Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: 2021 NHL Expansion Draft

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: 2021 NHL Expansion Draft

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We begin with the 2021 Expansion Draft.

In less than a month, the Sharks will convene for training camp, marking the beginning of another pursuit of the elusive Stanley Cup.

San Jose has seen each of the last two champions bring an end to lengthy title droughts, an accomplishment for which it hopes to follow suit. The Sharks have been a frequent contender over the last two decades -- having qualified for the playoffs in all but two seasons since 1998 -- including each of the last four under Pete DeBoer.

Given the construct of San Jose's current roster, there's no reason to believe they'll fall precipitously from contention anytime soon. They've got an enviable collection of star players, most of which are locked up long-term. Those players have formed the core of a Cup finalist before, and after pushing the Blues to six games in the conference finals last year, clearly can do so again.

But what if one of those key players that the Sharks have depended on so often -- and will continue to moving forward -- suddenly is no longer around?

That is a legitimate possibility afforded by the upcoming 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, through which the Seattle franchise will join the league as its 32nd team. Which forwards, defensemen and goalies the Sharks might protect have been covered in great detail, as have which players might be exposed.

If someone like Brent Burns or Evander Kane departs San Jose via the expansion draft, that obviously could have a drastic impact on the Sharks' ability to contend.

[RELATED: Why Sharks' defense has Hahn excited for 2019-20 season]

There is another angle to consider, as well. The last time the NHL had an expansion draft, it produced the Sharks' newest and most formidable rival in the Vegas Golden Knights. If the unnamed Seattle franchise -- who will join the Pacific Division -- can capitalize on the expansion draft like Vegas did, that could be yet another daunting intradivision competitor for San Jose, which could make the path to a cup all the more challenging.

The Sharks will lose just one player in the expansion draft, and it won't necessarily be one of the more high-profile players on their roster. Additionally, teams learned from the Vegas expansion draft, and have begun their preparation much further in advance than the last time around, meaning some of the mistakes the Golden Knights capitalized on might not be available to Seattle.

As such, who San Jose loses in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and how good Seattle becomes as a result isn't the biggest threat to the Sharks' championship hopes in the near future -- but as recent history has proven -- it can't be entirely discounted.

Watch ex-Shark Patrick Marleau get ready for Penguins debut vs. Kings

Watch ex-Shark Patrick Marleau get ready for Penguins debut vs. Kings

Patrick Marleau has played in more regular-season games against the Los Angeles Kings throughout his 22-year NHL career than any other opponent. He'll face them for the 116th time Wednesday night, but in a big change from most of the prior 115, it won't be as a member of the Sharks.

Marleau currently exists as San Jose's all-time leader in points (1,102), goals (518) and games played (1,551), but he won't be able to add to those totals throughout the remainder of the current season as he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to Monday's NHL trade deadline in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick. He grew up rooting for Pittsburgh, and will make his debut with his new club when the Kings host the Penguins at Staples Center on Wednesday night.

If there's one thing missing from Marleau's Hall of Fame resume, it's the absence of a Stanley Cup. He's in a much better position to pursue that with the Penguins the rest of the way than he was with the Sharks, and Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford is looking forward to adding Marleau's veteran presence to what is an already talented group.

"He can still really skate, and as you get older that's important for you," Rutherford said after acquiring Marleau. "He should be a good fit for us."

"His desire to get that ultimate prize is going to be big for him because time is running out."

[RELATED: Why Sharks GM Wilson a big winner at NHL trade deadline]

With 1,715 career games played, Marleau has Gordie Howe's NHL record of 1,767 in his sights. He'll have to return for a 23rd season in order to eclipse that target, and despite the trade, there is certainly good reason to believe he would be open to a third stint in San Jose.

Until then, Sharks fans are going to have to get used to seeing one of the franchise's all-time greats wearing colors that aren't teal -- again.

Sharks' Logan Couture avoids scare, returns to team in time of need

Sharks' Logan Couture avoids scare, returns to team in time of need

The Sharks have been below .500 since Dec. 10, but you can trace the true death knell of San Jose's season back to the fractured ankle Logan Couture sustained in the second period of a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 7.

Prior to that defeat, the Sharks were finding their stride, earning five out of a possible six points over their previous three games, all on the road. San Jose actually prevailed in its first two games after Couture's injury, but would go on to lose five of the next six, all but vanquishing what little playoff hopes the Sharks had left. It didn't help matters that Tomas Hertl tore ligaments in his knee during that stretch, as well.

Hertl was ruled out for the season. Couture, on the other hand, returned from a 17-game absence in San Jose's 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Couture didn't figure into the scoring, but that's understandable considering it has been nearly seven weeks since he last practiced. He wasn't able to do so prior to Tuesday's loss, but interim coach Bob Boughner was glad regardless to have the Sharks' captain back in the lineup.

"It was nice to see his name on the board," Boughner told reporters at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. "After morning skate, he felt that there was a chance he could play. Obviously, he's still getting his feet underneath him. His game speed is off. He's still saying that he had two or three chances to score goals tonight, so it was good to see him back."

Arguably more important than the outcome of the game was the fact that Couture emerged from it relatively unscathed. He did get a brief scare late in the second period when he went to the locker room after taking a shot to the foot, but he was back on the ice for the start of the third.

True to character, Couture was his own harshest critic following the loss, pointing the finger at himself for the frustrating outcome.

"I wish I played a little bit better, but I'm OK," Couture explained. "It's disappointing because if I score those goals or those chances, we're probably still playing right now. So, tough one."

Couture described his best scoring chance as missing "by seven feet", and admitted the lack of practice time likely played into that. However, the captain understood his team needed him, even if he wasn't in top form.

"I was cleared," Couture said. "I still haven't gotten in a practice, so my hands I knew weren't going to be great, but I figured it's been a rough couple days."

[RELATED: Wilson excited to see what Sharks' young players can do]

Couture, obviously, was referring to the passing of the NHL trade deadline, which saw several of his longtime teammates -- Brenden Dillon, Patrick Marleau and Barclay Goodrow -- head to Eastern Conference contenders. The draft picks San Jose got back in those trades should help the franchise eventually return to contention, but in the meantime, it might be a tad lonely in the Sharks' locker room.

Less so now that Couture's back, at least.