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Sharks at Stars Preview: Why Sharks are still worth watching

After latest loss to Chicago, Sharks have been statistically eliminated from the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl (48) carries the puck during the NHL game between the San Jose Sharks and the Dallas Stars on April 2, 2022 at SAP Center in San Jose, CA. Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks (29-33-11, seventh Pacific) continue on the road, taking on the Dallas Stars (42-27-5, fifth Central) for the third and final meeting between the two this season. The Sharks beat the Stars earlier in the season 2-1, but lost the second contest in San Jose, just two weeks ago, 5-4.

Former Sharks captain, now Stars forward, Joe Pavelski netted an assist and the eventual game-winning goal on Apr. 2. It was a tilt that saw four-straight unanswered Stars goals in the first period. The Sharks have also been officially eliminated from playoff contention as of Thursday night’s shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

It’s not looking great for the franchise. The Sharks have floundered in pursuit of a win for eight straight losses. Within that measure, they’ve scored just 17 goals, good for 2.13 per-game. That isn’t to say there has been any shortage of chances, which head coach Bob Boughner referenced while speaking to media after the Chicago loss.

“I said to the coaches after the game, ‘How many breakaways have we had in the last 10 games: either 5-on-5, shorthanded, shootouts — all those situations?’ ... Those are golden opportunities.” It was an underscored posit against Nashville and Vancouver, some of the team’s latest opponents. San Jose scored just two combined goals in those games.

But if failing to convert golden opportunities into goals is the Sharks’ M.O., the most dispiriting moment might be striking out on all three shootout rounds against an opponent who managed to squeak in one. That happened against the Blackhawks. That’s a team who is at least less mired by low scoring than the Sharks, even if they are eight points superior in the standings.

So what do you expect to get against a Stars team that is in the thick of the Wild Card race in the West, who isn’t as decidedly marked by scoring woes? Compared to the Sharks, the Stars have scored 22 times in their past eight games.

What about the declining season is worth watching?

Maybe you’re not watching with eyes that are hungry for dominate play, but you can still hope to see them hanging in every game, showing compete. It’s something to monitor going into a new season with a lot of questions marks on the horizon.

Using the same eight-game losing streak as a measuring stick, the Sharks have been outscored by no more than two goals, with the exception of losing 5-2 against the Arizona Coyotes. Barring that outlier, the Sharks have arguably shown heart in the face of bad odds.

In the other three games they lost by a two-goal margin, the game was tied into the final five minutes against the premier Western Conference team in the Colorado Avalanche, but against the Canucks and the Flames, both 4-2 losses featured empty-net goals.

It’s been a heart-aching stretch of games, but the team’s ability to stay late in games is indicative of at least two things:

First, the leadership of Boughner and the veteran core to level a boost of morale even in the worst situations throughout the season. If the team is not going to rebuild, even with a new general manager on board, the most tenured players are going to have to bear the burden of carrying the franchise through bad times.

Second, the gained experience for rising players like Sasha Chmelevski, Noah Gregor and Scott Reedy, who are all looking to build up their stock in hopes to being regulars in 2022-23. Though it is unlikely that all the young players in rotation towards the tail-end of this season will become mainstays, there is the galvanizing effect of creating depth down the line-up.

For what it’s worth, the Sharks did not struggle to score against the Blackhawks. They scored four goals, one of which came off the stick of Reedy. So there’s that.

In short, how the veterans continue to manage, and how the young guns continue to play will determine how things look for the Sharks going into next season — both roster-wise and morale-wise.

How bad can it get before it gets better?

The Sharks are experiencing a season low in their current losing streak. But they seem to have put the worst of their injury troubles behind them. On the other hand, Radim Simek left with a lower-body injury early in the game against Chicago and Jonah Gadjovich’s return has been tenuous. Still, both players sit at the fringe of the line-up.

Mario Ferraro and Erik Karlsson have already returned from scary injuries, so all things considered, the Sharks are sitting with what will be their team for the remainder of the season. As mentioned, they’ve still had enough power to stay in with most of their competitors, despite where said team is in the standings.

So they could stop the bleeding now, which would require a win of any kind, or they could continue to trudge further in the opposite direction of the pack competing for playoff placement. How much worse-off will the Sharks seem if they have a nine, 10, or 17-game losing streak to end the season? It’s a question Sharks fans might have to ask themselves for the first time.

If the Sharks continue to tank, it is still unlikely they will underperform the Montreal Canadiens, Seattle Kraken or the Arizona Coyotes for the best odds of a first-overall draft pick. So there may be no sensible thing to do but to move the needle a bit, and against Dallas is as good as any opportunity.

What contracts make sense moving forward?

The Sharks have key unrestricted free agents (UFA) in Alexander Barabanov and Jaycob Megna moving into next season. They also have a laundry list of RFAs including Mario Ferraro and Jonathan Dahlen.

So though it makes sense to make relatively easy tenders to the cost-controlled RFAs, and doable ones for Barabanov and Megna, there’s a lot of background noise being made outside of the current line-up. That might mean the Sharks will have to pick and choose, especially with an arguably cap-strapped roster.

The Sharks recently signed Max Verroneau who is known for being the top goal-scorer in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this year. He also has some NHL experience. You can probably guess what caused the Sharks to go after him.

One of the Sharks’ top prospects, Thomas Bordeleau, ended his NCAA career and signed an amateur tryout for the organization, playing games with the San Jose Barracuda. He had a promising pro debut, notching three assists, leading to the young forward signing an entry-level contract this morning.

The team hopes to have 2021 seventh-overall pick William Eklund join next season, after his SHL team, Djurgardens IF, left the top tier league in Sweden. Some believe he can figure into the team’s top-6. Nick Cicek could possibly slot into the line-up, after earning himself a new contract through a successful season with the Barracuda.

Then there’s Kaapo Kahkonen, an RFA, who is pushing to be one of two goaltenders the Sharks will likely carry going into 2022-23. Kevin Labanc and Nikolai Knyzhov should also make their returns at the onset of next season.

That’s an overabundance of names to pencil-in to a 23-man roster in 2022-23. So RFAs like Chmelevski, Dahlen and Gregor might actually be playing for their lives right now, at least in terms of making the big club next season. It’s worth watching to see how much of an impact they can have in the remaining games.

Bold prediction: The recently assembled third line of Chmelevski, Gregor and Matt Nieto step it up a notch, and get a goal.