Sharks

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Editor's note: In honor of Shark Week, NBC Sports California will look back at the five best teams from Sharks franchise history. Numerous factors have been taken into consideration, including overall team success, roster makeup, historical significance and more. We continue with the 2015-16 Sharks.

The 2015-16 season was one of firsts for the Sharks. 

It was their first season with Peter DeBoer behind the bench as head coach, and the first with Martin Jones in net. Joe Pavelski wore the captain's "C," Tomas Hertl scored 20-plus goals and Brent Burns finished as a Norris Trophy, all for the first time in their respective careers. 

The biggest first, however, came for the franchise in the postseason. The Sharks advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final in the 2016, after three previous appearances in the Western Conference final ended two wins shy of getting there. While the season didn't end with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau lifting the Cup, San Jose got over a hump that had dogged the franchise for most of its second decade. 

Here's a look back at the 2015-16 Sharks, the second-best team in franchise history. 

Why they're the best

The Sharks hired DeBoer just over a month after mutually parting ways with Todd McLellan. San Jose struggled in McLellan's final season behind the bench, falling to the middle of the pack in 5-on-5 puck possession a year after finishing in the top five by most metrics. Much of that decline stemmed from a diminished roster after the Sharks declared themselves a "tomorrow team" after blowing a three-games-to-none series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the previous season, and San Jose missed the postseason in 2014-15 for the first time in over a decade. 

In 2015-16, the Sharks rebounded as a strong puck-possession team. Free-agent signings Joonas Donskoi (11 goals, 25 assists) and Joel Ward (21 goals, 22 assists) gave San Jose some much-needed secondary offense behind the likes of Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Hertl and Logan Couture, and chipped in some key goals during the team's playoff run. Defenseman Paul Martin, who also was signed as a free agent in 2015, proved to be a steadying presence on the blue line and developed strong chemistry with Burns in the bearded blue liner's second season back on defense. 

San Jose arguably was at its deepest in net, too. Alex Stalock struggled as the team's backup, and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that brought James Reimer to the Sharks. Reimer proved to be exactly what the Sharks needed, posting a .938 save percentage and three shutouts in eight starts for San Jose down the stretch. As the unquestioned starter, Jones won more games (37) and had a higher regular-season save percentage (.918) than he has since. He also matched the franchise record for playoff shutouts (three), back-stopping the team to the Cup Final.

Oh yeah, there's that whole "winning the Western Conference" thing, which no Sharks team ever did before or has done since. That run, which included a revenge win over the Kings in the first round, counts for something. 

Why they're not

It would be unfair to call the Sharks' 24th season pedestrian, considering it ended with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.  But, there arguably were more impressive San Jose teams which didn't make it that far in the postseason.

Twelve regular seasons in Sharks history ended with more points than the 2015-16 campaign. San Jose had a better goal-differential in seven seasons, scored more goals in 10, allowed fewer in 12 and won more games in six. Those teams ahead of the 2015-16 squad didn't make it to the Final, of course, but they didn't have the same postseason path as these Sharks. 

The Kings, like the Sharks, also were coming off a year in which they missed the playoffs, and weren't the same team that reverse-swept San Jose two seasons prior. The Nashville Predators pushed the Sharks in a seven-game Stanley Cup playoff second-round series, but Nashville's first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks meant the Sharks avoided a team that won the Pacific Division and beat them three out of four times in the regular season. The St. Louis Blues, whom the Sharks eliminated in the Western Conference final, did finish the regular season with the third-most points. Still, facing St. Louis meant San Jose avoided the Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn-led Dallas Stars. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins posed a real challenge in the Stanley Cup Final, utilizing superior depth and speed en route to eliminating the Sharks in a six-game series. While Pittsburgh and San Jose were close on the scoreboard, the Penguins controlled 54.7 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 62.2 percent of the high-danger chances. Jones kept the Sharks in that series, but the Penguins clearly were the better team. 

No team wins a Stanley Cup without any luck, but the circumstances of the Sharks' run to the Final are worth taking into account. 

[RELATED: Projecting Sharks' protected list for 2021 expansion draft]

Verdict

Of course, so is the end result. Being the second-to-last team standing at the end of a playoff run, as the 2015-16 Sharks were, is better than any other team that has worn the uniform to date.

The Cup Final appearance also represented something of a culmination for the much-maligned Thornton and Marleau, who bore the bulk of the criticism over the previous decade as the Sharks failed to make it out of the conference final. No two players have played more games for San Jose, and it was fitting that they were on the team for the franchise's first appearance on the NHL's biggest stage -- even if it came closer to the end of their careers rather than the middle of their prime. 

Had Thornton, Marleau and the Sharks lifted the Cup three years ago, the 2015-16 team undoubtedly would top this list -- as they surely do for many San Jose fans. But the 2015-16 season ended without a championship, just as every campaign that preceded it and subsequently has followed. 

We firmly are in the highly-subjective nit-picking portion of this series, but that leaves just enough room for another team to take the top spot. 

Best teams in Sharks history

No. 5: 2001-02 
No. 4:
2005-06
No. 3: 2018-19

Watch Sharks' Joe Thornton, Capitals' Tom Wilson talk trash on benches

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AP

Watch Sharks' Joe Thornton, Capitals' Tom Wilson talk trash on benches

The ice got a little hot Tuesday night in San Jose. Towards the end of the Sharks' 5-2 blowout loss against the Capitals, tempers began to flare. 

Sharks winger Evander Kane was ejected for elbowing Washington defenseman Radko Gudas in the head with slightly over five minutes left in the third period. Gudas' teammates Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin each took exception, with Wilson hitting Kane. 

Kane and Wilson were seen chirping all the way to their respective benches, with Kane exiting the game.

It didn't stop there, too. Sharks center Joe Thornton chimed in before Wilson hit him with a "kiss the ring" comeback. 

[RELATED: Kane fined $5K for elbowing Gudas in Sharks' blowout loss]

Kane avoided suspension, but received the maximum fine of $5,000 for his hit on Gudas. 

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Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

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AP

Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

Just four days into December, the Sharks are facing a new level of adversity. They suffered a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night and are dealing with some injuries at forward that are keeping the position in flux.

To top it all off, San Jose is about to begin a four-game road trip, three games of which are against Eastern Conference teams. And the last time the Sharks went on a roadie out east, things didn't exactly go well.

In order for the Sharks to keep their good fortunes going, they must pass this test.

"Good teams, tough buildings, a big test," head coach Peter DeBoer said after Tuesday's loss when asked about the upcoming trip. "Our last time on an extended trip we didn't handle it well. So, hopefully, we're in a different place this time."

When you look at the big picture, the Sharks are in a better place than they were at the end of October, when they went 1-3-1 on their east-coast swing. San Jose staged a big rebound in November, showing it could win games in different ways and stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone. After going 4-8-1 in October, the Sharks went 11-4-0 in November and reinserted themselves back into the pack with the other competitive Pacific Division teams.

Nevertheless, the Sharks' upcoming trip -- which kicks off Thursday in Carolina against the Hurricanes and includes a back-to-back against the Lightning and Panthers -- isn't going to be a cakewalk. After the rough outing San Jose's defense had Tuesday against the Capitals, the trip looks even more daunting.

"It's not getting any easier," Brenden Dillon admitted Tuesday. "We're going into some tough buildings. A couple of back-to-backs here with Tampa and Florida. I think we're seeing if we don't play to our identity, if we don't play the right way, what happens."

The Sharks' defense isn't the only area of concern following the loss to Washington. San Jose was starting to see some production from its bottom six at the end of November, but injuries to Tomas Hertl and Antti Suomela are forcing the Sharks to shuffle up their lines yet again. Even with fourth-liners Dylan Gambrell and Noah Gregor finding their stride and contributing more, San Jose's mission to have a four-line team on the ice every night remains an ongoing project.

[RELATED: Kane fined $5K for elbowing Gudas in Sharks' blowout loss]

This isn't to say that the Sharks can't rebound from their loss to the Capitals and have a successful road trip. Their resilience was on display just last week when they bounced back from a tough loss to the Jets to win back-to-back games against the Kings and Coyotes. Plus, Carolina is the only team on the trip that currently has more points than San Jose, and the Hurricanes have lost three of their last four games, including a 2-0 shutout at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night. 

Still, though, the Sharks can't afford to play as they did against the Caps on their upcoming road trip. San Jose is about to encounter a major test, and class is in session starting Thursday.