Sharks

Sharks' season-long observations after conference final loss to Blues

Sharks' season-long observations after conference final loss to Blues

On paper, it might have been the best Sharks team ever assembled. But it all came to an end on Tuesday night, as San Jose lost the Western Conference final four-games-to-two to the St. Louis Blues.

Here’s a look back  -- and forward -- on where this franchise stands.

Stressful run

What we just witnessed had to be among the most stressful playoff runs in Stanley Cup history. San Jose got to their fifth ever conference finals by winning a pair of Game 7s, but never had a two-game lead in any of the three rounds.  There was never an opportunity to breathe or enjoy the view.

Disappointment

San Jose was one of four remaining teams this postseason, but the journey leaves more disappointment than accomplishment.  It’s an important perspective to remember how incredibly high the standards are for this team.

Jumbo's future

I don’t believe for one second that Joe Thornton has played his last game with the Sharks.  The bigger concern is how many more playoff opportunities he will get, after turning 40 years old as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Western Conference final appearances don’t happen every season, as we know.

Healthy Thornton

It was an important season to have for Thornton.  He transitioned to a third line center role, playing about five fewer minutes per contest, but still being effective. In addition, he racked up more milestones than I can summarize here, and most importantly: was generally healthy.

Captain America

Joe Pavelski had a tremendous rebound season, coming off a hand injury to lead the team in goals at 38, which was up from 22. He also is an upcoming free agent this summer, and will be 35 next season, but proved that his exceptional net-front play of tips and redirects may not have any correlation to age.

Vegas Game 7

The “Pavelski Payback” in Game 7 of the first round against the Vegas Golden Knights might have been the best overall moment and win in San Jose’s franchise history. Or at least in the history of SAP Center. Elimination was on the line, and scoring four goals in a four-minute span was an unprecedented tribute to the fallen Captain.  

"Clutch-ure"

Logan Couture had another monster postseason and is only two playoff goals behind the leader Alexander Ovechkin (50) since 2010.  He continues rising to the occasion on the biggest of stages. And despite losing two teeth in the postseason, “Clutch-ure” showcased among the biggest of hearts.

Meier improves

Timo Meier continues to take huge steps in his career.  Last season he reached 21 goals, and this campaign he eclipsed the 30-goal mark in 78 games. Meier also has developed the reputation of a hard-nosed player who can make power scoring moves and add a physical element of the game.  The restricted free agent is well deserving of a raise from his $1.65M salary from this season.

Karlsson's decision

Will Erik Karlsson be a Shark next season?  From my view, it’s a 50-50 proposition.  Sure, both side had months to work something out.  But at the same time, free agency is a huge opportunity for any big name, and I don’t blame Karlsson for exploring the options.

Should Sharks retain EK65?

Regarding Karlsson, it’s also a huge financial commitment by San Jose if they are to retain him.  He would likely become the team's highest-paid player and would become a big piece under the salary cap. It’s a large decision for the Sharks in the coming weeks, who made a huge personnel commitment to even acquire Karlsson from Ottawa.

Karlsson's up-and-down year

Karlsson’s regular season shouldn’t be held against him, but it was no doubt frustrating for San Jose. His first third was mostly acclimating to the new surroundings, his second third was dominant and impressive, and the final third was spent with an injured groin.  In total, he tallied three goals and 42 points in 53 games.  His playoffs were much better with 16 points in 19 games, especially impressive considering the injury he played through.

[RELATED: Sharks expect offseason of change after falling short]

Hertl's career season

Another career season goes to Tomas Hertl.  He scored 35 goals, but most importantly made the critical move from winger to center back in December. By the playoffs, he was taking almost 30 draws per contest, and often winning around 20 of them.  

(Mostly) steady Jones

Let’s be frank, there were questions surrounding Martin Jones in the regular season, and for the first four playoff games. It’s hard to argue with the body of work he showcased in all the playoff games since then.

Spotlight

San Jose enjoyed the national hockey spotlight more than ever in 2018-19.  The Sharks might have made the biggest trade of the season, acquiring Erik Karlsson in September.  SAP Center hosted the NHL’s All-Star Weekend in January.  And here in May, the Sharks got to play all of their third-round games on exclusive nights.

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.”