TORONTO – For years, the Sharks were known as a team able to have strong regular seasons, but missing the kind of temperament necessary to make a deep playoff run. That all changed last season, when the club made its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, getting past the Kings, Predators and Blues before falling to the Penguins.
Roman Polak was a part of that run, coming to San Jose for a pair of second round picks on Feb. 22. He played 24 regular season games, and all 24 in the playoffs, too.
What struck him the most about the Sharks upon his arrival? Just the thing that critics of the club pointed to for their past failures.
“I think the biggest thing was their mental toughness,” said Polak, who re-joined the Maple Leafs in the offseason. “No matter if you were down one goal or two goals, they were still sticking with the same game plan. They knew in their heads they were going to win, no matter what.”
“Even if you’re losing after the first period it was calm during the intermission, and everybody knew what to do and everybody just [stuck] with the plan and played a role.”
Whether you consider the Sharks’ acquisition of Polak a success depends on your point of view – the tough-as-nails competitor was a key contributor in series against the heavier Kings and Blues, in particular, with his six-foot-two, 235-pound frame. He was exposed in the Final, though, for being a bit too plodding to keep up with speedy Pittsburgh.
The 30-year-old Polak enjoyed the run, getting to the postseason for the first time since 2013-14 when he was with St. Louis.
“It meant a lot. I think we had a great run all playoffs basically,” he said. “But, now it’s in the past. I need to focus on this team here, so I’m going to be focused in on that tonight.”
An unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of last season, Polak indicated there were very brief talks about his returning to San Jose. Ultimately, he went back to play for the Maple Leafs for a fourth season.
The Leafs aren’t likely to make a deep playoff run, if they make it at all. But they have a roster of many young up-and-coming players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and should be on the upswing under celebrated coach Mike Babcock.
“We have a very young team, and I think we’re proving it. Every game is better and better. We still have lots to learn, but I think we’re [going] in a good [direction],” Polak said.
“We don’t look ahead like what are we going to do in the playoffs, or if we’re going to be in the playoffs. I think we need to learn every game, and keep going forward.”
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The Maple Leafs also feature former Sharks forward Ben Smith on their roster, who will be lining up as the fourth line center on Tuesday night. Smith has bounced around since the end of last season, to put it mildly.
He began the 2015-16 season on the Sharks roster, suffered a concussion, was eventually reassigned to the Barracuda, was traded to Toronto as part of the James Reimer deal on Feb. 27, signed with Colorado this past offseason, was waived from the Avalanche after four games, and then claimed by the Maple Leafs.
Smith admitted that his time in San Jose “didn’t go the way I wanted it to, unfortunately. It happened, and I’m trying to bounce back from it.”
Still, the well-liked forward was pleased to see his former team go deep in the playoffs last season.
“Obviously some good friends on that team, so it was good to see them do so well. I don’t have any negative or bad memories of being with the Sharks. It just didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”
In 25 games this season, Smith has two goals and one assist for three points while averaging 11:45 of ice time.
“I don’t take this for granted," Smith said. "Last year, being up and down quite a bit, I’m trying to work every day and earn every day.”