Sharks

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

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 conclude with the emerging competition around the league.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Sharks have missed the playoffs a whopping total of two times. 

That's a lot of postseason games. And yet, San Jose has never ended up on top. Moving forward, the greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win their first Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future will be the same one that has gotten in the way in all previous seasons in franchise history: the rest of the NHL.

There are currently 31 teams in the league. A 32nd -- the unnamed Seattle expansion franchise -- will join in 2021-22. The Sharks won't have to go through each and every one of them to raise the Cup, but there's more than enough to ruin their dreams.

Let's start small and look solely at the Pacific Division. San Jose has yet to win a division title under the new conference format, with last season's second-place finish in the Pacific being their best yet. The Flames improved by 23 points over the previous season to win the division title, and they're not going to fall off anytime soon.

Neither is the Sharks' newest major rival -- the Vegas Golden Knights. In two seasons in the league, they've given San Jose fits. The two sides are now at one postseason series apiece, but it wouldn't shock anyone if there were several more in the coming years.

Those three were the only Pacific teams to qualify for the playoffs last season, but the ones that didn't won't be down for long. The Coyotes are loaded with promising young players, the Canucks and Ducks are in the process of retooling, the Kings have nowhere to go but up and the Oilers have the best player in the NHL.

When Seattle joins the Pacific in 2020, San Jose better pray it doesn't hit the ground running like Vegas did in its expansion season.

Now let's move to the other division in the Western Conference. The Blues just defeated the Sharks on their way to winning the Cup, and they finished third in the Central Division. The Predators and Jets have some of the deepest rosters in the NHL, the Stars just added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, and the Avalanche have an abundance of young talent and cap space to continue their ascension. The Blackhawks just added another top-three draft pick, and while the Wild might not be headed in the right direction, a turnaround isn't out of the question.

That's just the West.

In the East, there's the record-setting Lightning, the always-formidable Bruins, Auston Matthews' Maple Leafs, Sidney Crosby's Penguins, the threatening Capitals and a bunch of teams poised to take a major leap in the coming years.

There's been formidable competition for the Sharks every season they've been in the NHL. It's not anything new, and is the main reason why they are one of 11 franchises yet to win a Stanley Cup. Of those 11, only the Canucks and Sabres have appeared in more playoff games than the Sharks in their respective franchise histories, and both Vancouver and Buffalo entered the league 21 seasons before San Jose did.

The Sharks can prepare for the upcoming expansion draft. They can hold out hope there won't be another lockout, use financial creativity to create more salary cap space and balance the roster with younger players to offset the aging core. All of that is within their control. 

[RELATED: Why salary cap issues are threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

The 30 other NHL teams -- soon to be 31 -- most definitely are not.

The greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win a Stanley Cup in the relatively near future is the same one they've yet to prove they can overcome.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in streak-snapping 4-3 loss to Sabres

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in streak-snapping 4-3 loss to Sabres

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE - The Sharks' first standoff of the season against the Sabres was a fast-paced and tight-checking fete that saved most of its drama for the last 20 minutes of play.

But even with a couple of third-period goals to keep things interesting, Team Teal couldn't quite pull this one off against the visiting Buffalo squad and dropped the final game of their homestand 4-3.

Here are three takeaways from Saturday's game:

Going to the net

The Sharks might have been better on the defensive side of their game, particularly in their own end. But they struggled throughout Saturday's contest with getting in front of Buffalo's net and generating good shots. In fact, San Jose only tallied one shot on goal through nearly 13 minutes in the second period.

You do have to give San Jose's offense credit for turning it up in the latter part of the game, though. After Casey Mittelstadt's bizarre goal gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead, the Sharks turned things up and notch. They not only got more o-zone time but had a much better net-front presence. It's no wonder they were able to knot the score back up twice in the third period -- even if they weren't able to score the tie-breaking goal and get the win.

Going in for the kill

One of the biggest tests for the Sharks in Saturday's game was to stay out of the penalty box, given they were going up against one of the best power plays in the league. So, naturally, it was a bit of a nail-biter when San Jose got into a little penalty trouble in the second period.

San Jose did succeed in silencing Buffalo's power play, even if it wasn't very pretty. While Martin Jones wasn't quite as sharp on Saturday as he has been as of late, the team in front of him did a good job of halting the Sabres on the man advantage.

[RELATED: Marleau reflects on Sharks return]

The kid was all right

Noah Gregor didn't score a goal on Saturday night -- even though his new teammates tried to set him up for one. The 21-year-old forward did, however, have a good showing in his NHL debut, displaying a ton of speed as if he was already completely accustomed to the pace of a big-league game.

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said on Saturday morning that he would prefer it if one of San Jose's young players would seize the opportunity to be a regular on the team's fourth line with Dylan Gambrell and Melker Karlsson. Gregor only has one game under his belt, but he is already making a good case to stick around for a while.

Sharks prospect Noah Gregor has family connection to organization

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AP

Sharks prospect Noah Gregor has family connection to organization

SAN JOSE -- To Sharks fans, Noah Gregor might just look like another new player in a teal sweater.

But the 21-year-old rookie forward has a much closer connection to the organization than most would realize.

Sharks director of media relations Ben Guerrero revealed on Twitter on Saturday that Noah's father, Colin, once played for San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. 

Gregor did, too, at least before his Saturday call-up to the NHL. The 21-year-old has scored three points (goal, two assists) in three AHL games this season.

The Beaumont, Alberta native expects his parents to be in attendance in San Jose on Saturday evening when he is set to make his NHL debut against the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres. 

"They're probably on a flight right now," Gregor said Saturday morning.

Gregor's family involvement in hockey doesn't stop there. His uncle is TSN 1260 (Edmonton) radio host Jason Gregor, who excitedly posted about Noah's impending NHL debut on Twitter.

Gregor's strong start to his AHL career came following a close call at training camp. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday morning that Gregor could've made the big club out of camp, but "handled it the right way" when he got reassigned before the start of the season. 

"We try to do this on merit," DeBoer said of Gregor and the Sharks' rookies who have made their NHL debuts this season. "He was a guy who was close to staying at the beginning."

[RELATED: Marleau reflects on Sharks return in ride to SAP Center]

Although he's listed as a center, Gregor is expected to file onto the Sharks' fourth line Saturday night, skating on Dylan Gambrell's wing opposite Melker Karlsson. Gregor hasn't played very much with every player, but he seemed confident he could step into this role, even if some first-game jitters follow. 

"I'm sure there will be some nerves before the game starts," Gregor admitted. "But I'm sure once I get that first shift out of the way, I'll be fine."