When another San Jose Sharks season ended in spectacular playoff flameout last April, the team's normally mild-mannered general manager was hot.
So hot that Doug Wilson apologized to northern California hockey fans and seethed that the first-round exit should "stick with the players" through the summer. Then, as promised after an off-season postmortem, Wilson remade the NHL team, addressing issues of leadership and scoring, though not necessarily in that order.
Dany Heatley, a world-class winger acquired in a blockbuster trade with Ottawa this month, is a two-time 50-goal scorer entering his prime years. The 28-year-old is relatively cheap, with San Jose paying just $4-million (all currency U.S.) of his 2009-10 salary, and shipping two lesser players to the Senators.
The Sharks had the third best offence in the Western Conference last season, and a former 50-goal scorer in right wing Jonathan Cheechoo, but Wilson said the team lacked a pure finisher, someone who could have bailed them out of a late-season swoon that carried into a six-game playoff loss.
Heatley gives San Jose "the ability to score important goals and power-play goals," according to Wilson, the type of tallies that can change a playoff series. Last spring, the Sharks lost the opening two games to Anaheim on home ice, going 0-for-12 on the power play.
"When you have a centre like Joe Thornton, and you have that type of combination [with Heatley] you're going to score some goals," Wilson said.
With or without Heatley, the Sharks were going to be favoured to win their third consecutive Pacific Division title this year.
Based on postseason results, the Ducks appear to be a contender, even without defenceman Chris Pronger, and the Dallas Stars are sure to be healthier than last season, when forwards Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards and Jere Lehtinen combined to miss 124 games.
The Los Angeles Kings would need a Blackhawks-style uprising from their young talent to compete this year, while the Phoenix Coyotes are simply trying to maintain professional appearances.
In San Jose, a sixth consecutive playoff season seems assured, but advancing beyond the conference semi-finals has proved vexing since Thornton arrived in late 2005. The Sharks won the President's Trophy last year, but the premature spring departure raised questions about leadership.
The Sharks have stripped captain Patrick Marleau and assistant Thornton of their letters, while former assistant captain Mike Grier signed with Buffalo. Wilson said the decision on a new leadership group could come as late as next week, prior to an Oct. 1 season opener in Colorado.
The betting money is that Thornton retains a role, but that Marleau is relieved of his duties to lessen the pressure. Wilson hinted that veteran defencemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake could be candidates, saying he expects them to be more vocal in their second seasons with the club.
Brad Lukowich, a former defenceman traded to Vancouver last month, said Wilson asked selected veterans last season whether they had the right mix of personalities in the dressing room, and that the answers were always affirmative.
"There was a lot of onus in San Jose on certain players and I didn't buy into that at all," Lukowich said.
Thornton has found refuge in California, where he has played with premier talent, winning a scoring title and a most valuable player award. Thornton, a gentle giant, and Marleau, an understated type, are both 30 and enter the 2009-10 campaign under larger microscopes than ever before.
The same goes for Heatley, who has forced his way out of two organizations in just seven NHL seasons, and most recently clashed with Senators coach Cory Clouston. He was obtained for Cheechoo and former first-line winger Milan Michalek, two players whom Wilson said needed a change of scenery.
Although a case could be made that Heatley actually cost four roster players, Wilson argues that his second most notable trade this summer, sending 40-point defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and Lukowich to Vancouver for two unheralded prospects, was not a straight salary dump to account for Heatley, rather a deal that gives him flexibility to add payroll later this season.
Depending on their final roster, the Sharks should have $2-million plus in cap space to fix needs as they arise. In the interim, the organization's vaunted depth will be tested, as four young defencemen and two rookie forwards are afforded opportunities to make the team.
"[Heatley]was the easiest guy for me to research because he was playing in my hometown of Ottawa, where we know a lot of people," Wilson said. "He fits now, and he fits in the future."