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Sharks set sights on Cup in 2008

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Photo Credit:  Dave Sandford/Getty Images Photo Credit: Dave Sandford/Getty Images
TORONTO -- With a plethora of young talent waiting to emerge in the spotlight, San Jose's future is looking extremely bright.

Despite the Detroit Red Wings handing the Sharks another second-round playoff exit, there are many positives to take out of the 2006-07 regular-season.

For starters, the Sharks registered their best record in franchise history this year, going 51-26-5 with 107 points. Joe Thornton compiled another 110+ point season. Captain Patrick Marleau scored 30+ goals for the second-year in a row. Jonathan Cheechoo is still a scoring machine. Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala are premium No.1 goaltenders. Scott Hannan led a strong defensive core. And, the team has eight studs under the age of 25.

The Sharks held a press conference last week, the first time they formally met with the media following their second-round loss, in an attempt to offer some answers as to what went wrong.

GM Doug Wilson simply stated, "We underachieved."

He's completely correct.

They may not have captured hockey's ultimate prize, but they're swimming dangerously close to a championship.

With another year under the belts of San Jose's eight young stars -- Milan Michalek, Steve Bernier, Matt Carle, Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryane Clowe, Marcel Goc and Joe Pavelski -- the Sharks will be most definitely on the hunt in 2007-08.

"They've got a first-class organization there," said veteran Bill Guerin, who the Sharks acquired on trade deadline day. "It's a heck of a young team. They're not just good now, but they'll be good for a long period of time."

That's not to say that some changes aren't necessary. Teams can always find a way to improve and the Sharks will look to do that during the off-season.

Their first order of business is taking care of their impending unrestricted free agents. Guerin, Craig Rivet and Scott Hannan are set to become UFAs July 1 and it would be beneficial for management to keep all three.

Guerin and Rivet, who was also acquired in February, made immediate impacts on the hockey club. Guerin scored eight goals in 16 regular-season games with San Jose, while Rivet solidified a defensive core in need of another veteran.

The Sharks are expected to pitch an offer to Rivet, although it's unclear if they'll pursue Guerin.

"I really enjoyed San Jose," Guerin said. "I'd absolutely consider going back there."

Keeping both Guerin and Rivet makes sense.

San Jose's attack lacks a true veteran forward with Stanley Cup experience and Guerin brings that to the table. His ability to score goals is an added bonus and gives the Sharks one of the best forward units in the entire league.

Rivet, meanwhile, proved his worth in his short stay and appears interested in returning, as well. The 32-year-old is a true hockey player in every sense of the term. He leads, doesn't back down from a challenge, plays a solid two-way game and can help mold San Jose's younger defensemen into better players.

While focus should be placed on Guerin and Rivet, the Sharks know as well as anyone how badly they need to keep Hannan, the rock of their blueline.

The 28-year-old stay-at-home defenseman is arguably the best defensive-rearguard available in this summer's free agent pool and will be highly sought after if the Sharks aren't able to re-sign him.

The Sharks have 18 players locked up next season, costing them roughly $35.5 million. With the salary cap expected to reach anywhere from $47 to $51 million next year, the team should have the financial resources to keep Hannan, who made $2.204 million last year and should hit the $5 million mark this summer.

If the team is unable to re-sign one, or both, of Rivet and Hannan, the might be able to find a replacement via the trade front.

The Sharks will trade one of their two goalies this summer, as confirmed by Wilson, and should get their hands on a significant return for either player.

Nabokov ($5M) and Toskala ($1.375M) have proven themselves capable of being starters in the NHL and having two No.1's on your team is mighty valuable. Wilson and Co. will demand a high return for one of these stars, as he should, and that will only improve the Sharks' chances next season.

Upon signing their free agents and trade one of their netminders, the Sharks have something else to seriously consider.

Thornton and Marleau can become UFAs following next season. In no way can San Jose allow both players to hit the open market at the same year, while playing on a same team. It would be remarkably ill-advised to trade either player, thus signing them to contract extensions is the logical choice.

In a salary cap world, however, it's much easier said than done. If the Sharks want to keep their one-two punch up the middle, securing that option might result in trading Nabokov instead of Toskala.

Nabokov's cap hit is $5.375 million, while Toskala's is only $1.375. However, Toskala will become a UFA the same year as Thornton and Marleau.

Looking at the team's figures, if they re-sign Hannan ($5M), Rivet ($3M) and Guerin ($3M), their cap hit jumps to $46.5 million. Providing they trade Nabokov and keep Toslaka, that number falls to $41.125 million.

Thornton ($6.667M against the cap) will likely hit the $8 million range, while Marleau ($4.167M against the cap) should climb to $6 million, giving the Sharks roughly $44 million in total salary.

Oh, I almost forgot. Seven of the Sharks' eight young studs will need new contracts too. It's safe to assume none will accept deals worth $1 million, each.

Regardless of who's between the pipes next season, if the Sharks plan on battling for the Cup, signing Hannan and Rivet to multi-year deals and inking Guerin to a one-year pact makes the most sense.

For now, it's all about capturing the Cup next season. Once they finalize their roster for the start of the 2007-08 campaign, then can management focus on the future while the players work on the present.

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