Devin Setoguchi, left, is blossoming on a line with Joe Thornton. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images))

There's a new breed of Sharks in the NHL, hardly resembling the docile group that was often sighted in the Western Conference in recent years. 

San Jose is taking it to teams through the first quarter of the 2008-09 season. The Sharks are still capable of grinding out low-scoring wins if they have to, but it's no longer the prime directive.

A number of the team's promising young players are poised for major breakthroughs, including defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and sophomore forward Devin Setoguchi.

Todd McLellan, an assistant the last three years with the Detroit Red Wings, is in his first year as coach and the results have been startling. The Sharks are the first NHL team to 20 wins — with no other club higher than 17 — and have lost just four times, once in overtime.

San Jose had won seven games heading into a Dec. 2 contest against Toronto, which was the beginning of a five-game home stand in the western team's imposing building. The Sharks outscored opponents 35-12 over the course of the seven victories.

Players like new system

It's not that the Sharks weren't doing well in recent years under Ron Wilson, but you get the sense many of the players were ready for the chains to be loosed.

"I think we're just playing a little different system this year and we have everybody playing within the system," Ehrhoff told "Everyone wants to play that style of game."

Last year's talented squad finished third in goals against, but just 19th in the league in goals. The Sharks this year lead the NHL in goals and shots.

San Jose is the only team to boast four players who have scored over 10 goals. In addition to Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau, there's Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski, both under 26 and on the rise in their careers.

While the additions of offensively skilled defencemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle have helped, the forward group is essentially unchanged.

"The new coaching staff, the way we play is totally different," said Setoguchi. "We find ourselves on offence more by shooting more pucks and getting guys to go to the net."

Setoguchi steps up

One of McLellan's moves that has paid off handsomely is Setoguchi skating on a line with Marleau and Joe Thornton. The 21-year-old Taber, Alta., native has a nose for the net and loves to shoot the puck, which works well with Thornton's passing abilities and Marleau's speed and all-around game.

Setoguchi leads the team with 12 goals and 27 points. He is quick to deflect much of the credit to the two veterans but admits there's been some personal growth, too.

"I think I've got a lot more confidence in myself than I did last year," he said. "It definitely helps when you can go out there and hold on to the puck for that extra second and make a play you're not afraid to do."

Like the Detroit teams McLellan worked with, San Jose is being driven in large part by a defence corps that is now strong top to bottom.

The additions of Boyle and Blake in the off-season have allowed Ehrhoff, 26, to come into his own. A plus player throughout his career, the German is on pace to smash his previous best of 33 points in a season.

"It's obviously great when you have two all-star-calibre defencemen — one of them a Hall of Famer — on your team," said Ehrhoff. "I guess it takes some pressure off me, but I didn't really feel any pressure before."

Defence can score

Doug Murray and Brad Lukowich are the shutdown types on the blue line. San Jose's top four defencemen, including 21-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic, already have 70 points.

That's 25 more than Detroit's vaunted top four.


Christian Ehrhoff is on pace to smash his previous high for points in a season. ((Christian Pedersen/Getty Images))

Last year, the since-departed Craig Rivet led all San Jose defenceman with a modest 35 points.

While it's impressive that Ehrhoff and Vlasic are on pace for career highs in points, it's quite another thing to consider that the same can be said for Blake and Boyle, who have over 21 seasons combined to their names.

Boyle, in particular, is having a campaign that will inspire Norris Trophy talk if it continues.

In addition to McLellan wanting his rearguards to jump into the rush more often, Ehrhoff said a change in power-play tactics has also been a factor.

"Last year we used to run it more from the half-wall and this year we either run it from the blue line or behind the net, so that gives us defencemen a lot more puck contact," he said.

The team is at its best in the "Shark Tank" of HP Pavilion. San Jose sported a 12-0-1 home record to begin the season, with the lone blemish due to a ridiculous 54-save outing from Dan Ellis of Nashville.

Strong fan support

It often seems that only the home side knows which way the puck is going to bounce on the unpredictable ice surface, and the fans are vociferous.

"It's not a corporate crowd," said Setoguchi. "It's a normal crowd of people working.… We've got people that are just diehard hockey fans here. It's weird to find in California.

"I talk to people and they love the Sharks and they love what we're doing."

It also may be the league's most ethnically diverse crowd, which has helped make the half-Japanese Setoguchi a particular fan favourite.

Now the task will be to spread the love all the way into June. The Sharks have stalled in the second round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

San Jose will host Edmonton on Saturday, the second half of a Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader.