Like a lot of NHL teams these days, the San Jose Sharks are mindful more than ever of the importance of the paying customer. To that end, the Sharks annually put staff and players into the community, to hand-deliver season-ticket renewals prior to the start of training camp.
For Sharks' coach Todd McLellan, the exercise had a secondary value beyond its public-relations value. It helped him put the finger on the pulse of what the average Sharks fan was thinking. And yes - all that anti-Joe Thornton, anti-Patty Marleau sentiment that swept the NHL in the aftermath of their opening-round upset playoff loss to the Anaheim Ducks was also deeply rooted in San Jose, the anti-Phoenix, one of the few markets in the NHL's U.S. expansion that has been a success story right from the beginning.
"My pain individually is one-year pain," said McLellan, who began his second season behind the Sharks' bench Thursday night, by absorbing a painful 5-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. "For the fans and other people in the organization, it's longer. So when you go out in the community, you can sense a frustration level. I think the lightning rods - fairly or unfairly - are always Marleau and Thornton. They're the two best players on our hockey club, so that comes with the territory.
"What's often forgotten here is that there are a number of other players who have to perform. If you look at Milan (Michalek), (Joe) Pavelski and (Ryan) Clowe, they only had a goal or two in the playoffs last year. That's unacceptable for that group of people.
"The pressure and stress in the community always goes to two people - Marleau and Thornton - and I'm not denying that should or should happen. It would be nice to see some others have that pressure, so we can spread it out. Maybe then we'd have a better chance for success that way."
The Sharks return to the scene of the crime as it were on Saturday, playing the Ducks in the second game of the season, after laying a big-time egg in the opener, on Joe Sakic night in Colorado - a game in which Dany Heatley finished a grim minus-three and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was downright awful. San Jose outshot the Avs by a two-to-one count and Marleau potted a pair of goals, but they were thoroughly lax in the defensive zone, something that they'll need to correct over time.
In the immediate emotional aftermath of last year's playoff loss, San Jose general manager Doug Wilson promised sweeping changes, which led to a summer of speculation that either Thornton or Marleau or maybe both would be swept out the door.
The problem with taking productive players out of your lineup without replacing them properly is that suddenly, you can go from great to good in a hurry. The Sharks were great for most of last year's regular season -a league-leading 117 points - and actually outplayed Anaheim for large stretches of their series.
Simply put, they couldn't finish around the net, either because the Ducks' Jonas Hiller happened to be in one of those zones that goalies get into, or because the Sharks really didn't have a pure goal-scorer in the lineup.
It's why Wilson bided his time, but ultimately upped the ante to land the unhappy Heatley out of Ottawa. As San Jose pushes to erase last year's disappointing post-season, Heatley gives the Sharks something on paper they haven't had since Jonathan Cheechoo lost his 50-goal touch - an accomplished NHL sniper.
For all of his comparative inexperience at the NHL head coaching level, McLellan made a telling point about the need not to over-react in the face of a playoff disappointment, noting that he was an assistant on the Detroit Red Wings' staff in 2005-06, when they lost in the first round to the Edmonton Oilers, the last time an eighth seed eliminated a first seed in the playoffs.
"It would have been easy for (GM) Kenny Holland to say, 'we've got to rebuild it,' because they had some longer-term pain there as well," said McLellan. "Kenny had a clear vision of what he believed in; so he tinkered with some pieces and did it that way. Just to throw a bomb into it and blow it up, I don't think that's the answer.
"Only one team wins the last game they play and everybody else wonders what they did wrong."
At the beginning of training camp, McLellan said he addressed the Sharks' players and told them: "Our focus right now isn't on April, May and June. We turned over 10, 11, 12 players from our roster last year; that's a big chunk of the team. We have to re-establish our equity with each other and in the league and that's our very first goal. We'll go from there; we'll see where it takes us.
"The ingredients for our third and fourth lines (Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, others) will be different than in the past. There's a little more sandpaper there, which is often nice to have in those positions.
"Our team will take some time jelling I think because of all those changes - and it won't be a bad thing. It'll be a good thing.
"Will we get off to the start we did last year? We all hope we do. But if we don't, we'll have our share of adversity earlier in the year and maybe we can find a way of dealing with it better than we did."
Coaches call games such as Thursday night's clunker against the Avalanche "teaching" moments. Maybe, as McLellan theorized, having a few of them early on will make them better as the season unfolds.
SAKIC BIDS GOODBYE: Nice ceremony to honour one of the most admirable players of his generation, future Hall Of Famer Joe Sakic, who had his No. 19 jersey retired by the Avalanche prior to the opener. Sakic teased the crowd by saying home openers always gave him the itch to play again, but he quickly quashed the murmur of excitement that the remark caused. Of greater interest may have been a question that analyst Eddie Olczyk put to Sakic on the Versus broadcast. Olczyk wondered if the presence of the 2010 Olympics in his hometown of Vancouver gave Sakic any pause. Sakic answered: "It definitely went through my mind," and then Wojtek Wolski scored, interrupting his thought. Olczyk didn't return to the topic before Sakic ended his visit. Too bad, it would have been nice to get a clarification of just how seriously the lure of Vancouver played into his decision.
THRASHING AROUND NO MORE? One of the favourite pre-season exercises is to identify a darkhorse playoff contender from among the perennial also-rans and for me, it might be the Atlanta Thrashers. It's not as if the Thrashers' key additions have a known playoff track record either: Ex-Leaf Nikolai Antropov was not the answer for the New York Rangers to get out of the first round last year; and Max Afinogenov couldn't even get into the Buffalo Sabres' line-up, with their playoff hopes on the line.
Still, the moves made by general manager Don Waddell - adding Tomas Kubina from Toronto was the other key puzzle piece - supplements a line-up that finally saw a pair of home-grown players, forward Bryan Little and defenceman Zach Bogosian, finally break through. Little will start the season on the top line with Antropov and Ilya Kovalchuk; while Afinogenov moves onto the second line with Slava Kozlov and Todd White.
For the moment, the Thrashers are populating their third line with scorers as well - Rich Peverley, who was a nice addition on waivers from Nashville; Colby Armstrong and rookie Evander Kane. If Kane doesn't stick beyond the 10-game mark, coach John Anderson will likely move Marty Reasoner up the depth chart.
The primary difference, according to Waddell, is that for the first time in team history, the Thrashers have four reliable defencemen that can play as top-four defencemen. Bogosian plays with Tobias Enstrom; Kubina with Ron Hainsey and the net effect is the Thrashers are kind of a poor man's Washington, a team guided by a coach - Anderson, who like the Capitals' Bruce Boudreau bided his time in the minors before finally getting an NHL opportunity; and deploying a go-go-go offensive philosophy. If nothing else, the Thrashers should score a lot of goals and should be fun to watch - two qualities that cannot be understated in a market that probably isn't going to rush to the turnstiles to buy tickets, until the team starts winning games on a more regular basis.
Also like Washington, Atlanta also enters the season with questions in goal, because of Kari Lehtonen's ongoing health woes. The Thrashers will use veteran Johan Hedberg and promising youngster Ondrej Pavelec, and Waddell's only concern is that they don't put too much pressure on a 22-year-old net-minder and retard his development that way.
The Thrashers showed signs of life last year (18-15-1 after the All-Star break) and have teased with their potential before. In nine years, they've made the playoffs exactly once and were four-and-out that year. Maybe this is the year they finally turn the corner.
FENWAY BECKONS: Last year's Winter Classic - played outdoors at Wrigley Field between Detroit and Chicago - was a screaming success on many levels, including box office, where the game sold out virtually instantly. In order to create a level playing field for ticket allocation this year's Fenway Park date between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, Canadian fans have until Monday to register for an on-line lottery to distribute tickets. More information is available at www.nhl.com/winterclassic. Winners will be notified by Oct. 20 if they have the right to pay anywhere from $50 to $350 (all currency U.S.) for a pair of tickets … As tempting as it may be, it's dangerous to read too much into opening night results, even if three division winners from last year - San Jose, the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks - all lost. The Sharks and Bruins, who ran 1-2 in the overall standings, were both routed. Likely, they remember last year, on banner night in Detroit, the Red Wings lost to the Maple Leafs. Form eventually prevailed over 82 games, with Detroit advancing to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final, and Toronto missing the playoffs.
HOW THE WEST WILL BE WON: One theory making the rounds is that San Jose may prevail because of the challenges facing the other major contenders; that they will have minimal Olympic representation compared to say Detroit (even Thornton and Heatley are not automatic selections for executive director Steve Yzerman); and sometimes a team wins in a year everybody jumps off the bandwagon because it lessens expectations.
Makes sense on a weird level, especially when you consider the challenges facing the other main contenders.
Detroit: Two trips to the Stanley Cup final in a row; they start in Europe and they've turned over a quarter of their roster. Plus, it's an Olympic year and every one of their difference makers - Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg - will be immersed in the competition. Will they collectively have enough gas in the tank when the season finally grinds to a halt?
Chicago: A messy off-season that saw them lose their GM Dale Tallon, their leading scorer, Martin Havlat, and their difference-maker in goal, Nikolai Khabibulin. On paper, Marian Hossa is an adequate replacement for Havlat, but he is not healthy and won't be around for awhile. Meanwhile, Cristobal Huet needs to show he's capable of handling the No. 1 job. Oh and they too open the season in Europe. Pittsburgh's championship last year notwithstanding, that often has a lingering negative effect on a team that can't afford to go backwards in the suddenly ultra-competitive Central Division.There is still upside in Chicago, but if their questions are all answered in the negative, the Blackhawks may struggle out of the gate.
Calgary: Brent Sutter is supposed to provide the missing structure and Jay Bouwmeester the defensive conscience, but the fact remains: three of the top six forwards heading out of training camp are David Moss, Rene Bourque and Nigel Dawes. Exactly. Who will score, if Miikka Kiprusoff doesn't bounce back in a big way?
Vancouver: See Calgary. Monster pre- and post-Olympic road trip could wear them down and who, beyond the Sedin twins, can score on a regular basis?
Meanwhile, the Sharks get to see if the chemistry between Heatley and Thornton develops the way logic says it should - putting one of the NHL's most reliable scorers on the same line as a player who led the league in assists in three of the past four years. McLellan may be required to show some patience, until a level of familiarity develops, however.
"Me, and anybody that's ever coached Joe before has asked him to shoot the puck more," said McLellan. "He has many opportunities a night and he doesn't take them. He's a pass-first guy. So if we're not able to change Jumbo (Thornton) and get him exactly to the point where we want him too, taking the 400 shots a year, then whoever he dishes the puck to better be shooting it.
"Dany Heatley shoots pucks. He's a big man. He gets himself in position to shoot pucks; and Devin Setoguchi shoots pucks. So if we put that group together, offensively, I hope that we get a lot of production out of Joe, because of his skills, because the other two are going to shoot the puck."