Back to normal. Well, closer at least.
The Sharks are slated to play a full 82-game season for the first time in three years. And yes, there will be fans in the stands. NHL hockey, as we've come to know it, is back.
The 2021-22 season has already begun, but the Sharks won't start their campaign until Saturday night at SAP Center against the visiting Winnipeg Jets. After missing out on the playoffs the last two seasons, the pressure is on San Jose to avoid the first three-year postseason drought in franchise history.
Here are five bold predictions for the Sharks' season that lies ahead:
William Eklund is Rookie of the Year finalist
The youth movement is in full effect in San Jose. The Sharks will have five rookies in their opening night lineup for the first time in franchise history, but of those five, the spotlight surely will be on Eklund, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Eklund was so impressive in training camp and preseason that the Sharks had no choice but to include him on the opening night roster, and while it's no guarantee that he'll stick around, nothing he has done to this point suggests the task ahead is too large for him to handle.
He has been compared to Patrick Kane and Patrick Marleau. He already is a fixture on one of the power-play units. Simply put, Eklund looks like he has the potential to be one of the best players in Sharks history. There's a long way to go before that, but he'll get off to a great start this season, finishing among the top five scorers on the team. His highlight-reel playing style will ensure he gets the attention he deserves, and that'll result in a top-three finish in Calder Memorial Trophy voting.
Evander Kane never plays for the Sharks again
The Sharks are going to need Eklund's contributions on offense, because they'll be without their leading scorer from last season. It has been a tumultuous offseason for Kane, with him being the subject of multiple investigations by the league office, some of which are still ongoing. He has yet to join the team and won't do so until the investigations are concluded, with supplemental discipline potentially to follow.
By the time all of that is settled, it's certainly possible the Sharks could decide it just doesn't make sense to bring Kane back into the fold. They were going to be challenged to make the playoffs with Kane in tow, and it's going to be even tougher without him. If it's clear San Jose isn't headed for the playoffs, Kane's return seems at odds with what the franchise's priorities will be at that time. And if he doesn't play for the Sharks this season, we can probably close the book on him ever doing so again.
Tomas Hertl is traded
Are you sensing a theme, here? It's definitely possible the Sharks could surprise and be a playoff team from the first drop of the puck. But that's exactly what it would be: a surprise.
But if the Sharks don't surprise, Tomas Hertl's days in teal are probably numbered. It's not that they don't want to keep him; they most certainly do, and they really can't afford to lose arguably the most talented player on their roster. But he's a pending unrestricted free agent, and if he hits the open market in the offseason, he'll be playing for a new team in 2022-23.
The only thing the Sharks can less afford is losing Hertl for nothing, and as such, they'll make the tough decision to move him -- an entire month before the trade deadline. With him available to his new team for that much more of the season, the Sharks will receive a quality haul in return, providing them with more assets that fit the youth movement timeline.
Another top-10 draft pick
With Kane absent, Hertl traded and a heavy reliance on inexperienced players, the Sharks will not be one of the eight Western Conference teams to qualify for the playoffs. And there will come a point in the season when it makes far more sense for San Jose to see what it has in unknown quantities than previously established veterans. Consequently, the Sharks will end up with a top-10 draft pick for the third straight year.
The first one belonged to the Ottawa Senators. The second one became Eklund. The Sharks will have another chance to add a top talent with a high pick in 2022, and assuming they hit on it, it'll be a long time before they pick that high again.
Change at the top
The Sharks have never had a three-year playoff drought in their entire franchise existence. But if they make that kind of unwanted history this season, it should not come as a surprise to anyone if there is turnover among decision-makers. Whether that's behind the bench or at the executive level, there will be no shortage of calls to change the status quo. If this season doesn't mark the beginning of a new era for the franchise, a different regime will be at the helm a year from now.