Friday, July 23, 2010

The Five Most Important Players in San Jose Sharks History

Following is my opinion regarding the five most important players in the Sharks' 19 year history. These are not the best players in the abstract (though as you will see, the players on this list are certainly no slouches); instead, the list reflects what I believe to be the five players most responsible for moving the franchise forward from a doormat to a perennial contender. Of course, reasonable minds may disagree, but that's to be expected. Also note that I changed my mind about the #5 slot, but had already finished writing what was initially supposed to go there, so as a result you get a bonus #6, free of charge. 

Without further ado, the list:
6. Patrick Marleau
5. Arturs Irbe
4. Vincent Damphousse
3. Ed Belfour
2. Joe Thornton
1. Owen Nolan

I know at least one of those names is going to jump out at any Sharks fan who was around in the mid-90s, so see my reasoning after the jump!

(6.) Patrick Marleau

It's hard to believe that Patrick Marleau has been in the league for 13 years already; the guy is only 30 years old, after all. I suspect that very few people remember Marleau coming into camp as a fresh-faced 17 year old, the #2 pick in the 1997 draft when all anyone cared about was the #1 pick Joe Thornton. Sure, he went through his struggles, including a few years in there where Thornton had blossomed and Marleau had not, and people were wondering whether he was just an epic bust. And yet here we are, 13 years later - Patrick Marleau, through his ups and downs, has made San Jose his home, and has finally turned himself into a bona fide star. It's like his 48-point nightmare season a few years back was the turning point he needed - since then, he's easily been the Sharks' best all-around player, and he deserves every penny of the new $6.9Mx4 contract that he signed last month. He's added to his game constantly over the years, and is now perhaps the Sharks' most versatile player - he's a fantastic faceoff man, one of the Sharks' best penalty killers, and can play either the wing or the pivot (or even the point on the power play). 44 goals was good for fourth best in the league last year, behind Stamkos, Crosby, and Ovechkin - that's some pretty good company to be in.

Patrick Marleau is now the Sharks' all-time leader in games played, goals, assists, and points (though Joe Thornton is rapidly catching up in the latter two categories), and despite having his captaincy stripped from him and being relegated to second fiddle status (or maybe even third, with the addition of Heatley), the longest-tenured Shark continues to be one of the most important figures in franchise history. If he retires a Shark, and all indications are that he will, his slot on this list will be further solidified. Nevertheless, because Marleau hasn't yet played a key role in anything pivotal, like the five names to follow, I felt compelled to leave him off the main list.

5. Arturs Irbe

It's difficult to properly describe the cult following "The Wall" had in San Jose, and it sounds even stranger when you consider that in 1995, he gave way to Wade Flaherty of all people in the 6th and 7th games of the Flames series. Yet, Irbe will forever have his place in Sharks lore as the man primarily responsible for the Sharks' first great splash on the NHL landscape - their upset of the mighty Detroit Red Wings in 1994. Irbe played a record 4412 minutes between the pipes that year for San Jose, the equivalent of just over 73.5 full games, and while he wasn't always stellar in net during the Detroit series, on the nights he was "on" he was nigh unbeatable. He was also sort of an embodiment of the Sharks team at the time - he was an underdog, being a small goaltender from a country not known for its hockey (Latvia), but he had heart and a knack for proving people wrong. He was also known for always wearing the same set of pads and simply using a regular helmet with a cage and a plastic neck guard instead of having a fancy mask painted for him. It was like a Disney script: Irbe was the blue-collar goaltender, the Sharks were his blue collar team, and together, they would shock the hockey world.

After the 1995-96 season, Irbe was mauled by his pet dog and he injured his hand, so his tenure in San Jose came to an end. A few years later, he resurfaced in Carolina, where he was "Like Wall" once again in helping Carolina reach the Stanley Cup finals; as a Sharks fan, I couldn't help but cheer for the Canes that year. I still have a lithograph of Irbe hanging on my wall back in California, and it's not going anywhere. Irbe may not have had the longest or the most distinguished tenure as a Shark, but he helped the franchise take that first big step at a time where nobody was expecting much from them.

4. Vincent Damphousse

When people think of the Sharks making a splash via trade, they usually think about the post-lockout stuff; Heatley, Thornton, Boyle, Campbell, and so on. But way back at the 1999 trade deadline, the Sharks pulled off a pretty solid heist, trading a 5th round pick to Montreal for center Vincent Damphousse, their former captain. At the time, Damphousse was 32 years old and just starting on the downside of an already-distinguished career (which included a Stanley Cup in Montreal), but the impact was enormous - this was the Sharks' Joe Thornton trade before the actual Joe Thornton trade, and Damphousse deserved every bit of that hype.

Damphousse came in and immediately made an impact with the Sharks, tallying 13 points in 12 regular season games and 5 points in 6 playoff games. The following year, he posted an impressive 70 points, playing on a line with Jeff Friesen and Owen Nolan (the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley of that era for San Jose). With him at pivot, Owen Nolan scored 44 goals and 84 points, and Friesen posted a respectable 26-35-61 season as well. The Sharks went to the second round of the playoffs that year, upsetting the top-seeded St. Louis Blues after allegedly purposely losing the last game of the year to draw St. Louis instead of Dallas (that series was also notable because it started San Jose's hate affair with one Chris Pronger). Damphousse's impact was humongous, and though his production dwindled as age and team turnover took its toll, he ended up playing 385 games as a Shark, posting a respectable 289 points. He even went out with a bang - his clutch play and 14 points in 15 playoff games in 2003-04 helped propel the Sharks to their first ever Western Conference Finals, and the lockout meant that he retired before he ever played a game in Colorado maroon. Though he technically retired an Avalanche and will likely always be remembered as a Canadien, he was definitely one of the most important Sharks ever to don the teal.

3. Ed Belfour

Eddie the Eagle (or, as some old-school Sharks may remember him, Eddie the Ego) only played 13 games in Sharks teal, but he lands at #3 on my list. Why? Well, at a time where the Sharks were still a fledgling franchise, a few years removed from back-to-back upsets as the 8th seed, the franchise honestly didn't have too much of an identity. Nobody hated the Sharks; they were the plucky team that got it done against Detroit in '94 and Calgary in '95, of course, but Detroit had already gotten their revenge in '95, and Calgary had much bigger rivals to hate than some upstart California team. Enter Ed Belfour. The Sharks were muddling along in an awful '96-'97 campaign, just minding their business with fans loyal as ever, when the chance of the decade (seemingly) came. The Chicago Blackhawks, unable to agree to terms with Belfour, agreed to trade him to San Jose for a mere pittance - G Chris Terreri, RW Ulf Dahlen, and D Michal Sykora. Granted, Dahlen was a fan favorite, but this is Ed freakin' Belfour *IN HIS PRIME* that we're talking about! As far as value goes, this remains the biggest steal any Sharks GM has ever pulled - easily more lopsided from a talent perspective than any of the Heatley, Thornton, or Boyle deals (and probably even the Damphousse deal - discussed above).

Sharks fans were excited, and understandably so - Belfour had expressed a willingness to stay in San Jose when the trade went down, and so he was fully embraced by the fanbase even as he posted horrendous numbers - a 3.41 GAA and an .884 save percentage, culminating in a 3-9-0 record over 13 games. But nobody cared. Everyone knew how good Ed Belfour was, and everyone knew his sloppy play down the stretch (to be fair, he was also coming off injury, if memory serves) was not indicative of his skill level. This was the turning point, or so we thought - we'd have a franchise goaltender to pair with our budding star forward Owen Nolan. The Sharks were a franchise on the rise.

And then, on July 2, 1997, he signed with the Dallas Stars, instantly making himself the most hated man in San Jose Sharks history (which, to be fair, was not a high bar - only Theoren Fleury was even in the same ballpark at that point, and even then only because he was a Shark killer who just happened to be a pest).

So now we know that Ed Belfour will always be persona non grata with any Sharks fan. Why is he on the list? Simple - it gave the fans a player to hate (Belfour), a team to hate (the Stars), and a very good reason to hate both of them. It didn't help that Ed Belfour was phenomenal in Dallas the following year, posting a 37-12-10 record with a 1.88 (!) GAA and a .916 save percentage, while the Sharks made do with two sub-.900 goaltenders on the downsides of their careers in Mike Vernon and Kelly Hrudey. And when the Sharks met the Stars in round 1 of the 1997-98 playoffs, everything came together - Ed Belfour's betrayal was complete. Losing that series 4-2 made the taste even more bitter, and the rivalry was officially on.

To this day, I look back on Sharks-Stars games in that era with fond memories. This clip of Game 3 in the 97-98 playoffs perfectly captures the atmosphere - the "Belll-fourrr" serenade followed by the "Belfour sucks" chant, the liberties both teams took with each other, everything. Not only did the Sharks hate Ed Belfour, they found their first big rival in the Stars - a rivalry that persists to this day. The moment Ed Belfour betrayed San Jose was the moment that the Sharks franchise and fanbase found their identity. And that is why Ed Belfour is the third most important Shark in the history of the franchise.

2. Joe Thornton

I really don't think this one requires too much explanation, except maybe as to why this isn't in the top spot. Joe Thornton to San Jose for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau remains the butt of jokes even now, years after it was consummated, and for good reason - as far as trades go, it was one of the most lopsided trades you're ever likely to see, especially when a known superstar like Joe Thornton is involved.

The Sharks were in the midst of an embarrassing 10-game losing streak when the trade was made; Evgeni Nabokov looked terrible, the team looked lost, and the San Jose faithful were quickly getting impatient. When a no-name goaltender like Nolan Schaefer is nicknamed "The Savior" by the fans, even jokingly, you know it's bad. But the addition of Joe Thornton turned everything around, immediately. Thornton turned Jonathan Cheechoo from a 28-goal man in 03-04 to a 56-goal Rocket Richard winner, and even dragged along Nils Ekman for the ride (he cashed in that summer with Pittsburgh to the tune of $2 million/year and was never heard from again). Say what you will about his perceived playoff failings, but his impact on the franchise continues to be undeniable. His play, and perhaps just as importantly the status that followed him, singlehandedly boosted the Sharks into perennial contender status in the eyes of the general league fanbase. Though his numbers have been slipping as of late and his playoff performance has continued to be questioned (fairly or unfairly), he continue to be one of the best setup men in the NHL and one of the key members of the Sharks' attack. December 1, 2005 will forever be a date to remember in Sharks history, and Jumbo Joe will forever be the first consensus superstar player to pull on a San Jose Sharks sweater.

1. Owen Nolan
Nobody cared that this resulted in a penalty.
Oh captain, my captain. Traded from the Quebec Nordiques in 95-96 for Sandis Ozolinsh (who went on to win a cup with said Nordiques/Avalanche, so I'm sure he was happy with that exchange), Owen Nolan was arguably the Sharks' first player with legitimate league-wide star power, and in my opinion their first iconic captain. With all due respect to Doug Wilson, Bob Errey, Jeff Odgers, and Todd Gill, none of their tenures even began to approach the importance of Nolan's captaincy. During that era, when you thought of the Sharks, the first player that came to mind was Owen Nolan, and for good reason. Nolan was the perfect captain for the Sharks - they were a gritty, scrapping team, fighting for every inch and somehow managing to make the playoffs year after year despite being severely out-talented most of the time. Owen Nolan led that charge, putting up big offensive numbers while being the big power forward that everyone came to love - always willing to stick his nose where it wasn't welcome, never afraid to drop the gloves, always coming to the defense of his teammates, and even crossing the line a few times, though always to the delight of Sharks fans who would defend him to the death. Owen Nolan's emotions-on-his-sleeve style of leadership and his fiery play inspired the city of San Jose like no player before him had, and he returned that love to the city even as he had his issues with management. And, it certainly doesn't hurt that he was responsible for several of the franchise's most important moments through the late 90s and early 2000s, including one of the fondest memories an old school Shark fan is likely to have, and will be able to identify immediately based only on the play by play: "Off the post, and here come the hats..."

I also credit Owen Nolan with singlehandedly ruining Roman Turek's NHL career: observe.

Owen Nolan's trade to Toronto in 2003 was, in my opinion, one of the saddest days to be a Shark fan in the history of the franchise. Fan favorites had been traded before (Jeff Friesen most recently at the time), but nothing compared to the loss of the captain. I remember knowing it was coming, and still feeling like I had been punched in the gut when I read about it in the Merc. To this day, Buster resides in San Jose, and it's no coincidence that every time he's up for free agency, a portion of Sharks fans lobby hard for the Sharks to pick him up, myself among them. With all due respect to Blake, Marleau, and the rest of the former captains, Owen Nolan is still the first name I think of when the Sharks' captaincy is brought up, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Until next time!

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