The San Jose Sharks should not define success in the 2017-18 season in terms of playoff performance. That’s not to suggest that winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in its 27th season would be unwelcome, but that certainly should not be the standard.
At least, it shouldn’t be as the team is currently constructed. A big acquisition, which General Manager Doug Wilson has said he’s open to, could change that. But we looked at possible lineups yesterday, and it’s difficult to see how the team is better than the one the Edmonton Oilers eliminated in six games in April.
Its top center, Joe Thornton, is a 38-year-old coming off of significant knee surgery and his worst season since the turn of the century. Many of its core pieces, including captain Joe Pavelski and defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, are in their 30s. Its third-leading goal-scorer, Patrick Marleau, is now in Toronto.
The Sharks will rely on players like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc to fill the void Marleau left behind. They just might be able to, but it’s still a lot to ask of two 20-somethings entering their second professional NHL seasons that have played a combined 89 games with the Sharks.
Yet it’s their development, plus that of Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen, and Dylan DeMelo, and the potential emergence of players like Joakim Ryan and Daniel O’Regan, that this season should ultimately be judged upon. The Sharks would conceivably rely on these players as the team proceeds into the post-Thornton era, and need to determine whether they can do so.
A successful Sharks season is thus one in which these players take significant steps forward. Meier and Labanc don’t need to match Marleau’s production immediately, nor does Hertl need to establish himself as the team’s top center by this time next year. But they, as well as the rest of San Jose’s young players, need to show signs they’re capable of doing so in the near future.
With Burns and Vlasic signed deep into their 30s, and Pavelski and Logan Couture eligible to sign extensions of their own as soon as next season, the Sharks have to know what to expect from the young talent surrounding its core. If the young players don’t demonstrate they’re ready for bigger roles, San Jose will be forced to reevaluate its roster construction, and potentially, whether it’s worth paying a premium for players like Burns and Vlasic without the cheap, young talent capable of supplementing and eventually supplanting them.
Signs of development from the young players, not playoff wins, should be how the Sharks measure a successful season in 2017-18. If they get enough of the former, the latter very well could come. But unlike most recent seasons, this year’s worth should not hinge upon it.