Sharks

Analysis: Sharks will need results from recent draft classes

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AP

Analysis: Sharks will need results from recent draft classes

It was late in the lockout-shortened 2013 season when Sharks general manager Doug Wilson really started to prepare for the future. Douglas Murray was dealt to Pittsburgh for a pair of second round selections. Ryane Clowe packed his bags for Broadway, in exchange for a second and a third round pick from the Rangers. Michal Handzus went to Chicago for a fourth rounder.

Wilson’s logic was sound, as it typically takes two-to-four years before draft picks have a chance to make an impact at the NHL level. The general manager figured that by then, players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau either wouldn’t be a part of the team anymore or would be slowing down. Restocking the cupboards was essential.

From 2013-15, the Sharks made 24 selections over the next three NHL entry drafts, including seven total picks in the top two rounds. Some players have shown promise. Others haven’t. A few aren’t in the organization anymore. That’s the nature of the business.

The way the 2017-18 opening night roster is shaping up, though, now is the time that some of these young players in the system simply have to step up. Marleau and his 27 goals last season are gone, Thornton’s numbers are down and he’s coming off of major knee surgery, Joe Pavelski is now 33 years old, and the team’s offense depth is suspect at best. There have been no notable additions in the offseason.

Frankly, this season could be viewed as a referendum on the team’s amateur scouting staff, including longtime director Tim Burke. Wilson handed Burke and his staff a wonderful opportunity to provide the organization with fresh talent with the team approaching an organizational crossroads.

What has transpired so far is a bit concerning, as already two of the team’s first round picks from that span ended up being nothing more than trade bait.

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Mirco Mueller, chosen 18th overall in 2013, was a huge disappointment in San Jose. It’s been well documented that he was mishandled by the organization when he was rushed to the league in 2014-15, but even this past season, regular observers of the Barracuda had Mueller as nothing more than the AHL team’s fourth-best defenseman. He’s now in New Jersey, swapped for a pair of draft picks.

The scouting staff was so high on Mueller on draft day that Wilson traded a valuable second round pick to Detroit to move up just two places to select him. With those acquired picks, the Red Wings took Anthony Mantha 20th overall and Tyler Bertuzzi 58th overall – two forwards that have shown a whole lot more NHL potential than Mueller (especially Mantha, who has 39 points in 70 career NHL games so far).

Perhaps more concerning, though, is that the Sharks 2013 draft class as a whole is looking like a dud. Second round pick Gabryel Boudreau suffered a wrist injury and is no longer in the organization anymore, but he was trending downward even before he got hurt. None of the remaining players selected from rounds four-through-seven look to be NHL quality, either.

The next year brought Nikolay Goldobin, chosen 27th overall after the Sharks traded down in the first round, and he ended up being the key piece in the Jannik Hansen acquisition from Vancouver. Goldobin showed some flashes of offensive talent during his time in the organization, but his lack of hockey sense and on-ice work ethic helped lead to his exit. Whether Goldobin becomes an NHL regular, even with a fresh start in Vancouver, is highly uncertain.

Had the Sharks stayed at 20th overall, they could have selected Nick Schmaltz (20th overall), Robby Fabbri (21st overall), or David Pastrnak (25th overall). Instead, they moved down and took Goldobin, making it back-to-back first round failures.

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Still, unlike 2013, other players from Goldobin’s draft class have shown some promise. Second rounder Julius Bergman was a steady blueliner for a good Barracuda team last season, and although he’s probably not NHL-ready yet, he could be on the right track. Late in the draft the team found Kevin Labanc in the sixth round with the 171st overall selection, and Labanc had some nice moments with the Sharks last season. His shot and his hands make him a solid prospect, although Labanc still probably has to get a bit bigger and stronger to play in the NHL full-time.

Noah Rod (second round, 53rd overall) and Rourke Chartier (fifth round, 149th overall) are also still developing, with Rod playing against men in the Swiss league the past few seasons and Chartier a valuable player for the Barracuda last year.

In 2015, the draft provided the Sharks with Timo Meier at ninth overall, as the club drafted in the top 10 for the first time since 2007. At this point, Meier is far and away the best prospect in the organization, and he’ll likely be relied upon to play a top nine (or even a top six) role for the Sharks this season.

The 2015 draft brought other decent prospects, too. Defenseman Jeremy Roy was selected 31st overall, and after suffering a serious knee injury in juniors this year, he’ll get a chance to play for the Barracuda this year. Fourth rounder Adam Helewka and fifth rounder Rudolfs Balcers have also developed nicely since draft day. It’s still a bit too early to evaluate that draft as a whole.

It should also be mentioned that while their draft day record may be suspect the past few seasons, the Sharks have brought in European free agents like Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen. Karlsson has developed into a versatile, hard-working forward; Donskoi has shown flashes of offensive brilliance despite a disappointing second year in the NHL last season; and Sorensen looks primed to make the opening night roster after his speed and tenacity shined through during the Sharks’ first round series loss to Edmonton.

The Sharks scouting staff has helped to keep the team competitive for a long time, and they’re as big a reason as any that the team has missed the playoffs just once in the past 11 seasons. But this is also a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and now is the time that the Sharks need to see some results from players that were chosen by Burke and company.

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

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USATSI

Stanley on the Strip? Expansion Vegas Golden Knights headed to Cup Final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Ryan Reaves scored the winning goal, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights pushed their remarkable expansion season into the Stanley Cup Final, beating the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch also scored for the Knights. They lost Game 1 in Winnipeg before winning four straight to become the first expansion team since the 1968 St. Louis Blues - when the six initial expansion teams were put alone in the West - to get to the final.

Vegas will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the final. Tampa Bay leads the Eastern Conference final 3-2, with Game 6 set for Monday night in Washington.

Josh Morrissey scored for the Jets, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves.

Reaves, the bruising Winnipeg native acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins before to the trade deadline in February, snapped a 1-1 tie with 6:39 left in the second period when he tipped Luca Sbisa's point shot past Hellebuyck for his first goal of the playoffs.

Winnipeg got a power play early in the third, but couldn't muster much of anything. The Knights smothered much of the Jets' attack for the next 10 minutes, with Hellebuyck having to come up with big stops on William Karlsson and Eric Haula to keep his team within one.

The Jets pressed with under 4 minutes to go, with Fleury stopping captain Blake Wheeler on the doorstep, but it wasn't nearly enough as the Knights closed out their third straight series on the road.

The Jets beat the Knights 4-2 in Game 1, but Vegas snatched home ice with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 before picking up 4-2 and 3-2 wins at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights, whose jaw-dropping inaugural 109-point campaign included a Pacific Division crown, swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, and knocked out the San Jose Sharks in six games.

The Jets had the NHL's second-best record with 114 points in the regular season. They advanced to the first conference final in city's history with a five-game victory over the Minnesota Wild in the opening round before topping the Presidents' Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7 on the road.

The usual raucous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place - not to mention the thousands of fans outside the arena attending a street party on a sun-drenched spring afternoon - were silenced just 5:11 into Game 5 when Tuch jumped on Morrissey's turnover and fired his sixth past Hellebuyck.

The Jets were tentative to start and it got worse after the opener as Vegas dominated the next couple of shifts, forcing some good saves from Hellebuyck before Winnipeg got its feet moving.

After being outshot 7-1 in the first 7 minutes, the Jets finally pushed back and turned the tide with the next nine attempts on goal, culminating with Morrissey making amends for his early gaffe with 2:46 left in the period.

Bryan Little won a faceoff in the offensive zone straight back to second-year defenseman, who blasted his first career playoff goal past Fleury's glove.

One of Winnipeg's downfalls in the series through four games was an inability to maintain momentum. The Knights scored within 1:28 of a Jets' goal in each of the first four games - a crushing 12 seconds after Winnipeg tied Game 3, and an equally gut-wrenching 43 seconds after the Jets knotted Game 4 - but they managed to take the game to the locker rooms tied 1-1.

Both teams had chances in the second period before Reaves made it 2-1, with Jets center Mathieu Perrault just missing on a pass from Little that had too much speed.

Right after Reaves scored the second playoff goal of his career - and first since 2015 with St. Louis - Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers rang a shot off the post on Fleury.

NOTES: The Jets were an NHL-best 32-7-2 at home in the regular season, but were a pedestrian 5-4 in the playoffs, including losses in four of their last five post-season outings. Winnipeg had won a combined 13 straight at home before dropping a 2-1 decision in Game 4 against Nashville. ... With his team facing elimination, Jets coach Paul Maurice inserted defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Joe Morrow in the lineup for Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot. Kulikov hadn't played since injuring his back on March 8, while Morrow last suited up April 20 in Game 5 of the Minnesota series.

Epilogue or prologue? Answer will determine Sharks' summer

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AP

Epilogue or prologue? Answer will determine Sharks' summer

The Sharks will have to answer a lot of questions this summer, but their offseason's overarching one will determine how everything else is answered.

Was the 2017-18 season an epilogue or a prologue for San Jose? There's ample evidence for both options.

The Sharks entered their 26th season with Patrick Marleau, the franchise's leader in every conceivable offensive category and one-time face, in Toronto. They ended it with Joe Thornton, the club's all-time assists leader and Marleau's fellow face of the franchise for a decade, out of the lineup. He was working his way back from what he revealed to reporters on Tuesday were full tears of the ACL and MCL in his right knee, the same injuries the 38-year-old suffered in his left knee a year ago.

Sunday's Game 6 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights ended the club's first playoff run without either player in the lineup since 1995.

But the Sharks also started the regular season relying on young players to improve and veterans to bounce back in order to offset Marleau's departure, and ultimately Thornton's absence. They ended it with five, 25-and-under players scoring 30-plus points, tying a franchise record, and 12 players in total hitting that threshold, setting a new one. 

San Jose made it to the second round, winning (at least) one playoff series for the ninth time in general manager Doug Wilson's 14-year tenure. That's more than any other team in the league during that time, and the latest came at least partially on the backs of players stepping into bigger roles. 

There are compelling arguments either way, especially within the Sharks' cap flexibility this summer and beyond.

As the roster stands right now, San Jose will have between $17.5-and-$21.5 million in salary cap space this summer, according to Cap Friendly. Assuming prospects Dylan Gambrell and Max Letunov plus defenseman Tim Heed start next season in the minors (or elsewhere, in Heed's case), the Sharks will have an additional $2.4 million to spend, plus nearly $5 million more if Paul Martin is moved. 

Thornton, Eric Fehr, Jannik Hansen, Evander Kane, and Joel Ward are the team's only unrestricted free agents, while Dylan DeMelo, Tomas Hertl, and Chris Tierney will need new contracts as restricted free agents. The latter contracts likely won't break the bank, while Thornton said Tuesday he's willing to come back on a one-year deal and at a reduced rate, too boot. That should leave plenty of cap space to re-sign Kane, if the Sharks choose, as well as land another free-agent forward in a class headlined by New York Islanders center John Tavares. 

Wilson will have to walk a tightrope, though, as cap space that's abundant this summer could dwindle as soon as the next. Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic's extensions kick in next season. Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi, and Joe Pavelski are eligible to sign contract extensions this summer. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Joakim Ryan are, too, ahead of restricted free agency in 2019. 

If 2017-18 was the postscript of the Thornton/Marleau era, Wilson can truly start to strip things down. But if it marked the start of a new one, he has the flexibility to double down, possibly even if Thornton comes back.  

So what did the 26th season in Sharks history ultimately signify? We may know as soon as July 1.