Every team publicly states that their goal for the season is to win the Stanley Cup, but that's often more PR hyperbole than anything else. Some teams mean it, both at the start of the season and following the trade deadline -- the New York Rangers obviously thought so when they added Rick Nash, and the Pittsburgh Penguins loaded up to bank on a deep playoff run. On the other hand, the Columbus Blue Jackets are probably just happy to find some consistency as they battle for the 8th playoff spot.
And the San Jose Sharks? Considering the Jeckyll & Hyde season they've had so far, it's difficult to know what to expect.
It really wasn't all that long ago when the San Jose Sharks looked like they were going to blow a fantastic start and slide all the way down the Western Conference standings into non-playoff mediocrity. It's not just that they couldn't seem to score three goals; it was the way the entire team's game just seemed a little listless once they got past the red line.
But now? After a strong push over the past month or so, the Sharks seem to be clicking on all cylinders. With three scoring lines, a mobile defense, a confident goalie, it seems like ages ago that San Jose appeared slow and over-the-hill. Today, a home-ice playoff spot seems within reach.
The funny thing about this rollercoaster season is how expectations have shifted as the team evolved. San Jose's blockbuster start masked a lot of problems but had eager fans thinking the group's core had at least one last Stanley Cup push left in them. The February doldroms quickly changed that with thoughts of rebuilding -- and hoping that Doug Wilson would mine whatever returns he could get for aging veterans; at that point, an 8th seed would have been a nice extension of what seemed like a moribund season.
So who are these San Jose Sharks? Are they a rebuilding team that's just happy to be there? Are they the rebirth of the Stanley Cup contenders of years past? For fans, it's difficult to set expectations, and a big part stems from the fact that this team has evolved in a way that no one really expected.
During the dark period that stretched between February and March, most of the chatter focused on the need to get younger and faster. If you look at the composition of the top three lines now, it's obvious that those goals have been achieved, and a lot of it came from within. T.J. Galiardi looks to be the crash-and-bang player everyone hoped for when he came in, while Tommy Wingels has developed into a player who's more than just an awesome name. Logan Couture seems to have found the gear that elevates young star players into the truly elite. And Brent Burns looks like he'll be more than capable of staying at forward for the long haul.
On the blueline, Matt Irwin has proven himself to be more than capable of NHL minutes. Jason Demers and Justin Braun have also found a groove despite some shaky moments. This evolution has amped up the team's overall speed and depth, and since Todd McLellan finally went to three scoring lines and defensive pairings emphasizing mobility, the team looks completely different.
Is it possible to rebuild in the middle of the season without dramatic trades? At the start of the season, it was easy to say "There's potential but they're old and slow." Call it patience, shrewd development, or just plain gambling and dumb luck, but now it's easy to say that the Sharks have transitioned into the opposite. There's at least one contributing young forward on each forward line/defensive pair, and every group on the ice has at least some guys that can push the pace.
In short, they're not as bad as their tailspin showed. And they're a different team from the one that blew open the start of the season. That team won almost by smoke and mirrors -- it was a veteran squad that fell into old tricks while the rest of the league shook off rust. And while there was a time when the Sharks looked like they'd be happy to stumble into eighth place, there seems to be some real potential to this current team in teal.
Unlike the old days, it's not just because Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau carried the load. Instead, the old stalwarts are still getting it done -- but it's the young guys who've stepped up to help the Sharks become a better squad. I don't know if "contender" is the right word for them going into the playoffs, but they're faster and more effective than the team that went 7-0 to start the season -- and for what it's worth, I'd rather put money on the team that blew out Minnesota the other night than the Sharks we saw in January.