Sharks GM Dean Lombardi remembers sitting with his staff last season when the team was 0-6-2 and discussing whether to deviate from the team's long-range plan of improving by adding one key player at a time.

Talk around the league was that the Sharks were ready to trade RW Owen Nolan, who had had a checkered career since coming to San Jose.

"We stuck with the blueprint, and last year it could have been easy to blow it up," Lombardi said. "[Trading Nolan], that wasn't coming from me. Part of the blueprint was to have a power forward. Detroit is the best example of that. They had all that talent, but until they added [Brendan] Shanahan, that was a big piece missing. To me, the traditional power forward can score 30 goals and punch your lights out. How many are there? [Keith] Tkachuk, [John] LeClair, Shanahan, Nolan."

Lombardi felt that Nolan would become a 30-goal guy again and that LW Jeff Friesen's game would soar if only he could find the right center to put between them. Young Patrick Marleau was just that--too young. So Lombardi traded for veteran Vincent Damphousse. This season, the three have combined to form one of the top lines in the league as all three are among the NHL's leading scorers.

They have helped lead the way for a surprising Sharks club that is jockeying with the Kings for the top position in the Western Conference two months into the season.

Lombardi has made a number of moves during the three seasons he has been general manager. He hired a no-nonsense coach in Darryl Sutter to transform the club into one that stressed defense. He surrounded himself with savvy scouts who have produced four first-round picks who are playing for the team.

He also hired goalie guru Wayne Thomas as his assistant general manager to work on player personnel. Thomas, who has worked with Curtis Joseph, among others, convinced Lombardi to trade for Sabres backup goalie Steve Shields last season.

Shields is in the midst of a strong first quarter, having won the starting job from veteran Mike Vernon. Shields, who stopped 98 of the first 100 shots he faced this season, had a 1.92 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage going into weekend play.

"Like anything else, you start to add more and more pieces and the whole gets better," Lombardi said. "When I took over, this team had 45 points. To build it up will take time. Unfortunately, everyone wants to win now. We're getting some veterans, but we're not giving up kids. We know where we are with this team, and that is all that matters. We have a lot of work here to still do. We're not kidding ourselves."