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' Erik Karlsson supports Evander Kane's message in lengthy post

Sharks' Erik Karlsson supports Evander Kane's message in lengthy post

Sharks forward Evander Kane has been extremely outspoken about racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd's tragic death while in Minneapolis police custody last week. Both San Jose's owner Hasso Plattner and captain Logan Couture have publicly supported Kane's efforts and recognized the need for his message.

On Wednesday, another of Kane's teammates joined that group.

Erik Karlsson, arguably the Sharks' most well-known player on a global scale, wrote a lengthy Instagram post to not only support Kane, but also further expound on his message.

"I can't tell you how many times I've written and deleted this hoping it comes across the right way," Karlsson began. "I don't think I'll ever feel completely comfortable but the reality that exists for so many others is pretty much as far away from comfortable as you can get. Coming from and growing up in a small village in Sweden, I never knew anything other than you should treat everyone the same way you would want them to treat you. I never once thought about skin color, where you come from, how you dress or what you possess. No person is worth more or less than another. You always treat someone the way you want them to treat you, regardless of how you look or where you are from. To be where I am right now in 2020 and see the things I see and hear the things I hear. It blows my mind how blind I have been to the issues that have been here for a very long time and that still exist."

"I thought I grew up in a world where it didn't matter what skin color you had or where you're from and that we are all the same, but I now know I was not educated on something so crucial," he continued. "Unfortunately, we cannot change the past, but we for sure can and need to change how we move forward, and I think we do that by learning and listening. I respect and support Evander for what he stands for and how he's so vocal about this issue. 

"I haven't gone through any of these issues in my life so I can never say I know what it's like. But all I know is that I want my daughter and all other children to grow up in a world much, much better than ours right now. A world I thought I grew up in where we are all equal and treated as such. A world that didn't exist but I pray soon does."

[RELATED: How Sharks will learn, grow from forgettable '19-20 season]

Fewer than five percent of the NHL is comprised of players of color, according to WDET. As such, it has been tremendous to see so many white players join in and proliferate such a desperately needed message for both the league and world at large.

The more people that do, the more likely Karlsson's vision is to be realized.

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

The Sharks we so bad in 2019-20 that they couldn’t even qualify for an expanded 24-team NHL playoff field designed to wrap a campaign paused by the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ll be watching playoff hockey from home for just the second time in 16 seasons, an outlier outcome for a team that has been as steadily successful as any in professional sports.

The Sharks fell flat during a disastrous season where they finished dead-freaking-last in the Pacific Division and never got off the canvas after a brutal start. A team full of veteran stars finds itself in an odd position heading into a prolonged offseason, trying to find a way to rebound quickly from a disappointing campaign.

Many top players were around the last time the Sharks missed the postseason in 2014-15, and while the situations are not identical, there are lessons to be gleaned from the experience and their previous response to disappointment.

They finished above .500 in that 2014-15 season, and didn’t miss the postseason by much. The Sharks went 3-10 in the month of February, which sank their playoff chances and prompted the team and head coach Todd McLellan to mutually part ways.

But the Sharks reached different depths in 2019-20. They were the Western Conference’s worst team despite a roster full of heavyweights, with injuries to key players and some internal discord preventing the Sharks from reaching their vast potential. The letdown also led to Peter DeBoer's in-season firing and a coaching search now underway.

But Sharks captain Logan Couture knows a lot can be learned from that last offseason.

“I think a lot of guys went home during that summer determined to be in better shape and add some bite to their game,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said last week during a video conference with local reporters. “[Sharks GM Doug Wilson] challenged a lot of us to step up our games and improve as players. We wanted to come into the next year and prove that we were still a good team here in San Jose. I believe that summer a lot of people wrote us off and said the window was closed, that the team was done and to stick a fork in them.”

The Sharks surely will see similar predictions this offseason, just as they did five years ago, and it could prove to a motivating factor this time around.

“I think that lit a fire in a lot of us, and I think we’ll have a similar response this year,” Couture said. “There are going people writing those same articles. There are going to be fans thinking the same things. The only way that can change is if we make it change and show everyone we’re still a good team.

“We still have the pieces, in my mind, to compete. That’s all we can do, just work as hard as we can this summer and be as prepared as we can heading into the next training camp. I don’t think our camp this year was up to par, so we need to have a better one and get off to a good start, because we didn’t have a good one this year.”

Defenseman Erik Karlsson hasn’t been in San Jose long, but experienced plenty of disappointing seasons with the Ottawa Senators. He missed the playoffs four times with that club and each time – he was traded after missing the 2017-18 postseason -- the team responded to each setback with a playoff berth the following season.

“Every time you have a letdown, when you don’t feel that you performed up to the standards that you would like, it gets to everybody on the team and within the organization,” Karlsson said. “You have to make sure you come into the next year as prepared as possible to avoid having a bad situation repeat itself. That type of response shows a lot of character, and we have a lot of high-character guys on this team. I feel like, ever since we found out our season was ending, everyone has committed to coming back stronger next year.”

[RELATED: Couture believes Sharks' ambition must be high in long offseason]

The Sharks came back super strong after missing the 2014-15 playoffs, reaching the Stanley Cup Final the following season. It will take some discipline and consistency to find similar form after a down year, with possibly eight months between their last game and the start of next season, which should be delayed due to a prolonged hiatus due to the ongoing public health crisis.

“Even not playing now, you’re going to have to train for seven or eight months. That sucks,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “It’s not fun. It’s tough work to get your body and mind ready for a year and we have to figure out how to do that for double, triple the time. Guys train as hard as they can and thank the gods it’s only two and a half months away from the game. It’s going to be difficult.”