Alternate Sharks History: A first round exit

What if San Jose had lost to Vegas in Game 5?

Several years ago, the NHL ran a series of ads called “History will be Made,” in which they speculated on how the course of NHL history would have changed if certain events never occurred.

Here at Fear the Fin, we thought we’d take the chance to speculate on what would have happened if San Jose got bounced by Vegas in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. This is an article that could have been written if the darkest timelines had come to pass, and a reminder that the best and worst times are separated by a very thin element of chance.

Here we are.

San Jose has just crashed out at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, getting run off the ice at the hands of the defending Western Conference Champions, who stumbled through most of the year before becoming unfathomably dominant through the addition of Mark Stone.

There’s no shame in losing to a better team, of course, and nobody would deny that Vegas has been that through the course of this five-game series. Vegas has thrashed the Sharks in every aspect — whether in offensive zone, defensive zone, or neutral zone play. And let’s not even speak about the goaltending.

Not many can explain DeBoer’s decision to go with Martin Jones again in Game 5, but even fewer can defend it after the goaltender was yanked with fifteen minutes to go in the second period, having let in four goals on 17 shots. Of course, Aaron Dell was no better, giving up two goals in the eight shots he faced, which leads people to wonder why the team didn’t acquire a capable backup at the deadline.

This group did score three goals against Marc-André Fleury in Game 5. They arguably had the most potent offense in the NHL across the course of the season. Surely Jimmy Howard or Ryan Miller would have kept them in the series. Maybe they would have even stolen a game or two for the team, like a goaltender might have to do from time to time.

Of course, we don’t live in a world of hypotheticals — we live in one where we must deal instead with what actually happens. And what happened is that after a blinding Game 1 victory, San Jose lost four straight games to Vegas by the scores of 5-3, 6-3, 5-0 and 6-3. Doug Wilson must now deal with the ramifications of a defeat that has the potential to upend the roster for years to come, beginning with the possible losses of both past and future franchise cornerstones.

After a first-round exit in an injury-plagued season like this, Erik Karlsson is likely gone. San Jose once seemed a lock to retain the Swedish superstar, but extension talks were reportedly shelved a few months ago and have yet to resume. After an unconvincing first-round exit, Karlsson looks likely to test the open market, and San Jose now faces a dogfight to keep him.

If he does leave, it would be an unbelievably tough blow for the team to take — not because they sacrificed anything other than fringe NHL players and a mid-to-late first rounder to get him, but because without him, the team is stuck in bubble hell. Too good to tank and too starved of quality to contend, San Jose may spend years bouncing around the 90-95 point range, beginning a slow decline that mirrors Calgary’s in the late 2000s. Erik Karlsson is the kind of superstar that can change a team’s quality overnight, and San Jose is dearly going to miss him, dodgy groin or not.

Rumors had him going to Vegas or Tampa before San Jose swung a trade for him, and while both of those teams have severe cap crunches that they’re facing, Karlsson is the type of superstar any smart GM will force his team to make room for.

Perhaps he’ll go to Tampa and play with Victor Hedman, giving the Lightning the most formidable blueline since the heyday of the Lidstrom-led Detroit Red Wings. Alternatively, he could go to New York, who will draft one of Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko and look set to take a run at Artemi Panarin as well.

But equally likely and far more ominous is the prospect of Karlsson going to Vegas and reuniting with Mark Stone. You can easily see the Golden Knights trading Reaves, Eakin, Tuch and Haula to make room for Karlsson. They’re not going to miss Reaves or Eakin much, and with all-world Russian dynamo Nikita Gusev coming in, you sense they’re not going to miss Tuch or Haula too much either. It is entirely possible that Karlsson will be in San Jose several times a year — it’s just that he’ll be wearing a white and gold jersey instead. With the one-two-three punch of Erik Karlsson, Stone and Gusev complementing the lethal top unit of Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, Vegas would be set to dominate the West for years to come.

Without Karlsson, what does the team do about Marc-Edouard Vlasic? The defender looked nothing like his former self after being split from Karlsson early in the season, and while he rebounded a bit towards the end of the year, it’s likely that he gets stapled to the corpse of Justin Braun again as Pete DeBoer trots out the remnants of a once-great pairing in a desperate bid to rekindle past glories. That would likely mean more replacement-level play for 25 minutes a night, and not even Brent Burns or Tomas Hertl can cover that up.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Joe Thornton might retire. Perhaps looking at this team now, especially with a possible Karlsson-less future, might cause him to think that his dream of chasing a cup is gone. He hasn’t shown any inclination towards uprooting his life and moving somewhere else, unlike Patrick Marleau, so it’s possible that he decides to call it quits after having slogged through injuries for the last few offseasons. Few would begrudge him if he chose to try and chase one in Toronto or Tampa on a league-minimum deal instead, of course, but regardless, it’s not all that difficult to imagine that he won’t be on the team next season.

There are, of course, silver linings. Timo Meier has continued to improve and is now one of the premier power forwards in the NHL. Tomas Hertl is a bonafide top-line player. Brent Burns and Logan Couture have continued their excellent play, while Brenden Dillon has finally justified the Jason Demers trade by emerging as a genuine top-four defender. And it’s highly unlikely that the goaltending will be as bad as it was this year — goaltenders are notoriously volatile, and it’s not unheard of for one to post a .900 save percentage one year and a .920 the next. Any sort of bounce-back to league-average netminding would go a long way towards compensating for losing Karlsson and should ensure that the team competes for the playoffs again. It is thus fair to say that there are a number of factors at play that give San Jose hope for the future. All of them, however, will have to go right for the team next year to offset their potential losses.

The final thing that makes this ending more painful than any since the reverse sweep of 2014 is that both top seeds have been bounced out, throwing the race for the Cup wide open. Any of the remaining teams could conceivably win it all, especially now that Calgary and Tampa Bay have been bounced out in upsets that varied from surprising to stunning. You get the sense that, if there ever was a year for the Sharks, this would have been it. A good playoff run could have gone a long way towards keeping Karlsson and ensuring that the franchise continues to maintain a foothold in a hockey market that is closer to niche than mainstream.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world of what-ifs. The only “what” we can ask is the same as always.

What now?