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Swimming with Sharks

Rebuilt Pacific Division powerhouse makes life difficult for NHL foes

Gather around the newspaper, hockey fans, for a little game of word association...

We say "San Jose Sharks" and many of you might answer with:

San Jose head coach Todd McLellan still hasn�t won a Stanley Cup, but he has built the Sharks into a perennial contender in the Western Conference.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS San Jose head coach Todd McLellan still hasn�t won a Stanley Cup, but he has built the Sharks into a perennial contender in the Western Conference.

"Playoff disappointment" or "underachievers."

Some of you, particularly those unfortunate souls with Shark players in your playoff pools over the last few years, might offer up something similar, but accompanied with a string of expletive deleteds that would make Tony Soprano blush.

But conduct the same word-association exercise in NHL circles -- that highly volatile world that has already cost seven coaches jobs this season -- and the San Jose Sharks would elicit responses like "consistency" and "stability" or even "overdue."

"We have a group that we believe in, right from the ownership on down," said Sharks' head coach Todd McLellan after Wednesday's practice at the MTS Centre. "I wouldn't say (ownership) is patient with us, but they believe in us.

"We've worked hard. We've had the Presidents' Trophy, we've been to the final four twice... there's a lot of teams that would trade positions with us to get to that point. Now, with that being said, we haven't reached our final goal. But only one team gets to do that every year and it's a tough road to hoe."

Some numbers that speak as evidence to the Sharks' long, consistent, regular-season run:

-- The club has not had a losing season since 2002-03;

-- The Sharks have finished first in the Pacific Division in four consecutive campaigns and;

-- They have averaged 48 wins and 108 points over the past seven seasons.

It could be said, then, that in many ways the Sharks -- just like the Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins -- represent what franchises like the Winnipeg Jets hope to become.

Yes, winning a Stanley Cup is the ultimate, but building a franchise into a consistent winner along the way is the blueprint any owner/coach/player would covet.

"It takes time. I think it's a cultural thing," McLellan explained. "The wins don't occur as the clock runs out, it's everything that happens before and during. It happens in the front office, it happens in the weight room, it happens with the medical staff, it happens with the commitment to success in the summer.

"We've worked hard in our organization to get to that point to feel confident about our group. And then the input on the ice leads to the wins in the end. We're not perfect by any means, but we like the culture we've created, the players believe they have a chance to be successful if they do it right. They believe in each other and the pieces that are here."

Those pieces, however, aren't exempt from being changed. Feeling pressure to take that next step and fulfill all that promise in the playoffs, the Sharks underwent a significant makeover in the off-season, sending Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick to Minnesota for Brent Burns, trading Dany Heatley to the Wild for Martin Havlat and adding Michal Handzus, Jim Vandermeer, Colin White and Selkirk's Andy Murray in free agency.

Ultimately, this team won't be judged until the spring, but even with many of the new pieces struggling with injuries -- Havlat, White and Vandermeer have missed a combined 57 games -- the Sharks, again, lead the Pacific Division and remain a Western Conference power.

"We're still growing," said McLellan. "We had a large turnaround for a conference final team.

"We're trying to get everybody healthy and put the team together. That's why we play 82 games, that's why we have nine months and when it's all said and done we'd like to think the group can gel and everybody play to their strengths and we'd have a good group." Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2012 C3

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