Brenden Dillon

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.

NHL rumors: Doug Wilson won't disrupt Sharks' core at trade deadline

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USATSI

NHL rumors: Doug Wilson won't disrupt Sharks' core at trade deadline

If you're in favor of the Sharks making a splashy move to shake things up ahead of the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline, we've got bad news for you.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this week that Sharks general manager Doug Wilson "has let it be known he is not interested in disrupting his core."

That presumably means players like Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are staying put.

But Friedman notes that there will be interest in Melker Karlsson and Brenden Dillon, who are both unrestricted free agents after this season.

With the playoffs looking less and less likely for San Jose, it would make sense for Wilson to try to get something for Karlsson and Dillon.

The Sharks don't have a first, fourth or sixth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, so it would be wise for Wilson to recoup some of the assets he traded away in recent years.

After losing in the Western Conference final to the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks have fallen on hard times. They enter Saturday's game against Vancouver with a 21-24-4 record and sit nine points out of a wild-card spot. On Thursday night, they were shutout by the Avalanche in Colorado and interim head coach Bob Boughner urged his players to "man up."

[RELATED: Ricci on first month as coach]

At the moment, the Sharks are close to the upper limit of the NHL salary cap, but they will have roughly $18 million coming off the books this summer, according to Cap Friendly, so as Friedman notes, Wilson will have the flexibility to make moves in the offseason.

The Sharks are in desperate need of a wake-up call. But it sounds like it won't come in February.

NHL rumors: Sharks plan to trade players but won't blow up roster

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USATSI

NHL rumors: Sharks plan to trade players but won't blow up roster

This season hasn't gone as planned for the Sharks, and Logan Couture's fractured ankle might be the straw that breaks them. 

At 21-22-4, the Sharks currently are seven points back of the final wild-card position but have a number of teams to leap in order to get back into playoff contention.

With their captain slated to miss expected to miss six weeks, the Sharks are ready to look to the future by selling some players in order to make a quick reboot to contend next season, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported Monday.

Via LeBrun:

The crushing injury to Logan Couture only cements what was coming anyway, the realization by the Sharks that it is time to punt on this season and regroup for next year.

LeBrun believes the Sharks will look to trade the likes of Brenden Dillon and Melker Karlsson, both of whom will unrestricted free agents this summer. The plan, however, reportedly is not to blow up the core of the team, as the Sharks are hoping a few tweaks will have them back in the Stanley Cup hunt shortly. 

The core of Couture, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, Evander Kane, Erik Karlsson, Timo Meier, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns is the stuff contenders are made of to be sure. The Sharks, however, will need to solve their goaltending issue and perhaps secure another top-six forward to boost the full-strength attack.

Losing Dillon and/or Melker Karlsson also would hamper the NHL's best penalty kill unit, which is something else to consider going forward.

[RELATED: Pavelski says Sharks did it right in his emotional return]

The Sharks will head into the offseason looking for a new coach and a new plan of attack, but the same belief that their foundation can win a title after a few tweaks.