Sharks were coming off a first round playoff collapse after being a No. 1 seed in 2008-09. (Not to mention the collapse came on the heels of three straight second round exits). They did acquire Dany Heatley before the season but the sting of the Ducks series still left plenty of doubters.

Now let’s return back to present day.

The Sharks are not only coming off their second straight Western Conference final appearance but they also clearly improved their roster over the summer.

In other words, this is the first time the Sharks have begun the season fresh off a deep playoff run while also possessing what is widely considered  to be an significantly better roster from the previous year.

Hence the amount of  those “this is the year” shouts and cries from Sharks fans are even more vibrant when walking down Santa Clara Street.

With a flexible top six forward group as good as any other in the league, a sure-fire top-5 defense and a Stanley Cup winning starting netminder between the pipes, one would be off their rocker not to list San Jose as a favorite to win the Cup.

And with the nearly endless amount of intriguing storylines to choose from, Bay Area reporters and columnists alike should be fighting over the following hockey assignments:

• Brent Burns’ acquisition on defense gives San Jose a formidable second defense pair.

• Martin Havlat adds speed and playoff scoring that Dany Heatley could not bring to the table.

• Ryane Clowe, and Joe Pavelski are coming off career years.

• Jason Demers should dominate against weaker competition as a third pair defenseman.

• Antti Niemi won a cup with a similar caliber roster.

• Captain Joe Thornton had the best all around season of his career a year ago.

• Logan Couture will only continue to get better in his second full year.

• Dan Boyle will have fresher legs with Burns taking up extra ice time.

• Center Michal Handzus and defenseman Colin White will improve the penalty  kill

But what about the team’s longest-tenured player? What about Patrick Marleau? What is his storyline going into the season?

Simply put: “Just win, baby.”

Some pundits will say the Sharks aren’t Marleau’s team anymore, but the Sharks have always been Marleau’s team. Just like the Detroit Red Wings were Steve Yzerman’s team before he passed the torch onto Nicklas Lidstrom. Just like David Ortiz is the Boston Red Sox, Derek Jeter is the New York Yankees, Kobe Bryant is the LA Lakers and Tony Romo is the Dallas Cowboys etc. etc.

Patrick Marleau is the Sharks and the Sharks are Patrick Marleau. Always has been that way and always will be that way for as long as No. 12 dons the teal as a top caliber forward.

It’s just the way it is. Especially when you consider the fact that Marleau’s career success mimics that of his organization nearly perfectly.

During the first few years of his career Marleau was finding his way in the NHL as a teenager and the Sharks were a playoff bubble team.

Then the former No.14 hit his prime and became No. 12, the captain of the Sharks. Subsequently the team went to the Western Conference final for the first time in franchise history.

An apparent tiff with then head coach Ron Wilson coincided with a down year of just 48 regular season points from Marleau in 2007-08. The Sharks would go onto win just one of their next three playoff series with Marleau playing his last games as captain.

Yet the year after being stripped of the “C” Marleau went on to register a career high 44 goals and sparked the Sharks all the way to the Western Conference final.

Go figure, right?

Point to be had is this: both Marleau and the Sharks have had high expectations for awhile now. Both have been  better some years, worse during others, always really good but not quite good enough.

So will Marleau and the Sharks be good enough to win the Cup in 2012?

There is no denying the immense talent level of the franchise leader in games played. He is an All-Star, and an Olympic Gold medalist.

But the 32-year-old forward has never been mistaken for a player with a consistent two-way game. He is not amongst the likes of Joe Thornton, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Kesler, and other leading forward puck hounds.

Thornton finished first  in takeaways last season with 114 and was a net plus-16 in takeaway/giveaway differential. Marleau on the other hand finished 149th with 35 takeaways and owned a minus-31 takeaway/giveaway differential.

In Marleau’s defense, the whole giveaway/takeaway stat is quite subjective and certainly is not black and white.

Furthermore, LA Kings captain Dustin Brown had nearly the same feeble giveaway/takeaway numbers last year. Not fair to single out Marleau as the only All-Star with poor giveaway numbers.

That said, it shouldn’t be so casually forgotten (sometimes feels as many fans choose not to believe it) but word around the block has been that Marleau and the most popular captain in franchise history, Owen Nolan, are not the best of friends.

Nolan and Marleau were teammates from 1997 to 2003. Many fans have wondered why Nolan wasn’t brought back to San Jose in recent years. Perhaps the relationship (or lack thereof) with Marleau had something to do with it.

Nolan, who is attempting one more shot at the NHL this season with Vancouver, has always been known as a fiery player.

Another former teammate of Marleau’s is NBC/Versus hockey analyst Jeremy Roenick. Like Nolan, Roenick has also always been known as a fiery player.

This past postseason, Roenick was heavily critical of Marleau’s performance against the Red Wings—specifically Game 5 of that series in which two Marleau defensive blunders led to Detroit extending the series to a sixth game.

Safe to say, Marleau and Roenick aren’t the best of friends either.

Both Nolan and Roenick are old school hockey players. They are the type of players who take it upon themselves to deal a bone crushing hit to wake their team up. Nolan famously ran over goaltender Ed Belfour in the playoffs.

Marleau on the other hand has never been that type of player and some will say he simply is incapable of being that type of player.

They will say “that just isn’t his game.” And maybe it isn’t.

But by virtue of being listed at 6’2″ 220 pounds, it is easy to understand why certain fans plead for Marleau to be a more physical player.

In their minds, he is big and strong enough to be a more physical player and doing so would mean a better chance at the Sharks winning the Cup.

That may be true, but Douglas Murray becoming a go-to goal scorer on the blue-line would also mean a better chance at the cup. So would Torrey Mitchell turning into a 30 goal scorer.

Where do you draw the line at what is realistic?

With the exception of very few professional athletes (if any) in the history of team sports, every player has strengths and weaknesses.

Marleau doesn’t necessarily have to be better in on particular area on the ice, neither does Murray, Couture, Thornton, Boyle or Vlasic for the Sharks to get over the hump.

However, Marleau is the Sharks and the Sharks are Marleau.

So if the Sharks are going to win the Cup this year, they will do so in large part due to  what will be (by a clear margin) the best all around season of Marleau’s career.

Whether that means Marleau scores more clutch goals, makes more critical defensive plays, or dishes out more eye-popping hits, it doesn’t matter. It just has to be a winning combination of big time plays.

Because as Marleau goes, so go the Sharks.

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