Friday, October 24, 2008

Sharks, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich set to Take On Former Teammates

There will be a lot of storylines featured when the San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning square off Saturday night at 4:30pm PDT at the St. Pete Times Forum.

It will be the first meeting since new Lightning ownership pressured Dan Boyle to waive his no-trade clause and leave the city and organization he loved for Northern California. It will also be the first time back in Tampa since the trade for Brad Lukowich and the first time the Sharks will face their 2006 draft pick Matt Carle in another uniform.

It will also be the Sharks' first visit to Tampa since before the lockout, and a chance to look at the two teams that may have had the most significant changes from last season. No team did more to reinvent themselves than Tampa Bay, and no contender in the Western Conference reinvented themselves more than San Jose.

The direction of those changes started with changing coaching staffs and their style of play. Otherwise, their new looks bear little similarity.

The Lightning dumped two veteran defencemen who helped them to a Stanley Cup championship, including one of the premiere players at his position in the league. They signed practically every free agent forward available, including a lot of veterans.

So how has it worked for both sides? The results of those changes, it could be argued, have done little to change the teams' outlooks.

Last season, the Lightning finished with the worst record in the league, and this year they were the second-last team in the league to get its first win. The Sharks finished the 2007-08 season with the league's second best record and currently have its fourth-best winning percentage.

However, looking beyond the surface, both teams are getting what they wanted.

The Sharks kept almost their entire forward unit intact and remade their blueline, adding three key players who not only bring a more offensive skill set to the unit but finally bring the team some championship experience. In the process, they finally scrapped their under-the-cap, build from the draft approach.

The Sharks have an active blueline that has become not just the hallmark of the Western Conference, but is necessary to get through the playoffs. In the end, they have been overmatched in that unit in each of the three years they have been eliminated from the playoffs.

Last season, no team scored fewer goals from the blueline than the Sharks, and they were also at the bottom in shots on goal by that unit. Thus far this season, they have accounted for 35.7 percent of shots (87), five of the 25 goals, and 12 of 45 assists.

Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are among the four players on the team with 25+ shots. Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic are tied for third in scoring with six points in seven games.

This new look has also improved puck possession for the Sharks, who entered Wednesday's game with the highest average shot differential in the league. Boyle lacks the size to provide the defensive presence of Brian Campbell, the late season trade acquisition who the Sharks lost in free agency over the summer.

However, this is not the Sharks' new focus. As Vince Lombardi once said, "the best defense is a good offense." This is the dimension the team was supposed to have gotten with Campbell trade late last season, but they now have two pairs with players who can provide that pressure.

Losing Ty Wishart and Matt Carle may have mortgaged the Sharks future, but it significantly improves their present. Wishart was probably a year or two away from getting any playing time in San Jose, and Matt Carle was not playing consistently enough to be an every-day player.

However, both add to the core of young players surrounding the Lightning's top draft pick Steven Stamkos. The Lightning will take time to gel their new lines under a new coach who is a very recognizable face of the game even if he has not coached for a decade. With their scoring talent, they have one of the league's most exciting teams and still are generating buzz.

To examine which team did better in this trade can only be done over the long haul: who will get more championships and how great will those players' roles be? But expectations are high in San Jose and excitement is high in Tampa Bay, and the best way to see the impact that has on each organization is to watch Saturday night.

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