Sharks Looking Back and Moving Forward

For the seventh straight season, San Jose Sharks fans move into the offseason with wonders of what could have been. San Jose fell short again this year, losing in the Western Conference final for a second straight time.

But that’s just where the frustration for Shark faithful begins. San Jose has made the NHL’s postseason in each of those last seven seasons, which includes a third Western Conference finals appearance that came back in 2004. If they were an NCAA basketball team, they would definitely be given a much larger amount of appreciation by the media and the fans. Making the final four is huge in that tournament.

But this isn’t collegiate basketball, where star players often leave after a year or two, this is the NHL. And the Sharks aren’t anything like your typical college basketball team which has to reload on talent every 2-3 years.

And unlike most NHL franchises which have had trouble sustaining winning (see the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers) San Jose’s GM Doug Wilson has done a tremendous job putting together a Stanley Cup caliber roster year in and year out. His star players want to play here, they want to make roots here in the Bay Area.

Now those other three teams mentioned above have all been to a Stanley Cup final within the past seven seasons, and two of them raised that 3-foot long, 35-pound silver thing over their heads—every hockey player’s dream.

However, each of those teams have also missed the playoffs entirely in the last seven seasons. In fact those three franchises have combined to miss the playoffs 13 different times over that span.

Yet the Sharks have made the dance every season.

Sure, it drives San Jose diehards crazy that their strong team year after year hasn’t won the Cup but that their rivals from Southern California already know the feeling.

It bothers them even more that the Ducks are a younger franchise and they don’t nearly come close to selling out their home games like the Sharks do each year.

Plus that sting of being upset by the eighth-seeded Ducks back in 2008-09 still lingers. The Sharks were the President’s Trophy winners and got knocked out in six games by Anaheim in the first round.

The last two years though, the Sharks have won four playoff series, and been to back-to-back “final fours.” That’s playing in a total of six series.

Anaheim as played in just one series the last two years. Edmonton hasn’t even been back to the playoffs after going to the final as an eighth seed in 2005-06 and Carolina has made the playoffs just once since beating the Oilers that year.

Sharks and their fans have to feel like they have accomplished something, right?

“It’s an accomplishment for our organization” confirmed center Logan Couture on making it to the conference final in two straight seasons. “A lot of teams would gladly switch places with us.”

Of course, lost in that mix was a couple of “but, it’s not where we want to be” lines from San Jose’s standout rookie and Calder Trophy candidate.

So was this season a success or a failure for the Sharks?

“I don’t know if failure is the right word, but disappointing” responded All-Star defenseman Dan Boyle.

It was a “failure” remarked Patrick Marleau, the longest tenured Shark.

And obviously, in this league, with this Sharks team and their Stanley Cup expectations, nobody in their right mind would label it a success. However, for the Sharks and their fans,  they have at the least shed the label of playoff chokers.

Have they gotten over the hump? No. Will the team continue to face heat from the media and fans about not winning the Cup? Yes.

But can the Sharks continue to be legitimately criticized for not getting deep in the playoffs? No, not anymore.

The Sharks were the only team to reach the Conference final these last two seasons, and are one of just three teams to reach three conference finals over the last seven years (Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers being the others).

After that 2008-09 season when the Sharks were upset in the first round after three straight second round exits, there was understandable frustration and doubts of fans and probably some players themselves.

Yet coming off two straight years in the Conference final and that doubt  (once fans and players have time to heal) is no longer necessary. Hope for this next season has to be the new way of looking to the future because there is definitely a lot to like about the Sharks moving forward.

Joe Thornton, their captain, lead the team in playoff scoring (17 points in 18 games) but more importantly elevated his game in all three zones. Although Joe will be the first to deny his game changed in 2010-11, everyone from the media to the fans to his own head coach has talked about his enhanced commitment to playing sound defensive hockey.

And Thornton is under contract for three more years. He’s not going anywhere.

Neither is defenseman Dan Boyle. San Jose’s second leading scorer in the playoffs with 16 points in 18 games, remained one of the NHL’s top puck moving defensemen and to this day is under-appreciated when it comes to defensive zone play. He is also under contract for three more years.

Couture, as mentioned above was a force for the Sharks all year long. He set a franchise record for rookie goals with 32, and finished the regular season with 56 points. Throw in another 14 in 18 playoff games and Couture performed to an elite level all year long despite being in just his first full season in the league. In fact, moving forward, don’t be surprised if Couture out-scores the more-defensive minded Thornton next season.

Ryane Clowe, the fearsome winger and line-mate of Couture’s enjoyed a career year setting highs in goals, 24, and points, 62, during the regular season. And despite playing the last six playoff games with a separated shoulder, still managed to be third on the team in playoff scoring with 15 points in 17 games. Clowe is under contract for two more seasons.

Center Joe Pavelski also enjoyed a career year, setting highs in assists, 46, and points, 66, in 74 regular season games, by far his best point production in his young career. Plus a good chunk of the season Pavelski put up those points as the main cog on a third line for the Sharks. He may have been criticized in the postseason for “only” putting up 10 points in 18 games this year as opposed to 17 in 15 last year but nobody within the San Jose organization is questioning Pavelski’s drive to win and his playoff wasn’t nearly as bad as many out there made it seem. Ten points isn’t anything to get upset about. Pavelski is still a clutch performer that every team wants to have and the Sharks have him locked up for another three seasons.

And finally there is the play of Antti Niemi in net. Niemi’s numbers weren’t spectacular in round one against he Los Angeles Kings nor the conference final against Vancouver. But the second year goaltender and Stanley Cup champion proved his rookie campaign with Chicago wasn’t a fluke.  A regular season save percentage of .920 is the real indicator of his true abilities and it has been proven that he can go the distance with the right group in front of him. He’s 6-1 in postseason series. That’s all you need to know.

There also role players like defensemen Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers who all chipped in this season and should all continue to improve next season. Neither of them are going anywhere, all three are under contract for the next two years.

Furthermore, the Sharks have young guys coming up through the system looking to pressure for jobs next year. Certainly defenseman Justin Braun who was up and down over the course of the season, but also center Andrew Desjardins who filled in on the fourth line down the stretch and defensive prospect Nick Petrecki (a first round pick taken the same round as Couture in 2009).

“Andrew Desjardins has earned it. He has worked hard just to get to this point. He’s paid his dues” commented GM Doug Wilson. “He’s a highly competitive kid who will come in and compete for a spot on this team. Nick Petrecki is a big physical defenseman who had a lot of growth in the last year. We drafted him with the understanding that the expectations would be high and he’s right on that track”.

One would have to be naive not to believe the Sharks have a bright future in front them. They may have traded first round draft choices away in the past but they have a phenomenal scouting team and have had one of the top minor league systems for years now. Of course every team has their famous hits and misses in the draft but the Sharks have signed plenty of gems pulled from late rounds of the draft.

Former longtime All-Star goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who played over a decade with the Sharks, was a 9th round selection back in 1994. Douglas Murray was an eighth round selection in 1999 and Clowe was a sixth round selection in 2oo1.

Those three may not have come on Wilson’s watch but the current Sharks GM has been the boss for draft choices like Couture, Torrey Mitchell, Devin Setoguchi, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Combine that minor league system with a core group of players under contract— most of whom are in their primes and getting better—and there is plenty to like about the future of the Sharks.

All that said, with the good comes the bad.

Two of San Jose’s top stars (part of that core who is under contract for..take a guess….three more years) have got to be better moving forward. Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley did not follow their captain’s transformation of working harder in all three zones.

These two account for over $14 million worth of payroll and yet they are the two of the most inconsistent players on the roster. Marleau turned on the jets during the second half of the season to finish with a point total of 73, right on par for his career numbers and natural skill set.

Heatley, however, finished the season with a paltry 64 points in the regular season—his lowest full season total since his rookie year where he registered 67. For a player who has twice reached 50 goals and 100 points, and five times been over 80 points in eight seasons, it simply was a down year. Adding insult to injury, Heatley managed a measly nine points in 18 playoff games. Remember, he’s paid to be a superstar so that was simply not good enough production.

Now while Marleau did have a better regular season than Heatley (by far) and wasn’t terrible in the playoffs with 13 points in 18 games, he still did not elevate his game the way he is capable of doing. And that isn’t lost on a lot of fans.  There was a comment on a blog late this year where a fan said “Every time my kid goes out to play a game, I remind him he wants to play like Joe Pavelski, not Patrick Marleau.”

Even for Sharks fans who love Marleau, hearing something like that has to be a major concern. It’s not something that can just be shrugged off. For as talented a player as No. 12 is for the Sharks, that three zone play from Thornton has yet to be attached to Marleau’s name.

In the second round series against the Red Wings, Marleau was criticized by former teammate Jeremy Roenick and it was a spot on assessment. Stronger plays on the puck in the defensive zone from Marleau will be a must moving forward.

The coaching staff and the GM can’t sugarcoat things forever. They were definitely critical in their assessments as the Sharks met the media for the final time this season.

“One concern is we tend to be reactive on occasion instead of coming in and setting the tone” Wilson told reporters. “We’re certainly capable of playing a certain style of game and that’s something we’ll take a look at.”

After praising Couture’s performance this season, Head Coach Todd McLellan had the following to add:

“[There are] others that didn’t get to the level that we’d like them to” he said. “They’ll be challenged again [next year]”

Perhaps McLellan had Marleau and Heatley in mind in that statement and perhaps not. Perhaps he was talking about Devin Setoguchi, and…..maybe…er….Kyle Wellwood?  Both players tailed off in the last round.

Then again those two may not be back in teal and made less than 2.5 million between them, highly unlikely those two were the focal point of McLellan’s comments.

Either way, even with some significant concerns, there is a lot to like if you’re a Sharks fan.

Back-to-back conference final appearances is something to be proud of, and the roster next season will remain just as talented if not more-so than that of the past two seasons.

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