Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2015-16 team ranks in franchise history

Editor's note: In honor of Shark Week, NBC Sports California will look back at the five best teams from Sharks franchise history. Numerous factors have been taken into consideration, including overall team success, roster makeup, historical significance and more. We continue with the 2015-16 Sharks.

The 2015-16 season was one of firsts for the Sharks. 

It was their first season with Peter DeBoer behind the bench as head coach, and the first with Martin Jones in net. Joe Pavelski wore the captain's "C," Tomas Hertl scored 20-plus goals and Brent Burns finished as a Norris Trophy, all for the first time in their respective careers. 

The biggest first, however, came for the franchise in the postseason. The Sharks advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final in the 2016, after three previous appearances in the Western Conference final ended two wins shy of getting there. While the season didn't end with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau lifting the Cup, San Jose got over a hump that had dogged the franchise for most of its second decade. 

Here's a look back at the 2015-16 Sharks, the second-best team in franchise history. 

Why they're the best

The Sharks hired DeBoer just over a month after mutually parting ways with Todd McLellan. San Jose struggled in McLellan's final season behind the bench, falling to the middle of the pack in 5-on-5 puck possession a year after finishing in the top five by most metrics. Much of that decline stemmed from a diminished roster after the Sharks declared themselves a "tomorrow team" after blowing a three-games-to-none series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the previous season, and San Jose missed the postseason in 2014-15 for the first time in over a decade. 

In 2015-16, the Sharks rebounded as a strong puck-possession team. Free-agent signings Joonas Donskoi (11 goals, 25 assists) and Joel Ward (21 goals, 22 assists) gave San Jose some much-needed secondary offense behind the likes of Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Hertl and Logan Couture, and chipped in some key goals during the team's playoff run. Defenseman Paul Martin, who also was signed as a free agent in 2015, proved to be a steadying presence on the blue line and developed strong chemistry with Burns in the bearded blue liner's second season back on defense. 

San Jose arguably was at its deepest in net, too. Alex Stalock struggled as the team's backup, and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that brought James Reimer to the Sharks. Reimer proved to be exactly what the Sharks needed, posting a .938 save percentage and three shutouts in eight starts for San Jose down the stretch. As the unquestioned starter, Jones won more games (37) and had a higher regular-season save percentage (.918) than he has since. He also matched the franchise record for playoff shutouts (three), back-stopping the team to the Cup Final.

Oh yeah, there's that whole "winning the Western Conference" thing, which no Sharks team ever did before or has done since. That run, which included a revenge win over the Kings in the first round, counts for something. 

Why they're not

It would be unfair to call the Sharks' 24th season pedestrian, considering it ended with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.  But, there arguably were more impressive San Jose teams which didn't make it that far in the postseason.

Twelve regular seasons in Sharks history ended with more points than the 2015-16 campaign. San Jose had a better goal-differential in seven seasons, scored more goals in 10, allowed fewer in 12 and won more games in six. Those teams ahead of the 2015-16 squad didn't make it to the Final, of course, but they didn't have the same postseason path as these Sharks. 

The Kings, like the Sharks, also were coming off a year in which they missed the playoffs, and weren't the same team that reverse-swept San Jose two seasons prior. The Nashville Predators pushed the Sharks in a seven-game Stanley Cup playoff second-round series, but Nashville's first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks meant the Sharks avoided a team that won the Pacific Division and beat them three out of four times in the regular season. The St. Louis Blues, whom the Sharks eliminated in the Western Conference final, did finish the regular season with the third-most points. Still, facing St. Louis meant San Jose avoided the Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn-led Dallas Stars. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins posed a real challenge in the Stanley Cup Final, utilizing superior depth and speed en route to eliminating the Sharks in a six-game series. While Pittsburgh and San Jose were close on the scoreboard, the Penguins controlled 54.7 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 62.2 percent of the high-danger chances. Jones kept the Sharks in that series, but the Penguins clearly were the better team. 

No team wins a Stanley Cup without any luck, but the circumstances of the Sharks' run to the Final are worth taking into account. 

[RELATED: Projecting Sharks' protected list for 2021 expansion draft]

Verdict

Of course, so is the end result. Being the second-to-last team standing at the end of a playoff run, as the 2015-16 Sharks were, is better than any other team that has worn the uniform to date.

The Cup Final appearance also represented something of a culmination for the much-maligned Thornton and Marleau, who bore the bulk of the criticism over the previous decade as the Sharks failed to make it out of the conference final. No two players have played more games for San Jose, and it was fitting that they were on the team for the franchise's first appearance on the NHL's biggest stage -- even if it came closer to the end of their careers rather than the middle of their prime. 

Had Thornton, Marleau and the Sharks lifted the Cup three years ago, the 2015-16 team undoubtedly would top this list -- as they surely do for many San Jose fans. But the 2015-16 season ended without a championship, just as every campaign that preceded it and subsequently has followed. 

We firmly are in the highly-subjective nit-picking portion of this series, but that leaves just enough room for another team to take the top spot. 

Best teams in Sharks history

No. 5: 2001-02 
No. 4:
2005-06
No. 3: 2018-19

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2018-19 team ranks in franchise history

Shark Week: Where San Jose's 2018-19 team ranks in franchise history

Editor's note: In honor of Shark Week, NBC Sports California will look back at the five best teams from Sharks franchise history. Numerous factors have been taken into consideration, including overall team success, roster makeup, historical significance and more. We continue with the 2018-19 Sharks.

The Sharks' most recent NHL season began with a bang before any games were played. They traded for superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson on the eve of training camp, adding a two-time Norris Trophy winner to a blue line that already had 2016-17 Norris winner Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic playing leading roles. 

Karlsson needed time to adjust, and a series of groin injuries sapped his effectiveness down the stretch in his first season in teal. The Sharks didn't click for the entirety of the season, but the stretches in which they did gave a glimpse of the team's elite potential.

For instance, San Jose rattled off a 16-4-2 record from Dec. 2, 2018, until Jan. 16, 2019 -- the last game Karlsson played before missing 27 of the team's final 33 games -- and dominated the record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning in a 5-2 win right in the middle of that stretch. 

Even though Karlsson and others weren't healthy, the Sharks' season ended just two wins shy of the franchise's second-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. It marked the beginning of a new era, since Karlsson ultimately re-signed on an eight-year contract before free agency began, and the end of another, since it marked captain Joe Pavelski's final season with the team. 

Here's a look back at the 2018-19 Sharks, the third-best team in franchise history.

Why they're the best

If there was a deeper team on offense in Sharks history than last season’s squad, you'd have a hard time proving it. San Jose set a franchise record in goals (289), with nine players scoring at least 15. That also set a franchise record, and tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL-lead in 2018-19.

The Sharks also were one of the best 5-on-5 puck-possession teams, finishing no worse than fifth in shot-attempt percentage (first), unblocked shot-attempt percentage (second), shots-for percentage (second), expected goals-for percentage (second), scoring-chance percentage (second) and high-danger chance percentage (fifth). Icing one of Burns -- who finished as a Norris Trophy finalist -- and Karlsson on most shifts helped, but so did the team's forward depth. 

San Jose was deep down the middle with Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton centering their own lines, and perhaps deeper on the wing with Pavelski, Timo Meier, Evander Kane, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen all hitting the aforementioned 15-goal threshold. Joonas Donskoi (14) wasn't far behind, and trade-deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquist gave the team even more skill. 

Why they're not

At their best, the Sharks were as good as any team in the league last season. But San Jose couldn't harness that for the entirety of the season, and it struggled to overcome poor performances in net and injuries to Karlsson and defenseman Radim Simek during the regular season. 

Although the Sharks scored more goals than every team but the Lightning and Calgary Flames, they allowed the 11th-most. Goaltenders Martin Jones (.896 save percentage) and Aaron Dell (.886) had the worst seasons of their professional careers, and no team had a worse overall save percentage during the regular season than the Sharks (.889).

Jones just about singlehandedly kept the Sharks' playoff hopes alive with a stellar performance in Game 6 of San Jose's Stanley Cup playoff first-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights, but he book-ended a .916 in seven second-round games against the Colorado Avalanche with a .904 against in seven against Vegas and an .869 in six against the eventual-Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. 

Still, the Sharks were good enough to overcome Jones and Dell's struggles during the regular season -- up to a point. San Jose won six in a row after Karlsson aggravated his groin injury in late February, but proceeded to lose nine of its final 12 games after Simek's rookie season ended when he tore his ACL in mid-March.

Up one point in the race for the Western Conference's top seed at the time of Simek's injury, the Sharks finished the regular season six points shy of the Flames. San Jose's long list of playoff injuries didn't help matters, either, and another Sharks season ended without a Stanley Cup.

[RELATED: Projecting Sharks' protected list for 2021 expansion draft]

Verdict

The 2018-19 Sharks surely would top a list of the most talented teams in franchise history, even with the goaltenders' struggles and Karlsson's injury limiting him. That San Jose advanced further than it had in all but two seasons in franchise history is a testament to the roster Doug Wilson put together, as well as the team's resilience (and good fortune), but the Sharks' 27th season showed that talent can only overcome so much. 

As a result, a third-place ranking feels wholly appropriate. Back-to-back seven-game series against the Knights and Avalanche provided plenty of iconic playoff moments, and Sharks fans won't forget either Game 7 any time soon. Yet "what if" likely will be asked in the same breath.

The same question can be asked about every team that preceded them, of course, but it won't carry the same weight. 

Best teams in Sharks history

No. 5: 2001-02 
No. 4: 2005-06

Why Peter DeBoer credits Joe Thornton in Sharks' wild Vegas comeback

thorntonap.jpg
AP

Why Peter DeBoer credits Joe Thornton in Sharks' wild Vegas comeback

In the aftermath of the Sharks' improbable -- if controversial -- Stanley Cup playoff comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of the first round, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer credited veteran center Joe Thornton for speaking up in the immediate aftermath of then-captain Joe Pavelski's head injury. 

Earlier this week, San Jose's bench boss revealed that the 40-year-old did so at the expense of his own playing time. DeBoer told The Athletic's Craig Custance at a presentation during the Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto this week that, when the Sharks scored their third goal on the contentious major penalty back on April 23, Thornton said DeBoer shouldn't put the veteran's power-play unit on the ice. 

Kevin Labanc scored the Sharks' fourth goal -- and his fourth point -- of the power play 28 seconds after Couture tied the game 3-3. San Jose scored two goals within 1:04 of the major penalty being called, with forwards Couture, Labanc, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl joined on the ice by defenseman Erik Karlsson. Thornton, Evander Kane, Gustav Nyquist and Marcus Sorensen took the ice with defenseman Brent Burns after the first two goals, but the Golden Knights held the second unit to two shots on goal and no goals for nearly two minutes of power-play time. 

Couture tied Game 7 with about 1:20 remaining on the power play, scoring the top power-play unit's third goal on their fifth shot attempt. On their sixth, Labanc gave the Sharks the lead. 

[RELATED: Sharks prospect Chekhovich has skill to earn NHL spot]

They still needed overtime to advance to the second round, but riding their hot hands resulted in an historic power play for the Sharks. According to DeBoer, he can thank Thornton for that.