Joe Thornton

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

jumbousa.jpg
USATSI

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.

NHL rumors: Sharks' Erik Karlsson expected to be pursued by Rangers

karlssonrangersusatsi.jpg
USATSI

NHL rumors: Sharks' Erik Karlsson expected to be pursued by Rangers

Erik Karlsson was not on the ice for the final game of the San Jose Sharks' season.

As a pending unrestricted free agent, there's a decent chance he won't participate in their next game, either.

As soon as the Sharks were eliminated from the playoffs in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, their offseason began. And what an important offseason it will be.

San Jose has numerous players destined to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, including Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, but arguably none bigger than Karlsson, whom the Sharks acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators just prior to the start of the season.

As one of the very best defensemen in the NHL, Karlsson will have no shortage of suitors around the league. The Sharks will certainly be considered among the favorites to retain his services and sign him to a long-term contract, but they won't be alone.

In fact, ESPN reported on Tuesday that the New York Rangers could be a major factor.

"Scuttlebutt around the organization is that (Karlsson) likes the Sharks and the Bay Area," ESPN's Greg Wyshynski and Chris Peters wrote following San Jose's Game 6 loss, "yet there has always been speculation that he could return back east -- the loudest chatter during the playoffs was a potential match with old friend Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Needless to say, the 28-year-old remains the elite of the elite when he's healthy, and would be a foundational asset for the Sharks. But after the playoffs, his health can't be trusted or assumed."

As evidenced in the end, Karlsson's health was an issue all throughout the season.

"Really, we had him healthy for six weeks and dialed in," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told reporters following the defeat.

Still, those six weeks were awfully impressive, and even at less than 100 percent, Karlsson was arguably the Sharks' best player when he was on the ice in the playoffs, at least before aggravating whatever kept him out of Game 6. There's no denying his ability, and even with the injury history, he's the kind of talent any team would love to have on their roster.

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

The playoff run can't make the Sharks more confident in Karlsson's ability to stay healthy. But it proved enough that they can't afford to let him get away, regardless of how costly he is certain to be.

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

sharkscolumnap.jpg
AP

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.