Sharks

Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

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AP

Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

Heading into the All-Star break last season, the St. Louis Blues were a .500 team (22-22-5). In the 33 regular-season games that followed, they caught fire and carried that momentum to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

This season, the Sharks enter the All-Star break four games below .500 with 32 games left to claw their way back into playoff positioning and hopefully do the same. As the Blues proved, it's not out of the realm of possibility, but if we're being realistic, it remains a longshot.

Whether the Sharks qualify for the postseason for the 20th time in the last 22 years or end up in dead last, there are a few potential developments to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of the season that will have an impact on the team both in the present and well into the future.

Even if the playoffs are out of the question, these three storylines will be front and center for San Jose:

Trade candidates

For the Sharks to have any shot of making it back to the postseason, they'll need to emerge from the All-Star break the same way the Blues did: by putting together a lengthy winning streak. St. Louis won 10 in a row coming out of the break last season, and San Jose might require something similar. But if the Sharks don't catch fire coming out of the break, it will be time to face facts before long.

If and when the playoffs become obviously out of reach, it will be time for general manager Doug Wilson to make some magic happen. The season can't be a complete loss, and he'll surely work the phones in an effort to expedite a partial rebuild. Considering the Sharks don't have their first-round draft pick as a result of signing Erik Karlsson to a contract extension, they need to recoup assets wherever they can get them.

Defenseman Brenden Dillon is the obvious name to keep an eye on, and the most likely San Jose player to be traded for two reasons. First, his physical style comes in higher demand the closer you get to the postseason. Second, he actually would bring back a decent-sized haul. Other players like Melker Karlsson certainly could be had, but the question will be if it is worth San Jose's while to do so, since he won't bring back anywhere near as large of a return as Dillon would.

As soon as it becomes obvious the current season is headed nowhere, the Sharks need to shift their focus to the future.

Boughner's audition

It hasn't been the easiest season to be an NHL head coach. Seven bench bosses already have been fired, including former Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. 

DeBoer, of course, has since been re-hired by the rival Vegas Golden Knights. His former top assistant, Bob Boughner, was promoted to Sharks interim head coach upon DeBoer's dismissal from San Jose. And, frankly, the coaching change appeared to provide the Sharks with the jolt they needed -- initially, at least -- as the team was far more competitive following the switch.

But three blowout losses leading into the All-Star break have sapped all of that momentum out of the Sharks, and Boughner hasn't shied away from calling out his players for unsatisfactory performances in those contests. While he definitely has the respect of the locker room, if San Jose continues its lackluster play coming out of the break, it might lead to questions as to whether or not Boughner is the right fit for the organization moving forward.

The other side of the lots-of-coaches-have-been-fired coin is that many of those established coaches now are unemployed -- but are unlikely to be for long. Most, if not all, will be hired to fill head coaching vacancies in the offseason, and Wilson wouldn't be doing his due diligence if he didn't consider all potential options. A strong finish for the Sharks this season likely would be a boon to Boughner's chances of having the interim tag removed from his title. But if it goes the other way, San Jose might have to make its second coaching change in a span of six months.

[RELATED: What has gone right for Sharks in disappointing season]

Balancing act

At what point does the current season become about the future? That might be the most important question facing the Sharks throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign. They've dug themselves a considerable hole, and while they still can dig themselves out of it, they need to be prudent in how they go about determining which players to give opportunities to.

The Sharks' ideal scenario, obviously, is making it back to the playoffs. But if San Jose encounters any sort of extended losing streak, that should probably signal Boughner and Wilson that it's time to see what the Sharks have in their system. Instead of giving ice time to known quantities, San Jose would be better off finding out which of its prospects are the real deal, and which aren't.

Maxim Letunov, Joachim Blichfeld, Alexander True, Jayden Halbgewachs, Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, Dylan Gambrell, Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaikin are all 23 years old or younger. Some of them already have made their NHL debuts, while others still are awaiting their opportunity. If and when the decision is made to focus on the future, the Sharks should throw as many of their fringe prospects against the wall as they're comfortable with, and see who sticks.

If San Jose does enter a rebuilding phase, chances are you'll be seeing plenty of those guys moving forward.

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.

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from rough 4-2 road loss vs. Flyers

Sharks takeaways: What we learned from rough 4-2 road loss vs. Flyers

BOX SCORE

The Sharks came out of the trade deadline the same way they went into it, suffering a road loss to an Eastern Conference opponent in which San Jose wasn't all that competitive.

In a 4-2 loss Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center, the Sharks fell behind the Philadelphia Flyers within the opening two minutes. They managed to go into the first intermission with the score tied, but the Flyers mostly controlled the final two periods. Philadelphia scored twice in the second, and the depleted San Jose lineup lacked the firepower to keep up.

With the loss, the Sharks conclude a winless four-game road trip in which they were outscored 13-6 and never tallied more than two goals in any single contest.

Here are three takeaways from another loss that revealed San Jose's shortcomings.

Not Burns' best

Several of the Sharks' best players are either injured or now playing for other teams. One of the few who remains in San Jose's lineup -- defenseman Brent Burns -- is unlikely to favorably remember Tuesday's defeat.

The Flyers' first goal of the game came on a power play resulting from Burns' early hooking penalty. He was also on the ice for both of Philadelphia's goals in the second period, at least one of which he likely could have prevented if not for a bad turnover. Offensively, Burns had a rather pedestrian performance for his standards, finishing with zero points and two shots on goal.

In Burns' defense, he has taken on a larger load of the minutes in the aftermath of Erik Karlsson's season-ending injury, averaging nearly 27 minutes per game since the fellow former Norris Trophy winner went down on Feb. 14. That said, San Jose will be at a talent deficit throughout most of its remaining games, and if Burns is struggling, that will be too tough to overcome more often than not.

Ears burning

Prior to Tuesday's game, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson explained that he's looking forward to seeing what some of San Jose's younger, less-proven players can do with their increased opportunities throughout the remainder of the season. Although the Sharks lost to the Flyers, Wilson has to be pleased with certain individual performances.

Of the few youngsters Wilson specifically mentioned by name, Joel Kellman, was included. The 25-year-old Swedish winger didn't take long to show why, pulling San Jose even with the Sharks' first goal of the night. 

Defenseman Jake Middleton got the primary assist on Kellman's goal, just as he did on Tim Heed's goal in the first game of the road trip. Tuesday marked Middleton's fourth NHL game since being called up from the AHL last week, as it did for Noah Gregor, who managed to notch his second goal of the season with a wicked slap shot in the third period.

Kellman, Middleton and Gregor are the type of players Wilson was talking about prior to the game. Afterward, the GM has to like what he saw from them.

[RELATED: Wilson pleased with Sharks' haul, but work is just starting]

Dell dropping off

Tuesday marked the fourth loss in goaltender Aaron Dell's last five starts, over which he has allowed 19 goals against. That's not a good trend, but frankly, it's not as big of a deal as it would have been a few weeks ago.

Heading into the trade deadline, the Sharks had every reason to see what they could get for the pending unrestricted free agent. Had Dell's struggles occurred earlier, it likely would have diminished whatever San Jose got in return for him. Well, no trade was made, and Dell will remain with the Sharks for the duration of the season.

That is likely to be the extent of it, however. Assuming San Jose is unable to unload Martin Jones' hefty contract, it is difficult to see a situation in which Dell re-signs with the Sharks in the offseason. As such, he needs to get back on track -- not to build up his value as a trade piece, but as a free agent instead.