The San Jose Sharks most stellar start in franchise history has now long come to an end. With only two months of regular season games left, and a losing streak that has far overstayed its welcome, the Sharks are finding themselves in an uphill battle to the top of the pacific division, and more importantly, to a seat in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the Sharks have long been acknowledged to have one of the top lines in the West, the presence of a rapidly closing window of opportunity feels stronger than ever, as points are not coming any easier and the team’s core players are not getting any younger.
In their 22 years of existence, the Sharks have made the playoffs roughly 70 percent of the time. Since 2003, when Doug Wilson took over as GM, the Sharks have made the playoffs every single season; making it safe to boast that year-after-year Wilson has built a playoff-type team. Yet they have always fallen short of achieving the final goal. Looking at key players, such as, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 33-years-old, poses a question of how many more chances do the Sharks current core players have to hoist that all too elusive cup? It also asks if a roster rebuilding is in the near future.
It is important to note that Marleau has had a huge impact in the start of the season and is the team’s leading scorer at 12 goals and 6 assists and trails second to Thornton in points who leads the team with 22 points, 18 assists, and 4 goals. However, in “goals per game” the Sharks are ranked 27th overall; an alarming seat since the Sharks have traditionally been known for their power play. So while the key guys are getting points on the board, it still has not been enough to stay ahead of the competition. A notable change this season has been the increased depth in defense and a strong penalty kill. But even with a penalty kill in the NHL top five, and strong defensive coverage, scoring has been a problem.
Both Wilson and coach Todd McLellan have mentioned the need to stop waiting for plays to develop and to quickly get more shots on net. After the last Detroit Red Wings game, Wilson stated a strong example of this was the two 2-on-1 rushes led by Marleau and Thornton that did not result in a shot on net. In both situations, when carrying the puck, both players chose to pass the puck rather than take a shot. Wilson explained that this shooting-oriented mindset the coaching staff is championing “doesn’t mean we’re going to take your creativity away, but you do want to add the reality. These are things you need to do. You don’t want to dummy down your game, but you do have to understand this is what works.”
Other critical players, including Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray, and Dan Boyle, are all within the age of 30 – 36. Thus far Havlat has had three goals and three assists, far less than what’s expected of the dynamic left winger. And while defensemen Boyle also has captured three goals, right winger Clowe has yet to score a goal. In the western conference, two teams that are doing very well with very different core ages are the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks. The Blackhawks are a young team with their 24-year-old captain Jonathan Toews, and 24-year-old winger Patrick Kane, serving as two core players. The Hawks have had a milestone year, setting franchise and NHL records and thus far have defeated the Sharks in all three games played. Kane has led the team with most points at 26 points, 11 goals, and 15 assists. They also have 26-year-old Dave Bolland on defense who has garnered a reputation as the shutdown guy; and the 28-year-old goalie, Corey Crawford, has also been exceptional.
On the other hand, there are the Vancouver Canucks, also a division leader but with veteran core players primarily focused around the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Both 32-years-old, this top line is only one year the junior of the Thornton-Marleau line. Daniel Sedin has had 21 points, similar to that of Thornton, except that Daniel Sedin has four more goals than Thornton. Henrik Sedin trails his brother with 18 points, with majority of the points coming from assists. And those assists are going to veteran players Kevin Bieksa and Alex Burrows, both 31-years-old, each with five goals. Finally, 33-year-old goalie Roberto Luongo has been the team’s best goaltender thus far and has taken the team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Thus veteran based teams, like the Canucks, also achieve the same success as young teams; leaving unanswered the age old question of which is more important, the speed and agility of a younger player or the experience and aptitude of a veteran player?
Though the Sharks core may be in their thirties, there are a number of young key players the team can rebuild on. This includes, 23-year-old, Logan Couture, the team’s second highest goal scorer at eight goals, but it closely followed by another key player, Joe Pavelski, who is at seven goals and nine assists. At 28-years-old, Pavelski has played on the top line with Thornton and Marleau, and is possibly the most talked about in correlation to discussions of the Sharks rebuilding. On the defensive front, there is Brent Burns, 27-years-old, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 25-years-old. While Vlasic has had one goal and three assist, Burns has been out most of the season with an undisclosed injury. The development of these players could further strengthen the existing core, but that development needs to happen soon.