When the Winnipeg Jets shut out the Minnesota Wild on Monday night, the San Jose Sharks were mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention. This breaks their ten-season streak of consecutive playoff appearances, second only to the Detroit Red Wings in the current era. The sports and Bay Area media don’t cut the Sharks much slack in the best of times, and there certainly will be a painful offseason ahead. My own feelings on the season are fairly complex, and I feel compelled to discuss them.
I became a Sharks fan in January 2004, right before their unexpected run to the Western Conference playoff finals. So, I’ve never known a time where the team didn’t make the postseason before now (though I have witnessed several close calls). I missed the truly dismal years the Sharks suffered early on, and the by-all-accounts disastrous 2002-03 season that preceded their lengthy playoff streak. In spite of all the griping Sharks fans tend to do about the lack of a Stanley Cup, we’ve been lucky, even blessed. In the more physical conference of a grueling league, consistently contending is an accomplishment in itself. While the Los Angeles Kings do indeed have two Cups while we have none, people forget that for several years the Sharks were in the postseason when the Kings were hoping for top draft picks. (Postseason appearances in turn exclude teams from top draft picks, which make it harder to find that game-changing franchise phenom. The Sharks have drafted well in the later rounds over the years, and there’s no way to know for sure if a few top-five picks would have pushed us over the playoff hump. But, the cellar-dwelling teams have been drooling over prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel all year for a reason.)
I’m not a Pollyanna by any means. I truly believe that the Sharks would be in the playoffs this year if Doug Wilson had added a top-tier defenseman to the roster over the summer. I know that a top d-man is hard to come by, and there’s no way anyone could have predicted the injuries to the likes of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun this year. On the other hand, the loss of Vlasic to a Jarrett Stoll head shot in the 2014 Sharks-Kings playoff series was likely the major reversal of fortune that led to the Sharks’ historic series loss. I still don’t understand why management opted to sign multiple enforcers to the roster when there was ample salary cap to add a defenseman. Brent Burns could have stayed at the forward position, where he’d flourished in 2013-14. More importantly, there would have been more coverage for the younger players on the team, who naturally tend to struggle a bit with the faster NHL game. I was as baffled and frustrated as anyone by Wilson’s remarks last summer that the Sharks were a “tomorrow team.” (It could be argued that we came closer than anyone to beating the eventual Cup champions, and when I wrote Sharks COO John Tortora to protest the addition of ice girls last summer, I proclaimed that a rebuild was totally unnecessary.) Even so, I would hope that former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Wilson didn’t intend to hang his players out to dry.
A lot of good things did happen this year, in spite of the way things shook out in the end. Rookies Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow, and Chris Tierney made impressive contributions, and young Taylor Fedun was a great end-of-year callup. Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto cemented their development as two-way forwards. Ben Smith fit in well in the system, and I hope to see what he can do with a full year in teal. Joe Pavelski’s scoring touch and leadership abilities continued to amaze, and Vlasic quietly made his case for most underrated defenseman in the league. Even though I prefer Burns as a forward, he still made it to the NHL All-Star Game as a defenseman. As for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they continued to reach league milestones. (I’ll say it now: Thornton and Marleau ABSOLUTELY belong on the 2015-16 Sharks roster, in major capacities. Marleau had an off year, you say? His off year would be a dream season for most.) I know there will be changes in the offseason, but I hope that there’s not a horrific roster dismantling to compound the iffy rebuild this year. Sharks players and fans deserve much better than that.
In the immortal words of the Ken Stringfellow song, here’s to the future. Go Sharks.