1. Lack of secondary scoring:
The sharks concluded the regular season with 7 20+ goals scorers. The second half of the season featured a Sharks team that could beat you with any line on any given night. This made match-ups almost impossible for opposing coaches and gave the Sharks the luxury of being able to roll all of their lines. Two major factors within their game plan made this possible. First off, the Sharks played a very solid defensive game that created transition opportunities, which they capitalized on quite often. Second, the sharks were very committed to a smart dump-and-chase game, meaning they dumped the puck into the zone with intent and purpose, pursued with speed (very important, as this was lacking in the playoffs) and out-muscled other teams with their cycle. Also, that cycle, more often than not, included their defensemen jumping in as safety valves to maintain puck possession.
How this failed them in the playoffs:
The defensive game wasn't really the culprit in this season's playoff shortcomings. The Sharks, with some notable exceptions that led to losses, played a fairly solid, playoff style brand of defensive hockey. Sure, they could have hit people a bit more... sure, they probably could have been a bit better on cross-ice passing lanes. The crux was the lack of a smart and fast transition into an offensive push. Very few things linger from the Sharks of previous years but this is one of them. Make no mistake, this team is vastly different (though the results are similar) from those of years past, but one disturbing remnant is the hesitation by the defensive core to move the puck up quickly and smartly. What this does is it allows the other team to clog the neutral zone and come in hard on their forecheck. In other words, it allows your opponent to separate your team. Instead of a 5 man unit moving with speed, you have flat-footed defenseman trying to force a pass through too many players and over too great a distance.
The Sharks play a puck possession game. In its most basic form, puck possession means that you have the initiative. Any hesitation will negate that initiative. I can understand the hesitation, of course. It is human nature to be more careful when the stakes are higher (and it doesn't get much higher than the playoffs) but being too careful is exactly what will ensure your exit from the playoffs. The lack of secondary scoring is greatly affected by this because your forwards will now have a much harder time getting into the offensive zone with speed. In the playoffs, that second or two is enough for most teams to set-up. Even if you do still have the puck at this point, your team has gone from proactive to reactive.
2. No O from D:
Ok, I know it sounds like I'm nagging on the D-Core a bit. It's not that I think they're entirely to blame for the teams exit but considering the type of system the team plays, the defense plays a huge part in dictating the offense. In today's NHL, there aren't very many forward lines that can completely dominate play for any real stretch of time. The notable exception, of course, is the Sedin line but even they couldn't do what they did puck possession wise without Bieksa, Edler, Ehrhoff or Salo jumping into the offensive zone to keep plays alive.
This is the only area where I feel the sharks truly lack in personel. Danny Boyle is the only one that jumps into the play with the confidence or ability that he does. This isn't to say that other players aren't capable of it. Murray, Wallin and White show flashes of it but none of them can do it with any real regularity. You can't get away with that in today's NHL. Your defensemen have to be aware and confident enough to pinch regularly. The Sharks need look no further than their final game versus Vancouver for a stunning example of how effective this can be. Though the result was a devastating loss, I'll bet you every player and coach would tell you that most nights, they win playing that way. Though I think they could have been smarter with their shot selection, quality versus quantity is a whole other topic, and stronger on their forecheck, they played the type of game we should all expecting from them every night. If they had strung a few more of these types of games together, they'd be heading back to San Jose for game 6. They would have closed out Detroit in 5. They'd be rested and ready for a chance at the cup.
3. Consistently inconsistent:
This last point is probably the most telling and, oddly, the easiest to fix. Inconsistency was the thing that ultimately did this team in. From period to period, we would see the team change from rabid, offensive powerhouse to timid, defensive punching bag. There will always be an ebb and flow to each game, momentum swings in which a team will seize control for a couple of shifts. When that happens, you have to hold your ground, bend and not break and prepare for that crack in the armor that allows you to reassert yourself as a team and wrestle back the momentum. The Sharks were guilty of bending too far on most night and Vancouver definately took advantage. They weren't very good at managing the peaks and valleys and that is ultimately what did them in.
You can have a bad shift, but you can't have 3 in a row by 3 different lines. You can let in a bad goal but you can't let in 2. For the most part, the Sharks actually did a decent job handling themselves. They dealt with adversity better than any Sharks team I've ever seen. The problem is that they dug themselves too many holes too often and sooner or later, they catch up with you.
What's the solution? Simple. Time. People forget that the current permutation of this team is very new. Their system is new, or at least their commitment to it as a team. Their roles are new. Joe Thornton has become what we all hoped he would/could be one day but he is still a relatively new captain. Though his stamp is pretty firmly imprinted on this team, I think it will take a bit of time for the team to become as tough, smart and patient as he is. Ian white will become more of an offensive force once he learns the system and plays with this team a bit longer. I still believe that the sharks need 1 more smooth-skating, sharp-passing, offensive minded defenseman but I also think, given the right situation, Ian white can be serviceable in that role. Logan Couture will continue to grow. It's easy to forget this is his first full year in the NHL. Oh, and let's not forget, Antti Niemi now has something to prove.
As much a homer as it might make me sound, I think that the sharks will be a very scary team next year. The team now has a very strong identity. From January forward, there wasn't a better, tougher team in the NHL. The sharks played a brand of hockey that was tough to beat because they had a system that made them constantly proactive. Their opponent didn't matter. They played the same way game in and game out and that led to a string of remarkable victories that solidified who they were and what they could do. Let's not forget that most people had written this team off in December. They're one year smarter, one year tougher and, most importantly, one year angrier as the team they are now.