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Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

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AP

Sharks must handle challenging road trip better than last time around

Just four days into December, the Sharks are facing a new level of adversity. They suffered a disappointing loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night and are dealing with some injuries at forward that are keeping the position in flux.

To top it all off, San Jose is about to begin a four-game road trip, three games of which are against Eastern Conference teams. And the last time the Sharks went on a roadie out east, things didn't exactly go well.

In order for the Sharks to keep their good fortunes going, they must pass this test.

"Good teams, tough buildings, a big test," head coach Peter DeBoer said after Tuesday's loss when asked about the upcoming trip. "Our last time on an extended trip we didn't handle it well. So, hopefully, we're in a different place this time."

When you look at the big picture, the Sharks are in a better place than they were at the end of October, when they went 1-3-1 on their east-coast swing. San Jose staged a big rebound in November, showing it could win games in different ways and stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone. After going 4-8-1 in October, the Sharks went 11-4-0 in November and reinserted themselves back into the pack with the other competitive Pacific Division teams.

Nevertheless, the Sharks' upcoming trip -- which kicks off Thursday in Carolina against the Hurricanes and includes a back-to-back against the Lightning and Panthers -- isn't going to be a cakewalk. After the rough outing San Jose's defense had Tuesday against the Capitals, the trip looks even more daunting.

"It's not getting any easier," Brenden Dillon admitted Tuesday. "We're going into some tough buildings. A couple of back-to-backs here with Tampa and Florida. I think we're seeing if we don't play to our identity, if we don't play the right way, what happens."

The Sharks' defense isn't the only area of concern following the loss to Washington. San Jose was starting to see some production from its bottom six at the end of November, but injuries to Tomas Hertl and Antti Suomela are forcing the Sharks to shuffle up their lines yet again. Even with fourth-liners Dylan Gambrell and Noah Gregor finding their stride and contributing more, San Jose's mission to have a four-line team on the ice every night remains an ongoing project.

[RELATED: Kane fined $5K for elbowing Gudas in Sharks' blowout loss]

This isn't to say that the Sharks can't rebound from their loss to the Capitals and have a successful road trip. Their resilience was on display just last week when they bounced back from a tough loss to the Jets to win back-to-back games against the Kings and Coyotes. Plus, Carolina is the only team on the trip that currently has more points than San Jose, and the Hurricanes have lost three of their last four games, including a 2-0 shutout at the hands of the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night. 

Still, though, the Sharks can't afford to play as they did against the Caps on their upcoming road trip. San Jose is about to encounter a major test, and class is in session starting Thursday. 

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.

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski meets with Stars before free agency

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USATSI

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Pavelski meets with Stars before free agency

Joe Pavelski reportedly is taking advantage of the NHL's free-agent meeting period.

The Sharks captain, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, met with the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, according to The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun.

Pavelski, 38, scored 38 goals with San Jose last season. That total would have led Dallas, too, which lacked scoring up front behind its top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn. Those three were the only Stars to score at least 20 goals, and 18 other teams exceeded that total.

The Stars have just under $10.96 million in salary-cap space, according to Cap Friendly, and that would be enough to bring in Pavelski. The Sharks have more space ($14.8 million), but San Jose also has just seven forwards under contract who finished the season in the NHL.

Dallas was my one win away from eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the second round, but it blew a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Given the aforementioned scoring depth, or lack thereof, Pavelski would fill a hole on the Stars' roster.

Such a move would weaken the Sharks and strengthen a possible rival, as the Stars then would have a case to enter the Western Conference's elite. It wouldn't necessarily result in a revenge playoff series for Pavelski, as San Jose and Dallas couldn't face off until the Western Conference final -- unless one of the teams finished in the other's divisional playoff bracket as a wild card.

Pavelski reportedly isn't limiting his options to the Western Conference, however. He will meet with the Tampa Bay Lightning next, according to LeBrun and The Athletic's Kevin Kurz.

The Lightning ran away with the President's Trophy in a 128-point season but was swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Pavelski's presence would provide Tampa Bay a proven playoff performer, although the Lightning faces a tighter salary-cap crunch than the Sharks.

[RELATED: Can cap-strapped Sharks keep Nyquist?]

Tampa Bay has $10.6 million in cap space after dealing J.T. Miller and will have more when it officially places Ryan Callahan on long-term injured reserve, but the Lightning still needs to lock up restricted free agent Brayden Point this summer and has Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy set to become an RFA next summer. It's difficult to see where Pavelski would fit into that equation, but he unquestionably would make the NHL's rich even richer.

Pavelski did not shut the door on returning to the Sharks in an interview earlier this week. These reports make it clear he hasn't shut the door on leaving, either.