Sharks' resilience unable to fend off borrowed time in NHL playoffs


Sharks' resilience unable to fend off borrowed time in NHL playoffs

To some degree, the Sharks were playing on borrowed time all season. 

The 2018-19 campaign marked 39-year-old Joe Thornton’s 21st in the league. Captain Joe Pavelski turned 34 in July, and defenseman Brent Burns did the same in March. Fellow Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson missed 27 of the Sharks’ final 33 games with two separate groin injuries, and rookie surprise Radim Simek needed season-ending knee surgery in March. San Jose faced elimination four times in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But that time looked at moments like it would be enough. Thornton evolved into an effective third-line center, Pavelski led the team with 38 goals and Burns snagged his third Norris Trophy nomination. Karlsson scored 16 points in 19 playoff games despite clearly playing through injury, and the Sharks successfully stared down elimination every time in the first and second rounds.

On Tuesday, the Sharks’ borrowed time finally ran out. 

San Jose couldn’t fight off elimination once more in Game 6 of the Western Conference final, losing 5-1 to the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center. The absences of Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl proved to be too much, and the Sharks head into an offseason filled with uncertainty. 

The Sharks trailed by two goals two separate times Tuesday, and pushed relentlessly to get back into Game 6 in the third period. But when a pass on an odd-man rush bounced off of Gustav Nyquist’s stick in the third period to give the Blues a three-goal lead, the Sharks could borrow time no longer. 

The season began with Cup-or-bust aspirations after the blockbuster acquisition of Karlsson on the eve of training camp, but started inauspiciously with a 12-9-5 record entering December. Then, after a highly publicized team meeting with general manager Doug Wilson on Dec. 2, the Sharks went on their best run of the season.

From then until March 12, San Jose went 31-9-3 (65 points). Only the Tampa Bay Lightning had a better record during that stretch, and the Sharks were one of the best 5-on-5 puck-possession teams in the league. That allowed San Jose to compensate for some cracks in the foundation, such as Karlsson missing extended stretches and goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell ranking twoards the bottom of the league in save percentage. 

"Really, we had [Karlsson] healthy for six weeks and dialed in," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told reporters in St. Louis on Tuesday. "The first two months of the season he was getting used to us. I thought he got dialed in January, February, and I thought we were maybe the best team in the league through that stretch, and then he wasn't healthy again."

Those cracks became harder to cover down the stretch. Simek joined Karlsson on the sidelines, and Pavelski missed seven games himself. The Sharks finished the season on a 3-8-1 skid, and looked bound for a quick postseason exit.

That looked all but certain four games into a first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sharks trailed three-games-to-one in the best-of-seven series, and then by three goals in Game 7, but they kept going. 

Jones turned his play around and almost single-handedly forced Game 7 with a historic performance in Game 6 in Sin City. San Jose scored four goals on a highly controversial Vegas cross-checking major that left Pavelski bloodied on the SAP Center ice, and eventually eliminated the Golden Knights in overtime. 

Pavelski returned for Game 7 of the second round against the Colorado Avalanche, after the Sharks traded wins with the Nathan MacKinnon-led squad through the first six. He scored 5:57 into that game, and San Jose’s offside challenge led to a controversial-yet-correctly applied ruling that wiped away Colorado’s apparent game-tying goal. The Sharks hung on to advance to the Western Conference final, where they took a two-games-to-one series lead. 

But after Karlsson scored the overtime winner seconds following Timo Meier’s uncalled hand pass in Game 3, the Sharks did not look the same. They lost the next three games, and Karlsson, Hertl and Pavelski to injuries along the way. The latter two did not result in discipline for Ivan Barbashev and Alex Pietrangelo’s hits, respectively, and Karlsson could barely cope with a lower-body injury in Games 4 and 5. 

The Sharks’ Cup-or-bust season ended Thursday six wins short of that goal, and in the same fashion as the regular season. San Jose won 10 of its last 20 regular-season games, and finished the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 10-10 record. 

Offense was the Sharks’ calling card in the regular season, but it dried up in the final three games of the Western Conference final. Evander Kane’s goal-less drought hit 11 games, and trade-deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquist’s hit 12. They weren’t alone, though, as San Jose scored only two goals in the last three games of the series. 

Now, the Sharks head into a summer of questions. Karlsson, Nyquist, Pavelski and Thornton can all become unrestricted free agents, and Timo Meier appears headed for a restricted free-agent payday. Assuming the salary cap does not increase, the Sharks have about $24.7 million in space. General manager Doug Wilson will need to walk a tightrope to retain even some of those players, let alone all of them. 

If Thornton retires and/or Pavelski signs elsewhere, then 2018-19 will feel like the last page of a chapter in Sharks history. This iteration arguably was San Jose’s most talented, and showed plenty of resilience en route to the conference final. From Wilson’s September blockbuster to the ill-fated third-period push Tuesday, the Sharks went down swinging. 

[RELATED: Couture's empty-net whiff could haunt Sharks all summer]

"My disappointment isn't thinking about next year, mine is about the group that we had this year," DeBoer said, "and the adversity we faced ... and the number of times they were written for dead and buried, and the number of times they kept getting off the mat. ... That's the disappointing stuff for me. That's stuff you don't see [that] should get rewarded ... but it's a harsh league, and it's a hard trophy to win. So, my disappointment's there."

The Sharks added a few moments to their franchise lore, but 2018-19 ultimately belongs on a list of close-but-not-quite seasons that San Jose can’t wait to shred. In their 27th season of existence, the Sharks’ borrowed time could only last so long.

Sharks notebook: Prospects quickly making impression at development camp


Sharks notebook: Prospects quickly making impression at development camp

SAN JOSE -- How the Sharks' prospects perform during this week's development camp might not bear much weight on who makes the NHL roster in October.

If anything, it serves as more of a "getting to know you" event.

But San Jose's development camp scrimmage Wednesday did, however, give Sharks and Barracuda coaches an early look at new players and served as a check-in for prospects who've spent the past year with their junior teams.

Not to mention a sneak peek at how these players could look at the AHL and NHL levels.

"You can say what you want about it being a 'development' camp, but I think it's an evaluation also, of guys and where they're at and where you see them down the road," Barracuda coach Roy Sommer said after the scrimmage. "It gives you a pretty good picture of what the future looks like."

Even though Wednesday's scrimmage was just that, the future for some of San Jose's top prospects already is looking pretty bright.

Top forward prospects impressing

Forwards Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich already were two prospects the Sharks were excited to have in their system. 

That excitement was turned up a notch during Wednesday's scrimmage when the two, paired up with forward Lean Bergmann, exuded almost instantaneous chemistry.

"The scrimmage had a pretty good pace to it, but those two guys stood out," Sommer said. "Both of them I think will be really good players at the American League level."

Both skaters spent brief stints with the Barracuda since being drafted by San Jose, but they hadn't spent much on-ice time together before Wednesday.

Chmelevski acknowledged it was nice to find that on-ice dynamic so close to the start of camp.

"That was pretty much the first time we've played as a line," the 20-year-old center said. "Our chemistry was great today, and I really liked the way we played."

Russian winger Chekhovich is coming off a monster season for Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL, and Southern California product Chmelevski recently tallied seven points for Team USA in the World Junior's competition.

Needless to say, this current go-round together at development camp is going a bit smoother than when they first played with the Barracuda a few years ago. 

"When we both came to the Barracuda a couple of years ago, we didn't really know what to expect," Chmelevski said. "Me and him, we really got along well, and obviously he's a great player. I think there's a lot of similarities to our game, and he's a good guy to be around. So, it's definitely fun reuniting with him in camp."

Both players already have created some buzz as being Barracuda players who could get a look with the big club. Chmelevski said his goal for the summer is to keep building on his game, no matter for which squad he plays.

"Regardless of where I do play this year, I just want to keep improving my game," Chmelevski added. "Just prove that I deserve to be here."

Ferraro receives tips from former teammate

Blueliner Mario Ferraro was paying close attention to the Sharks when they played the Avalanche in the second round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Not just because he was San Jose's second-round pick in the 2017 draft. But because his former University of Massachusetts-Amherst teammate, Cale Makar, was playing for Colorado.

When asked if he'd had any contact with Makar during that time, Ferraro laughed.

"During [the playoffs] I think he was pretty dialed in, so I didn't talk to him as much," he said with a grin. "But after, I asked him a few questions."

The left-handed defenseman admitted, however, that watching a teammate from afar play in the NHL gave him some perspective.

"It builds a lot of confidence in myself and my former teammates," Ferraro explained. "We see how a player we compete against every day in practice and compete with is doing well. It says, 'Hey, maybe I can be that guy as well. I can play at the next level.' "

That confidence already is shining through. Development camp is just a couple days old, but Ferraro already has made a big impression.

"One of the most high-energy guys you've ever seen, he does not have a bad day," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. enthusiastically said. "He's had a really good camp so far."

Sommer agreed: "Early in the scrimmage, I thought he kind of carried the play. Kind of a hard guy to play against."

On top of being fast and a playmaker, the prospect out of King City, Ontario, demonstrated in Wednesday's scrimmage that he isn't afraid to play a physical game -- a good quality for a player who will have the opportunity to start off training camp with veterans such as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

Merkley making progress

Ryan Merkley didn't register any points in the two games he played with the Barracuda this past season. Nevertheless, San Jose is happy with what it saw last year when checking in with the 2018 first-round draft pick.

"We were probably at 40 of his games this year," Wilson said. "Whenever we went to his games, we would talk to him afterward."

Merkley was considered a risky pick-up for San Jose, being noted as an offensively minded defenseman who needed to focus more on the defensive side of his game, But after ending the season with 71 points and a plus-four in 63 games, the Oakville, Ontario, native appears to be making the right adjustments.

"I thought I had a good start," Merkley said of his season, which started with the Guelph Storm before a mid-season trade to the Peterborough Petes. "In Guelph, I had good numbers -- thought I played well. I had a tough adjustment going into Peterborough to start, but I think I picked it up near the end there."

[RELATED: Sharks issue qualifying offers to six players]

While his regular season brought on some uncertainty because of being traded, Merkley said he felt good being at his second development camp in San Jose.

"It's more comfortable, for sure," Merkley said. "When you're coming in your first year, you're nervous, you don't know what to expect, how hard it is. But it certainly feels good being here for a second year."

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski meets with Stars before free agency


NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski meets with Stars before free agency

Joe Pavelski reportedly is taking advantage of the NHL's free-agent meeting period.

The Sharks captain, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, met with the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun.

Pavelski, 38, scored 38 goals with San Jose last season. That total would have led Dallas, too, which lacked scoring up front behind its top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn. Those three were the only Stars to score at least 20 goals, and 18 other teams exceeded that total.

The Stars have just under $10.96 million in salary-cap space, according to Cap Friendly, and that would be enough to bring in Pavelski. The Sharks have more space ($14.8 million), but San Jose also has just seven forwards under contract who finished the season in the NHL.

Dallas was my one win away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the second round, but it blew a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Given the aforementioned scoring depth, or lack thereof, Pavelski would fill a hole on the Stars' roster.

Such a move would weaken the Sharks and strengthen a possible rival, as the Stars then would have a case to enter the Western Conference's elite. It wouldn't necessarily result in a revenge playoff series for Pavelski, as San Jose and Dallas couldn't face off until the Western Conference final -- unless one of the teams finished in the other's divisional playoff bracket as a wild card.

Pavelski reportedly isn't limiting his options to the Western Conference, however. He will meet with the Tampa Bay Lightning next, according to LeBrun and The Athletic's Kevin Kurz.

The Lightning ran away with the President's Trophy in a 128-point season but was swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Pavelski's presence would provide Tampa Bay a proven playoff performer, although the Lightning faces a tighter salary-cap crunch than the Sharks.

[RELATED: Can cap-strapped Sharks keep Nyquist?]

Tampa Bay has $10.6 million in cap space after dealing J.T. Miller and will have more when it officially places Ryan Callahan on long-term injured reserve, but the Lightning still needs to lock up restricted free agent Brayden Point this summer and has Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy set to become an RFA next summer. It's difficult to see where Pavelski would fit into that equation, but he unquestionably would make the NHL's rich even richer.

Pavelski did not shut the door on returning to the Sharks in an interview earlier this week. These reports make it clear he hasn't shut the door on leaving, either.