A San Jose Sharks fan favorite heads to Toronto to win a Stanley Cup.
The long-time Sharks head coach is fired mid-season.
A beleaguered San Jose is one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
I’m not talking about the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks — I’m talking about the 2002-03 Sharks.
At the 2003 Trade Deadline, San Jose sent the franchise’s first genuine star, Owen Nolan, to Toronto for Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and a first-round draft pick.
In December, after five seasons and change behind the bench, Darryl Sutter was canned.
The NHL’s fifth-leakiest defensive group in terms of goals against, these San Jose Sharks finished 19 points out of the playoffs.
Safe to say, prognosticators weren’t peppy about the next year’s Sharks. The Hockey News, for example, picked them to finish second-to-last in the Western Conference.
Instead, the 2003-04 San Jose Sharks made team history, reaching their first Western Conference Finals.
So why is this relevant today? GM Doug Wilson, who took over San Jose after 2002-03, invoked the spirit of ’04 when asked about the current Sharks roster.
“It reminds me a little bit of my first year. You can’t really compare this year to any else. But we had a lot of unknowns. People said well geez, you’re going to go with younger players. You’ve got guys who didn’t have a great year the year before,” Wilson said last month. “We went to the Western Conference Finals, we made the playoffs, people were shocked.”
A few things stood out about that version of the San Jose Sharks: Ron Wilson, who failed to revive the Sharks after Sutter was let go mid-season, was brought back and granted a fair chance with his own team.
They shed themselves of six 30-something veterans — Nolan, Teemu Selanne, Adam Graves, Bryan Marchment, Marcus Ragnarsson, and Dan McGillis — and added none over the off-season. The 2003-04 San Jose Sharks featured just three 30-somethings, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci, and Scott Thornton.
Their success was defensive-driven: They scored just five more goals than in the previous year, but allowed 47 less, going from the fifth-worst defensive team to the fourth-best in the league.
So how can the 2020-21 San Jose Sharks replicate the 2003-04 formula? There are a lot of ways, but here are a few possible ones, awards-style.
Let’s start with the obvious:
Vesa Toskala Award for Best Newcomer in Net
Devan Dubnyk will have to flip the script like Vesa Toskala did in 2003-04.
In 2002-03, Miikka Kiprusoff was Evgeni Nabokov’s primary back-up. The uber-talented Finn was expected to challenge for more playing time, but posted one of the worst goaltending seasons in team history: Per Hockey Reference, his -0.73 Goals Saved Above Average Per Game ranks as fifth-worst of 56 qualified campaigns.
The next year, Wilson shipped Kiprusoff to the Calgary Flames for the second-round pick that became Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It’s a testament, of course, to the future Vezina Trophy winner’s talent that he was still able to fetch a second-rounder after this disastrous campaign.
The path was now clear for Toskala to back up Nabokov — and he responded with, by the same measure, the best goaltending season in team history: His +0.52 Goals Saved Above Average Per Game still tops every San Jose Sharks netminder.
Jonathan Cheechoo Award for Breakout Player
Jonathan Cheechoo was buried behind veterans Selanne, Nolan, and Niklas Sundstrom at right wing in 2002-03. But the rookie managed nine goals and showed enough promise in limited ice time that Sherry Ross’s 2004 Hockey Scouting Report declared “we wouldn’t be shocked to see him chip in 10-15 goals” in 2003-04.
Instead, Cheechoo exploded for 28 goals, tying Patrick Marleau for the team lead.
In fairness to Ross, she saw Cheechoo’s pure goal scoring talent then: “He has a quick release on his shot…has a dangerous backhand, which is just about a dying art. His hand-eye coordination is perfect for tipping point shots.
“Cheechoo’s own slap shot is good enough that he can see some point duty on the power play. He has a flair for the dramatic and will probably score some key goals for the Sharks in seasons to come.”
She just didn’t know how close those key goals were to coming.
Ryan Donato is San Jose’s clear breakout candidate now.
On the 2002-03 Sharks, just five forwards cleared 0.8 Even Strength Goals Per 60 Minutes. Four were established top-six forwards — Marco Sturm, Selanne, Marleau, Nolan — and then, the rookie Cheechoo.
Donato’s scoring rate is even better.
Per Natural Stat Trick, since Donato joined the Wild in February 2019, his 1.19 Even Strength Goals Per 60 in mostly limited ice time leads Minnesota — eclipsing more prominent scorers like Jason Zucker, Kevin Fiala, Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, and Eric Staal.
It’s a big if, but if the 24-year-old matches that scoring rate at even strength, in presumably more ice time, next year — and sprinkle some power play markers on top of that — he’s netting 25 goals, easy.
Nils Ekman Award for Out of Nowhere 20-Goal Scorer
It was Doug Wilson’s first great trade as San Jose GM.
In August 2003, he sent prospect Chad Wiseman to the Rangers for 27-year-old Nils Ekman. Ekman had been out of the NHL for two seasons, playing in Sweden one year and the AHL in another.
“I watched him a bit in Tampa in his early NHL days and didn’t notice him much,” Ron Wilson admitted. (“Oil Spills.” Matheson, Jim. The Edmonton Journal, March 22, 2004.)
Ekman scored more goals in 2003-04 than Wiseman played career NHL games. The Swedish winger’s 22 goals were second on the squad — meanwhile, Wiseman appeared in just nine NHL games in his career.
So who can be next year’s Ekman?
Perhaps another Swede: Jonathan Dahlen. While the winger’s not likely to reach 20 goals — he won’t join the next NHL season until his Allsvenskan campaign ends, probably in April — he has the offensive ability to add a surprise punch to the line-up.
Alyn McCauley Award for Secret Star
After 2003-04, Marleau was considered San Jose’s star — besides tying for the regular season lead in goals, he also led all forwards in ice time.
This campaign catapulted Marleau to his first appearance on The Hockey News Top 50.
Mike Brophy wrote in the 2004-05 The Hockey News Yearbook, of his 46th-best player in the NHL: “He’s 25, already has seven NHL seasons to his credit and is now the leader of the Sharks. Best of all? His best is yet to come.”
Brophy was right, but you can argue McCauley had a better 2003-04.
As Damphousse, in his final NHL year, saw less and less ice time — from October to December, the 36-year-old averaged 18:58 a game, and from January until the end of the regular season, he averaged just 15:34 — McCauley emerged, potting 20 goals, and playing big minutes in every situation. After January 1st, McCauley’s time on ice would trail only Marleau among team forwards.
The 26-year-old centerman would join Ron Wilson at the 2004 NHL Awards show. Wilson was nominated for the Jack Adams Award; McCauley became just the second (and last) Shark to be named a Selke Trophy finalist.
On next year’s San Jose Sharks, Logan Couture, Evander Kane, and Tomas Hertl are the marquee names, but Timo Meier has a chance to emerge as the hidden engine of a resurgent San Jose squad.
He won’t be a big secret, of course: The 24-year-old already has a 30-goal campaign under his belt. And he won’t be winning any Selkes.
But like McCauley in 2003-04, Meier has the ability to be arguably the most important Sharks forward next season.