Over the next three days either Jake or Marcus will be answering one of the three big questions facing the Sharks this offseason in The Daily Chum. Following that post, the writers at Fear the Fin will chime in with their own thoughts. You can find those thoughts in varying length below.
It's always hard to discount the Sharks from making a Stanley Cup run with 11 playoff appearances in the past 12 seasons. However, if there's one thing the first round of this year's playoffs showed us, it's that we're starting to see a shift in the Pacific Division. Edmonton and Calgary both have a lot of playoff appearances to be had in their futures, and Vancouver could be there within two or three seasons, maybe even sooner. For the longest time, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim have been the top three teams in the Pacific. We're starting to see that change, however; the Kings haven't made the playoffs in the past two of three seasons, the Sharks lost in the first round after making it to the Final last year, and even though they won the divison this year I'm not sure what to think of the future the Ducks have.
I think the Sharks' window for their first Stanley Cup is still open, but as alluded to above it's only going to get tougher. Assuming they bring back Thornton and Marleau, you still have your those two to go along with your core players: Pavelski, Burns, Couture, Hertl, etc. The Sharks gave their rookies a lot of opportunities this year and guys like Kevin LaBanc, Timo Meier, Marcus Sorensen, and Aaron Dell all were impressive at one point or another and will only continue to build on their 2016-17 seasons.
It's not going to be easy, but I think the Sharks window is still open for a Stanley Cup within the next season or two. After that, your guess is as good as mine.
I don’t think they have much of a choice but to go for it. A lot of really bad luck made this team look worse than it is this postseason. If we’re looking for examples of other teams that would be shut down by serious injuries to their top two centers, I have 29 off the top of my head. A lot of this will, admittedly, be predicated on Joe Thornton being healthy enough to walk, but the Pacific division waters still look pretty navigable next year.
Anaheim will be a year older, and likely lose a good young defenseman to Vegas; Arizona should be better, but I think they’re cursed by gypsies; Calgary will be better assuming they can re-sign their GM and find a goaltender, and I don’t doubt that they can (Scott Darling, anyone?); Edmonton will be better, and that’s scary, not a lot of optimism from this corner on that one; LA will be significantly worse, with a cap filled up by aging Gaboriks, Carters, Kopitars (all of whom are still dangerous, but 30-something players don’t generally get better with age), and the world’s best average goaltender; and Vegas will almost undoubtedly be a trainwreck.
This is the last year where Hertl and Jones have cap hits that start with threes, barring a huge setback in their development, and the last year before Marc Edouard Vlasic’s agent walks into DW’s office with a copy of the Burns contract in his hand and says “Start here.” Speaking of Burns, a team with an $8 million 32-year-old Norris winner (yeah, I said it) can compete; a team with an $8 million 40-year-old former Norris winner hopefully already has, and is still paying for it. After you win, overpaid defensemen are the cost of doing business, just ask Chicago fans how much they love that Seabrook contract.
The Sharks have no fourth round pick this draft, and no second or third round picks until 2019. If they want to tear down and rebuild through the draft (sorry, Doug, “retool and refresh” through the draft), this is really not the time to do it. Last, from a business perspective, the Sharks are massively increasing ticket prices this year. I don’t see ownership being keen on a step back the same year they double season ticket prices for much of the lower bowl seats, and they’re always going to be keen on more playoff revenue. Mmmm.... revenue.....
Obviously, a lot of this question will come down to the status of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Other than those two, the Sharks will definitely need an abundance of youth in order to succeed. If you looked around the NHL this year, you saw Auston Matthews score 40 goals as a rookie and second year forward Connor McDavid score 100 points.
It's clear that hockey is becoming a younger game, a place where the Sharks aren't exactly in the best spot. If we see Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc (just to name a few) take on a bigger role next season, then yes, the Sharks can contend. If not, then it'll be interesting to see where this team goes.
I expect them to be even better next year. The Sharks main corp of players played about a year and a half of hockey at the most elite level in the world spanning the entire '15-'16 season and postseason, into the World Cup and then into the '16-'17 season. Fatigue was a major factor in the outcome of this campaign and you're a fool if you think otherwise. Pair that with reports of just how injured the Sharks were heading into this year's playoffs surfacing yesterday, it's easy to see why the Sharks offense dried up as abruptly as it did.
With an extra month or so tacked onto a full summer to rest heading into '17-'18 I fully expect the Sharks to return to the postseason next year. There are still many questions to be answered before camp begins in the fall, i.e. the fate of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, how the expansion draft will affect the club, will the Sharks youth find success again should a mass exodus of veteran leadership occur?
Today's big question must be answered with two more questions: can the Sharks' homegrown talent continue to develop, and what will the rest of the Western Conference do?
Whether or not Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau return to San Jose, the Sharks will have to make up for some, if not all, of the offense the two produced. If Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and perhaps Danny O'Regan can establish themselves as regular contributors, and Tomas Hertl and a healthy Joonas Donskoi can ramp up their offensive production, the Sharks can mitigate the continued decline or loss of its longest-serving stars.
Just as important, and out of the Sharks' control, is what the rest of the West is doing. The salary cap could go up by as much as $3 million up to $76 million, but much of the West faces a cap crunch. Calgary has the most flexibility, but Edmonton, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Anaheim, and Nashville either have to lock up important RFAs (Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Johansen come to mind), or have minimal cap flexibility to change their roster (don't count out Stan Bowman pulling another Houdini act, though).
Of course, nobody saw the additions of P.K. Subban and Adam Larsson to the West last season, but with much of the West in position to largely stand pat, it's not a stretch to think the Sharks' can keep their window open if their own players continue to develop. Those are some big "ifs" though, and relying on hypotheticals in order to win a Stanley Cup has doomed plenty of teams before.
So, I'll say the window remains slightly ajar, with the potential to close rapidly if things don't fall the Sharks' way.
Without dropping a bomb onto the roster, I think San Jose already has the tools at its’ disposable to make a run in 2018. I don’t think DeBoer should be tied to things like Thornton as first line centre or other long tried and true tactics. If PDB can use his players optimally and flexibly, San Jose can enhance the product they put out. Why not protect Thornton on the third line for a bit? Why not playJoel Ward on the fourth line? There are some rosterbation moves to make that can help ease the workload on aging veterans and still provide a talented and deep team.
They also need to infuse the kids. Add Meier, Labanc, Sorenson (who I love on a speedy fourth line with Tierney), O’Regan or whomever else proves himself. San Jose doesn’t have A+ talent overflowing the Barracuda, but they do have NHL worthy talent that could fit seamlessly with a talented veteran team. We have seen that speed kills and skill triumphs over sandpaper. San Jose can infuse a lot of speed and skill to a deep team to help them bridge the gap between the Jumbo era and a new NHL where playing fast is a dangerous weapon.
On the flip side, I don’t think people realize how dark and scary a full-blown tank job rebuild is. For starters, if the Sharks decide this is the time to rebuild that means, no resigning of Patty and Jumbo and then trading away Couture, Hertl, Jones, Pavelski, Donskoi, Vlasic this off season. If you leave a combo of those guys on the team, San Jose will be too good to bottom out properly and will be stuck in 17-26 purgatory.
A full-scale rebuild is also not a guarantee of good things. The Oilers were in the hinterland for 10 years before falling into Connor McDavid. The Leafs have been bad for even longer, but have only recently nailed their picks, which also included a generational talent in Mathews. Teams like the Coyotes, Sabres, and Hurricanes are perennial bottom feeders who have been rebuilding year in and year out. Full-blown rebuilding is a long and uncertain road, and frankly one that San Jose doesn’t’ need to look at yet as this is a team that went to the Finals in 2016 and was cruising for most of this season. You can easily take another shot at the Cup.
The Sharks are in an interesting position this offseason. They’re too good to go into rebuilding mode, but they’re not quite good enough to be expected to make a deep run of any kind. That said, I don’t think San Jose’s window has officially closed.
Despite question marks surrounding Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s futures, the core group looks to be in place for the foreseeable future. With Couture, Pavelski, and Burns locked up for a while, they certainly have the skills and leadership to be successful.
There are, however, a few grey areas that could push the Sharks to either side of the window equilibrium. Does Marc-Edouard Vlasic re-sign? Does Tomas Hertl flourish at center? Will Martin Jones stay in the crease? Can the young guns produce consistently at the NHL level?
Ultimately I think Wilson finds enough cap space to extend Vlasic, either Jumbo or Patty will return (but not both), and Jones will continue to guard the goal in San Jose. There is a tendency when discussing competitive windows to resort to the two extremes: either tank or go for glory. I think the Sharks are actually positioned to take more of the middle path. With the key leaders in place, I believe the Sharks are only a few depth pieces away from being a contender again. With a little re-tooling, I believe the Sharks are still a “today” team as opposed to a team of “tomorrow.”
My heart says "get the band back together for one more tour". My heart wants to see Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton and friends win the Stanley Cup wearing teal. My heart says, "hey, look at the injuries Thornton and Couture and Hertl and Marleau suffered, things would be different if those guys had been healthy". After the long playoff run last season, many of the key players were rewarded with the opportunity to represent their respective countries in the World Cup of Hockey (tm) in September. These guys were tired by the end of the season, but with a long summer to recover, things will be different next season. My heart is not ready to see these players in different uniforms.
My head is telling me "it's time to burn this thing to the ground". My head knows that it is extremely unlikely that the Sharks will have any better luck with injuries next season, especially when taking the age of the roster into account. It is screaming Branch Rickey's maxim "trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late". My head wants to trade everybody that can possibly be traded and stockpile picks and prospects. It knows that these are basically weighted lottery tickets, and getting as many as possible greatly increases the odds that the turnaround will be quick. My head knows that hanging on to players too long and delaying the inevitable is a recipe for becoming a bubble team. One who's best case scenario is sneaking into the playoffs and, if they get all the breaks *maybe* stealing a round. My head looks at this roster and sees a talented, but flawed group of players. It sees one of the oldest rosters in the league, and a farm system that doesn't have any blue-chip prospects. My head knows that the Sharks lost their last two playoff series because they couldn't keep up with their opponents. This will not get better next year.
My head knows that this will be painful. But it also believes that it will be more painful to come up short, again, and delay the inevitable for another year.
My head knows that this won't be popular. It doesn't care.
My head knows one more beer is always a bad idea. My heart just cracked open a can of Fieldworks' Citra King.
My head knows the hangover will be bad, but could be mitigated. My heart will deal with it in the morning.
If this is a "tomorrow team", it sure isn't a "day after tomorrow and beyond team".