How should the Sharks feel about the team that got away winning the Stanley Cup?
The Los Angeles Kings are your 2014 Stanley Cup champions. Yes, the same Los Angeles Kings who were down 3-0 to the Sharks. Kill me.
So the Los Angeles Kings have won the Stanley Cup. Again. A decade after being relieved of their duties in San Jose, Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter have now led a different California team to its second championship in three seasons. Six months after sending Tomas Hertl to long-term injured reserve, Dustin Brown and his gap-toothed smile were the first to lift hockey's ultimate prize. And seven weeks after falling behind three games to none against the Sharks and teetering on the brink of elimination, the Kings have somehow managed to snatch a Stanley Cup from the jaws of death.
Obviously it's the last one of those that empties several shakers of salt into the Sharks' still-open wound. They had the Kings on the ropes—in a predicament from which only 2.2% of teams in NHL history have come back—and let them get away. It's an unquestionably awful feeling and the bitter aftertaste of that series may never wash away but now that the 2014 playoffs are over, we know that it took a historic collapse for the Sharks to lose to the team that eventually won it all. The Sharks were closer to eliminating the Cup Champs than any of their other three opponents. Does that validate the notion that the Sharks are painfully close to winning a Cup of their own and blowing up the team would therefore be a huge mistake of G.O.B.-ian proportions?
I suspect the answer to that question is a bit of a Rorschach test for Sharks fans and management alike. You can either ignore the Kings' championship and instead see the Sharks blowing a 3-0 series lead as the last straw for a core with a history of playoff disappointment or you can point to the Sharks coming oh-so-close to sweeping the best team in hockey as evidence that they're a great team still capable of delivering the franchise's first Cup. I don't think either view is necessarily unreasonable but I think there are pretty solid counterarguments to both.
Despite the well-worn narrative of the Sharks being chokers, they haven't lost to a team demonstrably worse than them in the playoffs since 2009. Declaring a season in which they pushed the eventual champs to the brink the last straw seems like an odd place to draw the line. San Jose's playoff losses these past five years have had a lot more to do with not having the depth to compete with the big boys (along with a combination of poor goaltending performances and bad luck) than some sort of inherent character or leadership flaw. As for using the first-round series as evidence the Sharks should stay the course, the Toronto Maple Leafs spent last offseason doubling down on every one of their terrible ideas while citing as justification the fact that they were up 4-1 against eventual finalist Boston in Game 7 of the quarterfinals. They missed the playoffs in hilarious fashion this year.
Therein lies the problem with using the result of a small-sample playoff series to construct broader arguments about a team or a player, regardless of what those arguments are. There's so much luck involved in hockey that a seven-game series, while entertaining as hell, isn't always an effective method of determining who the better team is. Had Marian Gaborik not scored with seven seconds remaining to tie Game 1 of the second round against Anaheim, perhaps the Ducks would have won that series in five games and the Sharks' first-round collapse would have been looked at it an even less favorable light. I think that's a little silly. The distinction to be made between the Sharks' almost-defeat of the Kings and previous instances of teams nearly knocking off eventual champs or finalists (in addition to the Leafs example, the 2011 Habs were a goal away from beating the champion Bruins in the first round) is that they legitimately outplayed a phenomenal Los Angeles team over the course of the series.
At 5-on-5, San Jose generated 242 unblocked shot attempts to 240 by the Kings. That's certainly not a wide margin but consider this: none of the Kings' other three playoff opponents were able to outshoot them at evens like the Sharks were. And it's not like L.A. had a cakewalk en route to the Cup; they traversed one of the harder roads in recent history that included the defending champion Blackhawks and a very good Rangers team. And yet the Kings controlled just 49.8% of the Fenwick events against the Sharks but a combined 55.2% against the Ducks, Blackhawks and Rangers. The Sharks were the only team to control puck possession in the playoffs against the NHL's best puck possession team. If Antti Niemi had managed to make another save or two in Game 4 or if Marc-Edouard Vlasic hadn't been injured in Game 5 or if the power play hadn't gone ice-cold in Games 6 and 7, we're talking about a different Cup champion right now. Maybe even the Sharks.
There are no guarantees in the playoffs and it's entirely possible the Sharks would have simply lost in the second round to Anaheim or the third to Chicago, just as the Kings could have easily done so as well. The fact that Los Angeles didn't, and ended up winning the Cup, should establish to a wider audience something that would have been true regardless of how their run ended: the Kings are a hell of a hockey team. Perhaps the fact that the Sharks were right there with them all season and series long establishes that they're a hell of a team too, more in need of minor changes than a complete overhaul.
I think fans are entitled to be furious about what could have been as they watch the team the Sharks couldn't put away parade yet another Stanley Cup around Los Angeles. But management needs to look at the bigger picture. If Doug Wilson is going to engage in the results-based analysis of chastising the leadership for failing to close the Kings out, it's only consistent to re-evaluate how good this core is in light of the team they barely lost to going all the way. I wrote in the days following the Sharks' elimination that they were unlucky enough to draw a Stanley Cup Final-caliber matchup in the first round. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising the team that defeated them ended its season celebrating a championship.