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.