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Led by Hart winner Thornton, Sharks loaded for another run at Stanley Cup

Now that the NHL's reigning most valuable player he's been through an entire postseason and training camp with his new club, he's determined to add team success to his personal renaissance. His Sharks are loaded with young talent, and they're more experienced after last season's regular-season successes and playoff shortcomings.

After years of patiently developing homegrown players - and swinging a tremendous trade to land Thornton - the future has arrived for one of the NHL's most tantalizing collections of young players. Though he didn't grow up in teal, Thornton is determined to lead the Sharks into new territory.

"We're not going to catch anybody by surprise any more," said Thornton, who led the league in scoring with 125 points. "We'll just keep working hard and pushing each other, because we've got some great talent. We've got a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup, and that's our biggest goal, every day we come to work."

The Sharks' challenges are formidable as well: The Pacific Division might be the toughest in hockey this season, with longtime rival Anaheim adding defenceman Chris Pronger to a lineup that has been most experts' favourites to win it all.

But while everybody watches the Ducks, San Jose coach Ron Wilson believes the real show will be up the California coast.

"I know they got Pronger for one reason, and that's No. 19," Wilson said, referring to Thornton's jersey number. "They said, 'We can't compete with that.'

"We're not going to dread playing Anaheim. When you look on paper, we might have the strongest division in hockey. In our conference, you probably have to have 95 points to make the playoffs, and we've got the team to do it, and to go farther."

The Sharks finalized their regular-season roster Tuesday with a handful of minor moves. They will carry eight defencemen at the start of the season - including 19-year-old rookie Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the surprise of training camp.

The Sharks have been committed to youth for years, but they seem doubly determined to win with their homegrown talent this season. On Sunday, they made a trade with New Jersey that essentially swapped US$3.5 million of the Sharks' remaining salary-cap space for the Devils' first-round pick next summer.

The move could hamper San Jose's ability to add talent if the club gets off to another slow start, but nobody thinks that's much of a danger after last season's tremendous finish. The Sharks were among the NHL's elite after acquiring Thornton, steaming into the playoffs with eight consecutive late-season victories before a second-round collapse against Edmonton.

"I came in December 1 (last season), and it was just a dogfight to get into the playoffs for the rest of the year," Thornton said. "This year we don't have to wear ourselves out by April."

Consistency should be the Sharks' ally. Thornton again will centre Jonathan Cheechoo, who won the Maurice Richard trophy last season with 56 goals - the most scored in the league in a half-decade. Thornton's other wing will be Mark Bell, their biggest off-season acquisition in a trade with Chicago.

The second line appears to be nearly as dangerous: Captain Patrick Marleau, who led the NHL with nine assists and 12 points in the pre-season, will centre youngsters Milan Michalek, who had a league-best seven pre-season goals, and Steve Bernier.

Wilson has been known to tinker with lines throughout the season, but these two groups appear to be set.

"I don't want to jinx it too much, but any time you get to play with linemates and stick together for a while, the better off you are," said Marleau, whose wife is expecting their first child in a few weeks.

The third line could feature veterans - a rarity on a roster with hardly anybody under 30. Newcomers Curtis Brown and Mike Grier, both acquired for their penalty-killing prowess and overall tenacity, will play alongside pesky wing Ville Nieminen.

The top four defencemen are Scott Hannan, Kyle McLaren, Christian Ehrhoff and rookie Matt Carle. Most observers believe the Sharks could use a physical, veteran blueliner in the mix, and such a player could be the target in general manager Doug Wilson's first big trade of the year.

That's because San Jose still hasn't resolved its goalie controversy.

Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala still are on the Sharks' roster, and both veterans hope to be the regular starter. Third-stringer Nolan Schaefer still hasn't signed his new contract as a restricted free agent, allowing the Sharks to keep all three players in San Jose until the situation is resolved.

But nobody in San Jose sees the goalie glut as a problem - particularly if the Sharks are as good as they expect.

"I'm excited about this team, but to a man, we've all got those same high expectations," Doug Wilson said. "It's no secret what we want to do this year."


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