The five biggest San Jose Sharks stories of 2014
Let's take one final look back at a dark year in Sharks history then never speak of it again.
There's no need to tiptoe around it, 2014 was a pretty awful year to be a Sharks fan. From the most painful playoff exit in franchise history to a bizarre and confusing offseason to the departure of a fan favorite, there wasn't a whole lot to like about the year that was in Sharks hockey. On the other hand, the development of young players like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Mirco Mueller along with a burgeoning prospect pipeline and the fact that the Sharks refrained from gutting most of the team's core provides some hope that the year ahead should be a better one. On New Year's Eve, let's take one last look back at one of the darkest years in team history then never speak of it again.
5. The Dan Boyle Era comes to a close
With the possible exception of Doug Wilson if we were to count his post-playing days, no defenseman in Sharks history has had as significant an impact on the franchise as Dan Boyle. Acquired in the summer of 2008 thanks to a Tampa Bay Lightning firesale, Boyle scored 279 points in 431 regular season games for San Jose in addition to being an incredibly productive playoff performer while logging heavy minutes in all situations. He was part of the large Sharks contingent on Team Canada's 2010 Olympic entry, represented the Sharks in two All-Star games and was a leader on and off the ice.
But all good things come to an end and never has that adage been truer for the Sharks across the board than in 2014. With Boyle's skills declining and an increasingly youth-focused Sharks management team averse to handing a 37-year-old blueliner a two-year contract, Boyle's negotiating rights were traded to the New York Islanders on June 5th. He would eventually sign with the New York Rangers where he's currently riding a three-game points streak and starting to once again resemble the Boyle of old after an injury hampered the start of his season. While Brent Burns was converted back into a defenseman (which really could have been story 5b here) in an attempt to fill the void left by Boyle, it's hard to imagine anyone truly replacing what Boyle brought to the Sharks in his best seasons anytime soon. Boyle left the Sharks as the highest-scoring defenseman and tenth-highest overall scorer in team history.
4. Vlasic makes a name for himself
Speaking of excellent Sharks defensemen, 2014 was also very much about the passing of the torch from Boyle to Marc-Edouard Vlasic as the latter definitively replaced the former as San Jose's most valuable piece on the blueline. After Boyle starred for Team Canada at the Olympics in 2010, Vlasic played a significant role in the Canadians riding a suffocating defense to a gold medal at Sochi in 2014. He was even more important to the Sharks as Vlasic's even-strength possession numbers when adjusting for usage were among the best in the league last season as he anchored San Jose's top shutdown pair and regularly neutralized opposing stars in doing so. It certainly wasn't the first year Vlasic was used in that role or even the first year in which he thrived but, as his 21 Norris Trophy votes attest, in 2014 people outside of San Jose finally started to notice just how good Marc-Edouard Vlasic is.
3. Joe Pavelski, goal-scoring machine
As of this writing, no NHL player scored more goals in the 2014 calendar year than Joe Pavelski's 42 (Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars also potted 42. I'd make a Hitchhiker's Guide joke here but I don't think Seguin can read). Pavelski entered 2014 having never scored a hat trick in his NHL career. He scored three in the first three months of the year en route to a career high 41-goal season that ranked third in the league for the 2013-14 campaign. While that was largely thanks to a 18.2% shooting percentage, nearly double his prior career rate, regression hasn't slowed Pavelski down all that much so far this season as his 17 goals in 37 games have him on pace for about 38 by season's end.
While there's no question the chance to ride shotgun on Joe Thornton's wing has been the main reason for Pavelski's goal-scoring renaissance, Alternate Captain America deserves plenty of credit for improving his touch in front of the net and becoming a puck-redirecting menace on the power play. While the Sharks run a fairly fluid system on the man-advantage that unpredictably morphs from an overload setup into an umbrella, Pavelski has certainly had more of an opportunity to work closer to the net this year as opposed to his old spot at the point. It's paid off as Pavelski's nine power play goals so far in the 2014-15 season are tied with Nick Foligno for tops in the league.
2. Thornton stripped of the captaincy
You'd think dealing with devastating playoff heartbreak would be second nature to the Sharks by now but judging from the response to their latest postseason collapse, that might not be the case. Almost immediately after San Jose was eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings, trade rumors began to circulate regarding Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau just months after they'd signed multi-year contract extensions equipped with no-movement clauses to stay in San Jose. Doug Wilson publicly declared that the team was entering a rebuilding phase despite being one of the best teams in the NHL in 2013-14. And San Jose's only notable offseason acquisitions were a goon squad of John Scott, Mike Brown and Micheal Haley.
The ultimate upshot of the Sharks' offseason rhetoric was that the team certainly incorporated a slew of younger players into their lineup from defensemen Mueller and Matt Tennyson to forwards Barclay Goodrow, Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson. But more significantly, they shook up their leadership core after Thornton and Marleau proved less than receptive to being shipped out of town months after signing long-term deals. For the second time in five years, the Sharks stripped their captain of his captaincy, this time removing the "C" from Joe Thornton's sweater four years after sewing it on following their 2009 decision to do the same to Marleau. If the decision has changed the dynamics of the Sharks' locker room or alienated the faces of the franchise in any way, it's hard to tell. Thornton has been just as dominant as always, if not moreso, thus far in the 2014-15 season. But demoting him from captain to alternate certainly put a bizarre, if somewhat expected, punctuation mark at the end of a strange offseason.
1. It was 3-0
Sigh. Here's to nothing like that ever happening to the Sharks in 2015. Or any other year in the future for that matter.