With a perplexing offseason behind them, the San Jose Sharks are a little over a week away from beginning their season against the very team that ended their last one. And while the opener in Los Angeles, along with the 81 games that follow it, are all important, this team will inevitably be judged by what they accomplish (or fail to accomplish) in the spring. To that end, despite a host of questionable moves and pledges to become a "tomorrow team," the Sharks have yet to do any irreparable damage to their roster and remain, for the time being, a club with a legitimate chance to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup if things finally break in their favor. Here are three of the biggest, though far from the only, questions they'll need to answer before that time comes.
1. Who, if anyone, will be the Sharks' next captain?
Many expected Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, or both, to be shipped out of town this summer but when no-movement clauses in their contracts made that impossible the Sharks instead opted to strip the team's longest-tenured players of their leadership positions. In a lot of ways, this seems like little more than a symbolic move; whoever replaces Thornton as captain and Marleau as an alternate, whether it's Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture or Marc-Edouard Vlasic, has spent their entire career on teams that have featured either Thornton or Marleau at the helm of the leadership structure. While I'm obviously not privy to the inner dynamics of the Sharks' locker room, it strikes me as unlikely that any of those players would be able to instantly overtake Thornton as the dominant voice.
But Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan, who ultimately pulled the trigger on the decision to go with a "clean slate" approach to the team's lettered leadership core, are privy to those dynamics and they apparently seem to believe this will make a difference. I'm skeptical but, hey, it beats trading Thornton and Marleau for pennies on the dollar (more on that in a minute). At any rate, the Sharks have about nine days to sort this out unless they're willing to let it drag into the season and potentially become another distraction in a year that should already provide plenty. Maybe going with three A's and no C, as McLellan suggested was a possibility earlier in the summer, is the right way to go. At least it would prevent Pavelski's inevitable regression in shooting percentage from being chalked up to his newfound burden as captain.
2. Will Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both still be Sharks after the trade deadline?
Even at 35, the two best players in franchise history remain elite NHLers. Thornton is coming off the third-most valuable even-strength season by a skater in the past seven years, having finished second in the league in assists to go along with dominant puck possession numbers in difficult minutes. Marleau is coming off his seventh 30-goal year in the past eight full seasons and a gold medal with Team Canada; he's a dominant scorer who can also defend and kill penalties with the best in the business. Marleau is a little over two seasons away from hitting 500 goals at which point Thornton should enter the top 30 in all-time scoring. These guys are among the greatest players the NHL has ever seen at their positions and, while they don't appear to show any signs of slowing down, the final years of their careers should be celebrated.
Instead, they spent this past offseason engulfed in a whirlwind of trade rumors, having their leadership ability openly questioned and their roles as captain and alternate ultimately revoked. Much of the media and some fans have always been quick to blame Thornton and Marleau whenever things go wrong for the Sharks but this summer it seemed like management finally agreed with those critics. Thankfully Thornton and Marleau are still here but how long will that last? Both players are known for their rather laid-back personality but everyone has their breaking point; somewhere down the line, it isn't difficult to envision one or both growing tired of being constantly scapegoated, having their contributions devalued and their roles on and off the ice reduced and agreeing to change zip codes. If that day comes, it will likely be a disastrous one for the Sharks. The returns for Thornton and Marleau won't be nearly adequate to compensate for their losses and, although both players are frequently blamed for the team's playoff failures, dealing them won't solve the Sharks' very real issues. Any remaining chance this team has at winning a Stanley Cup in the near future flies out the window the minute Thornton and Marleau are no longer Sharks.
3. Can Alex Stalock beat out Antti Niemi for the starter's job in net?
If you're looking to blame a singular aspect of the Sharks' game for their epic collapse against the Kings, goaltending wouldn't be a bad place to start. Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock combined for a putrid .854 save percentage in the final four games of the series and while it's true that the Sharks didn't manufacture enough offense at one end of the ice to win those games, they also couldn't buy a save at the other.
In fact, San Jose's playoff goaltending issues extend well beyond one series. During the Thornton era, Niemi, former starter Evgeni Nabokov and their host of backups who saw postseason action have combined for a .908 playoff save percentage. It's difficult to win a Stanley Cup with that kind of goaltending considering the actual Cup winners over that span have seen their netminders post a .923. Again, Thornton and Marleau are easy scapegoats but the real reasons for the Sharks' playoff failures have little to do with them and quite a bit to do with factors completely out of the star forwards' control, such as inadequate play in net.
It's not even that Nabokov and Niemi have been bad goaltenders during their respective careers in teal; both have received Vezina Trophy nominations as Sharks and both, on the whole, have posted regular season numbers typical of average to slightly above-average starting goalies. But they've also both had multiple ugly playoff meltdowns and, whether those are indicative of mere bad luck at the most inopportune of times or deeper issues, it seems likely that will lead to the end of Niemi's San Jose career when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer just as it did Nabokov's when he became a UFA in 2010.
But in the meantime the Sharks need to figure out who, between Niemi and Stalock, will receive the bulk of the starts this season and, more importantly, which one will be faced with the task of rewriting some of the franchise's gruesome playoff goaltending history in the spring. Niemi is coming off the worst season of his five-year NHL career but Stalock is no slam dunk to usurp him as starter if they truly are entering an "open competition" as Sharks management and coaches have described it. Despite an encouraging 24-game stint as Niemi's backup last season, Stalock compiled a mediocre .907 SV% on nearly 4000 AHL shots during his time in the minors. His aggressive, athletic style and puckhandling ability might make him more enjoyable to watch than Niemi but it's a giant question mark whether that will translate into better results in the long run.
Given the likelihood that Niemi experiences at least a bit of a bounce-back season, perhaps the Sharks would be wise to ride the Finn and sell high on him to a team whose starter gets injured prior to the deadline with Stalock receiving a longer audition afterwards. Regardless of how this plays out, and as obvious as this feels to type, the decision to settle on a starter should be performance-based. While Niemi's track record suggests he's the favorite to win a legitimately open competition for the job, Todd McLellan can't be afraid to relegate him to backup for extended stretches simply because he's a veteran with a Cup ring. Similarly, Stalock shouldn't be force-fed starts just because the Sharks are a purportedly a "tomorrow team" if he isn't playing well.