St. Louis Blues

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Emerging competitors

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a Cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We conclude with the emerging competition around the league.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Sharks have missed the playoffs a whopping total of two times. 

That's a lot of postseason games. And yet, San Jose has never ended up on top. Moving forward, the greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win their first Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future will be the same one that has gotten in the way in all previous seasons in franchise history: the rest of the NHL.

There are currently 31 teams in the league. A 32nd -- the unnamed Seattle expansion franchise -- will join in 2021-22. The Sharks won't have to go through each and every one of them to raise the Cup, but there's more than enough to ruin their dreams.

Let's start small and look solely at the Pacific Division. San Jose has yet to win a division title under the new conference format, with last season's second-place finish in the Pacific being their best yet. The Flames improved by 23 points over the previous season to win the division title, and they're not going to fall off anytime soon.

Neither is the Sharks' newest major rival -- the Vegas Golden Knights. In two seasons in the league, they've given San Jose fits. The two sides are now at one postseason series apiece, but it wouldn't shock anyone if there were several more in the coming years.

Those three were the only Pacific teams to qualify for the playoffs last season, but the ones that didn't won't be down for long. The Coyotes are loaded with promising young players, the Canucks and Ducks are in the process of retooling, the Kings have nowhere to go but up and the Oilers have the best player in the NHL.

When Seattle joins the Pacific in 2020, San Jose better pray it doesn't hit the ground running like Vegas did in its expansion season.

Now let's move to the other division in the Western Conference. The Blues just defeated the Sharks on their way to winning the Cup, and they finished third in the Central Division. The Predators and Jets have some of the deepest rosters in the NHL, the Stars just added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, and the Avalanche have an abundance of young talent and cap space to continue their ascension. The Blackhawks just added another top-three draft pick, and while the Wild might not be headed in the right direction, a turnaround isn't out of the question.

That's just the West.

In the East, there's the record-setting Lightning, the always-formidable Bruins, Auston Matthews' Maple Leafs, Sidney Crosby's Penguins, the threatening Capitals and a bunch of teams poised to take a major leap in the coming years.

There's been formidable competition for the Sharks every season they've been in the NHL. It's not anything new, and is the main reason why they are one of 11 franchises yet to win a Stanley Cup. Of those 11, only the Canucks and Sabres have appeared in more playoff games than the Sharks in their respective franchise histories, and both Vancouver and Buffalo entered the league 21 seasons before San Jose did.

The Sharks can prepare for the upcoming expansion draft. They can hold out hope there won't be another lockout, use financial creativity to create more salary cap space and balance the roster with younger players to offset the aging core. All of that is within their control. 

[RELATED: Why salary cap issues are threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

The 30 other NHL teams -- soon to be 31 -- most definitely are not.

The greatest threat to the Sharks' ability to win a Stanley Cup in the relatively near future is the same one they've yet to prove they can overcome.

Sharks jersey retirements: Why Owen Nolan should be honored first

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AP

Sharks jersey retirements: Why Owen Nolan should be honored first

Editor’s Note: The Sharks are the only team in the Pacific Division -- other than the nascent Vegas Golden Knights -- who have not raised the jersey of a former player to the rafters. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the cases of the five likeliest candidates to have the Sharks’ first retired number. We continue with former captain Owen Nolan. 

Owen Nolan owns a couple of “firsts” in Sharks history, but none are as cool as being on the cover of a video game. 

Nolan became the first Shark to score 80-plus points and 40-plus goals in a single season when he scored 84 and 44, respectively, during the 1999-00 season. He ranked sixth and second in the NHL in those categories that season, leading San Jose to a first-round upset of the President’s Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

That season landed the power forward on the cover of EA Sports’ “NHL 2001” the following fall, making him the first San Jose player to earn a spot on the box of either EA Sports’ annual game or 2K Sports’ now-defunct “NHL 2K” series. Joe Thornton followed in Nolan’s footsteps -- landing on the “NHL 2K7” cover -- but Nolan was, in many ways, the Sharks’ first real star. 

Let’s examine the case for, and against, retiring Nolan’s No. 11 jersey first. 

The case for

Nolan became the first Sharks player to appear in multiple All-Star Games while playing for San Jose, and he still ranks second in franchise history -- behind defenseman Brent Burns -- with four All-Star appearances. He also captained the team for parts of five seasons, and only Patrick Marleau can say the same. 

From Nolan’s first game with the Sharks (Oct. 28, 1995) until his last (March 1, 2003), he scored more goals (206) than all but 26 NHL players and more points (451) than all but 38. That might not seem gaudy, but Pat Falloon, San Jose’s leading scorer in the four seasons prior to Nolan’s midseason arrival during the 1995-96 season, tied for 126th in the NHL in points (159) in the aforementioned pre-Nolan era.

He led the Sharks as they transitioned from annual also-ran into perennial playoff contender, captaining the first team in franchise history to win a division title in 2001-02 and just the third to even win a playoff series in 1999-2000. San Jose would not advance to the Western Conference Final until 2003-04 -- a year after Nolan was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs -- but the Sharks’ success with Nolan wearing the “C” helped lay the foundation. 

By the time Nolan left the Sharks, he had 101 more points and 57 more goals than any other player in franchise history. He was the most impactful player in San Jose’s first decade and change, and that’s worth honoring. 

The case against

It’s not Nolan’s fault, but he has since been surpassed on the Sharks’ all-time lists. He now ranks fifth in goals -- behind Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Thornton and Logan Couture -- and sixth in points. He understandably has fallen down the games-played chart, too, and Tomas Hertl needs to play 164 games over his remaining three years under contract to push Nolan out of the top 10. 

Nolan is right around there on the Sharks’ playoff points list, tying for ninth in goals (15) and ranking 13th in points (27) in San Jose’s postseason history. His tenure marked a turning point for the franchise, but he was never able to advance out of the second round in five playoff appearances in teal. One player does not make a team, but other Sharks have come closer to ending the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought. 

Jersey retirements do not, and should not, have a higher standard than Hockey Hall of Fame induction, but some of Nolan’s successors accomplished more and over a longer period of time than he did in San Jose. Although he seems like a lock for a jersey retirement at some point, it’s fair to wonder if he should be first in line. 

[RELATED: Sharks fans vote original teal as franchise's best-ever jersey]

Verdict

For a certain generation of Sharks fans, Nolan is why they fell in love with the team. The called shot in the 1997 All-Star Game, the center-ice slap shot in Game 7 against the Blues in 2000 and Nolan’s presence on the “NHL 2001” cover all contribute to a largely unmatched legacy in San Jose. 

But a few players have exceeded his accomplishments as a Shark, and are better candidates to get their number retired first. That discrepancy can largely be chalked up to timing, as Nolan just happened to precede an era in which San Jose joined the NHL’s elite. 

Nolan’s Sharks tenure is an important milestone on the journey, however, and one that ultimately should be honored with his No. 11 jersey hanging in SAP Center’s rafters. It just won’t be the first one.

Which Sharks should have their jersey retired first?

The case for -- and against -- Evgeni Nabokov's jersey retirement

Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role

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USATSI

Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We start with center Dylan Gambrell. 

Dylan Gambrell's second professional season didn't begin in the NHL, but it ended there. 

The 22-year-old split time between the Sharks and their AHL affiliate last year, scoring 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 51 regular-season games with the San Jose Barracuda and leading all Barracuda players (minimum five games played) in points per game (0.88). That scoring touch didn't immediately translate to the NHL, but Gambrell ultimately scored his first NHL goal on a big stage during his 13th career game, when the rookie drew into the lineup in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. He signed a two-year contract with the team last week. 

The Sharks' litany of offseason departures up front should, barring any additional moves this summer, give Gambrell a chance to crack the big club's roster out of training camp and begin the season in the NHL for the first time in his career. Here's what to expect from the most recent San Jose draft pick to make his NHL debut.

Dylan Gambrell

Draft year, position: 2016, second round (No. 60 overall)
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-foot
Weight: 185 pounds
2018-19 team: San Jose Sharks/San Jose Barracuda (AHL)

Skill set

Gambrell is known for his versatility and two-way acumen, in large part because of his speed and hockey sense. He skated on the top unit of the University of Denver's power play and penalty kill under current Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery and played a big role for the Barracuda last season. 

Although he has finished with more assists than goals in every season dating back to his days at Denver, Gambrell boasts a strong shot. He scored on 13.6 percent of his shots in the AHL last season, and 11.8 percent of his shots in college. Gambrell's lone NHL goal, a quick wrist shot past Blues netminder Jordan Binnington, provided a glimpse at his shooting skill

Training-camp proving ground

Once the Sharks make it official and re-sign veteran center Joe Thornton, there could be up to three forward spots up for grabs based on the lineups San Jose iced in the Western Conference final. Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Joe Pavelski signed elsewhere earlier this month, arguably leaving roles vacant on three separate lines. 

Gambrell, who was used on the wing and down the middle by Sharks coach Peter DeBoer last season, has an opportunity to win a spot as a bottom-six forward. That likely would be as the fourth-line center, allowing Barclay Goodrow to move back to the wing. Whether or not the Sharks reunite with Patrick Marleau, Gambrell seems like a longshot for a look on the wing higher up the lineup. Still, his offensive pedigree at lower levels can't necessarily be discounted given who San Jose will have to replace. 

Best-case scenario

Gambrell seizes an opening among the Sharks forward corps at training camp, eventually becoming a staple in San Jose's NHL lineup. He begins the season as the team's fourth-line center against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 2, and remains in the spot in the regular-season finale against the Anaheim Ducks six months later. 

As the season progresses, Gambrell earns a role on the penalty kill and allows DeBoer and the Sharks coaching staff to selectively manage the minutes of top centers Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. Chipping in 20 to 25 points against bottom-six competition would be an added bonus. 

Worst-case scenario

Gambrell can't seize a spot in training camp or crack the NHL lineup outside of intermittent injury call-ups. He continues to play well with the Barracuda but becomes a "Quadruple-A" player in his age-23 season: Prolific in the AHL, but unable to earn a regular role in the NHL. 

That makes the Sharks, who are light on draft picks and tight against the salary cap, explore acquiring a fourth-line center at the trade deadline ahead of the Stanley Cup playoff push. 

[RELATED: How rival Golden Knights look after free agency]

Realistic expectations

Gambrell might not spend the entirety of the season in the NHL, but it is fair to expect him to win a spot on the roster out of training camp and enter the postseason as a regular forward. 

After re-signing defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Timo Meier to big contracts, the Sharks need contributors on cheap deals. Gambrell, who reportedly carries a $700,000 salary-cap hit over the next two seasons, fits that bill. 

A shortage of available forwards pressed him into the Sharks' lineup in the Western Conference final, and he responded by scoring San Jose's only goal in Game 6. He'll need to rise to the occasion again in a similar situation this fall.