The San Jose Sharks are once again heading home before the calendar flips to June. While a lot of teams would love to consistently play into May, the Sharks’ annual quest for Lord Stanley has come up short for what seems like the umpteenth consecutive spring. With that being said, this team is heading in the right direction having removed the label of being playoff choke artists.
Now that the off-season is upon Team Teal… what does the future have in store?
It’s safe to say the Sharks have had bad luck in recent postseasons. As the Presidents’ Trophy winner in 2009, they got paired with an Anaheim club that was anything but an 8-seed. Last spring they faced Chicago, a team destined for Cup glory, in the conference final. And then there’s this year, where you could say Vancouver is also meant to lift the Cup in T-minus two weeks.
So when will San Jose be ‘meant’ to raise the Cup? After another disappointing exit, I’m sure hockey fans in the Bay Area are asking that same question.
After Game 5, when Head Coach Todd McLellan was asked whether his team’s window is closing, the bench boss laughed it off and said, “No. I think that's ridiculous … In my opinion, there's absolutely no reason why we can't be an elite team again next year, as we were the last three, four, five years.”
While I tend to agree with McLellan, his core isn’t getting any younger. Joe Thornton (who, I should mention, is no longer a playoff underachiever) is 31. So is Patrick Marleau. Workhorse defenseman Dan Boyle is 34. All three have birthdays before the puck drops on the 2011-12 season. This is where the continued progression of Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture becomes even more important.
Ages aside, GM Doug Wilson must find a way to improve the defense this summer. They missed that one blue-liner that could log big minutes and take some weight off Boyle’s shoulders; it was evident in their series against Vancouver.
It will be a difficult task to try to find that missing link, though, considering the team’s cap constraints; according to CapGeek.com, there is $51.4 million locked into 14 players for next year.
Notable unrestricted free agents on the back end this summer include the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski, Tomas Kaberle, Kevin Bieksa, Joni Pitkanen and Andrei Markov. There’s no telling who will be available on the trade market; but since his team will once again be up against the cap, Wilson may have to go that route if wishes to find a significant upgrade.
When you look at the rest of the roster, you have to like what you see.
Up front, they have a great mix of skill and size, which has also been a strength in San Jose. Obviously, they need more from $7.5 million man Dany Heatley, who was invisible most of the playoffs.
In goal, I think Sharks fans are happier with Antti Niemi now than they were with Evgeni Nabokov a year ago at this time. Niemi, who is 6-1 in playoff series, must back up his hefty extension as he will enter a season as the go-to-guy in net for the first time in his young career (which is harder than it sounds).
Lastly, they have the right man behind the bench. McLellan is a great coach and has helped the franchise remove the label of being chokers come springtime. I don’t know if a Ron Wilson-coached team gets over the Detroit hump in the second round in back-to-back seasons. McLellan definitely has this team steered in the right direction.
Unless you’re Detroit, advancing to the conference finals in two straight seasons is a big deal. In San Jose, it most definitely is. Unfortunately, it will go down as another playoff disappointment for the perennial contenders.
Not to worry, though. The Sharks will be right there again next year, atop the Pacific Division and on the hunt for their first Stanley Cup.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.