Todd McLellan

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

The Sharks we so bad in 2019-20 that they couldn’t even qualify for an expanded 24-team NHL playoff field designed to wrap a campaign paused by the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ll be watching playoff hockey from home for just the second time in 16 seasons, an outlier outcome for a team that has been as steadily successful as any in professional sports.

The Sharks fell flat during a disastrous season where they finished dead-freaking-last in the Pacific Division and never got off the canvas after a brutal start. A team full of veteran stars finds itself in an odd position heading into a prolonged offseason, trying to find a way to rebound quickly from a disappointing campaign.

Many top players were around the last time the Sharks missed the postseason in 2014-15, and while the situations are not identical, there are lessons to be gleaned from the experience and their previous response to disappointment.

They finished above .500 in that 2014-15 season, and didn’t miss the postseason by much. The Sharks went 3-10 in the month of February, which sank their playoff chances and prompted the team and head coach Todd McLellan to mutually part ways.

But the Sharks reached different depths in 2019-20. They were the Western Conference’s worst team despite a roster full of heavyweights, with injuries to key players and some internal discord preventing the Sharks from reaching their vast potential. The letdown also led to Peter DeBoer's in-season firing and a coaching search now underway.

But Sharks captain Logan Couture knows a lot can be learned from that last offseason.

“I think a lot of guys went home during that summer determined to be in better shape and add some bite to their game,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said last week during a video conference with local reporters. “[Sharks GM Doug Wilson] challenged a lot of us to step up our games and improve as players. We wanted to come into the next year and prove that we were still a good team here in San Jose. I believe that summer a lot of people wrote us off and said the window was closed, that the team was done and to stick a fork in them.”

The Sharks surely will see similar predictions this offseason, just as they did five years ago, and it could prove to a motivating factor this time around.

“I think that lit a fire in a lot of us, and I think we’ll have a similar response this year,” Couture said. “There are going people writing those same articles. There are going to be fans thinking the same things. The only way that can change is if we make it change and show everyone we’re still a good team.

“We still have the pieces, in my mind, to compete. That’s all we can do, just work as hard as we can this summer and be as prepared as we can heading into the next training camp. I don’t think our camp this year was up to par, so we need to have a better one and get off to a good start, because we didn’t have a good one this year.”

Defenseman Erik Karlsson hasn’t been in San Jose long, but experienced plenty of disappointing seasons with the Ottawa Senators. He missed the playoffs four times with that club and each time – he was traded after missing the 2017-18 postseason -- the team responded to each setback with a playoff berth the following season.

“Every time you have a letdown, when you don’t feel that you performed up to the standards that you would like, it gets to everybody on the team and within the organization,” Karlsson said. “You have to make sure you come into the next year as prepared as possible to avoid having a bad situation repeat itself. That type of response shows a lot of character, and we have a lot of high-character guys on this team. I feel like, ever since we found out our season was ending, everyone has committed to coming back stronger next year.”

[RELATED: Couture believes Sharks' ambition must be high in long offseason]

The Sharks came back super strong after missing the 2014-15 playoffs, reaching the Stanley Cup Final the following season. It will take some discipline and consistency to find similar form after a down year, with possibly eight months between their last game and the start of next season, which should be delayed due to a prolonged hiatus due to the ongoing public health crisis.

“Even not playing now, you’re going to have to train for seven or eight months. That sucks,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “It’s not fun. It’s tough work to get your body and mind ready for a year and we have to figure out how to do that for double, triple the time. Guys train as hard as they can and thank the gods it’s only two and a half months away from the game. It’s going to be difficult.”

Shark Week: Why San Jose's 2008-09 team is best in franchise history

Shark Week: Why San Jose's 2008-09 team is best 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 2008-09 Sharks.

The best team in Sharks history didn't win a playoff series. 

The Sharks won more games (53) and accrued more points (117) than any other San Jose team before or since, and posted a better goal differential (plus-53) than all but one. They won the first -- and only -- President's Trophy in franchise history, out-pacing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings (112 points) and a Boston Bruins team that picked up more points (116) than all but two in their storied history to that point. 

San Jose also matched its quickest elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs, losing in six games to the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round. It was just the fourth time since the President's Trophy was first given in 1985-86 that the NHL's top seed had lost in the first round, and the first since the Sharks upset the St. Louis Blues in the 1999-00 season.

Both of these things can be true without invalidating the other. With that in mind, here's a look back at the best team in franchise history: the 2008-09 Sharks. 

Why they're the best

After losing in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season in 2007-08, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson had a splashy summer. He hired former Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan as the team's head coach, and acquired veteran defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle in a two-day span.

Those acquisitions, a bounce-back season from Patrick Marleau (then-career-high 38 goals), Joe Thornton at the peak of his powers and career years from homegrown players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic (36 points), Christian Ehrhoff (42), Ryane Clowe (52), Milan Michalek (57), Joe Pavelski (59) and Devin Setoguchi (65) gave San Jose a deep complement of skaters. That season's blue line could give the 2018-19 squad's defense a run for its money, too, as a franchise-record four defensemen scored at least 35 points. Evgeni Nabokov was solid as the team's starter, while Brian Boucher (.917 save percentage) was steady behind him.

The result of all that talent and McLellan's system was the Sharks' best puck-possession team since the NHL began sharing shot-attempt data in 2007. Among the Sharks teams that have taken the ice since 2007-08 and across the regular season and playoffs, the 2008-09 iteration ranks first or second in controlling 5-on-5 shot attempts, unblocked attempts, shots and expected goals, according to Corsica Hockey. San Jose steamrolled teams that season, and its 53 wins in 2008-09 have only been surpassed 10 times since the post-lockout 2005-06 season. 

Why they're not

Poor finishing -- the Sharks' 5-on-5 shooting percentage (6.74) in 2008-09 is worse than all but one of their 82-game regular seasons since 2007 -- doomed San Jose against Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller (.957 save percentage in the first round) in the postseason. The Ducks had more than enough talent to take advantage, with three future Hall of Famers (Teemu Selanne, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer) plus a formidable top line of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in a career year in order to spring the first-round upset. 

As dominant as the Sharks were, there were cracks in the armor during the record-setting regular season. The team's forward depth was a concern all season, as Jonathan Cheechoo -- diminished by injuries -- and Mike Grier were the only forwards outside of the top six to score more than 20 points. San Jose acquired third-line stalwart Travis Moen from Anaheim at the trade deadline, but he didn't give the Sharks' bottom six much of a boost. McLellan cycled in veterans (Claude Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick), enforcers (Brad Staubitz and Jody Shelley) and young players (Tom Cavanagh, Lukas Kaspar, Jamie McGinn, Tomas Plihal and Ryan Vesce) into the lineup throughout the regular season, but didn't find much of a mix. When the top six went cold in the playoffs, San Jose's depth couldn't make up for it.

Much like their lineup, the Sharks' record-setting season was also top-heavy. Twenty-five of the team's 53 wins came in the first 30 games. Over the last 52, San Jose went 25-15-9. Boucher regressed in his final 12 starts, posting a .906 save percentage over his final 12 starts. Nabokov, meanwhile, couldn't match Hiller in the first round, and his .890 save percentage that postseason is sixth-worst in Sharks history among goalies who played in at least four games in a playoff run. 

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

Verdict

The 2008-09 Sharks had flaws, and their season ended in embarrassment manner that no other in franchise history has really matched. There is no bigger letdown than losing in the first round after winning the President's Trophy, but it's worth noting that San Jose's win and subsequent first-round loss haven't been an uncommon occurrence in this era. 

Of the 22 President's Trophy winners that preceded the Sharks, three lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Of the 10 that have followed, three lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since 2008-09, only two President's Trophy winners have even made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Parity is at an all-time high in the NHL, and the gaps between a top seed and an eighth seed are still thin enough to be exploited in the Small Sample Size Theater that is the league's postseason. Four-to-seven games is enough room for variance, and the Tampa Bay Lightning learned that the hard way just this past spring. 

Over an 82-game season, those margins matter much more. Raising the Cup each June is every team's ultimate goal, but the Sharks not doing so in 2008-09 shouldn't diminish their sustained dominance that season. They were the NHL's best team for 82 games, and they have never been better over 82 games in their team's history. Yes, San Jose was top-heavy and built a large cushion early on, but only four teams since that season have exceeded the Sharks' 117 points. Winning the President's Trophy is an accomplishment, even though it doesn't offer much consolation in a season that ends without a Stanley Cup. 

Since none in San Jose's history have, the best Sharks team to date would always leave a complicated legacy -- no matter which one was selected. Thus, the 2008-09 team is a fitting choice.

A decade ago, the Sharks iced their best team in franchise history and the season ended in disappointment. It doesn't get more complex than that. 

Best teams in Sharks history

No. 5: 2001-02 
No. 4:
2005-06
No. 3: 2018-19
No. 2: 2015-16

NHL rumors: Maple Leafs, LA Kings have talked Patrick Marleau trade

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USATSI

NHL rumors: Maple Leafs, LA Kings have talked Patrick Marleau trade

There could be a Sharks reunion in the works for Patrick Marleau, just not in San Jose. 

The Los Angeles Kings hired former Sharks coach Todd McLellan on April 16. Fewer than two months later, the Kings reportedly are interested in reuniting McLellan with one of his former stars. 

Marleau could be packing his bags and coming back to the West Coast. The Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs have talked about a potential trade regarding Marleau, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported Friday. 

Marleau, 39, had a rough year in his second season with the Maple Leafs. The center scored just 37 points, which is his lowest since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. And his 16 goals were the lowest he's scored in a full season since his rookie year. 

[RELATED: Sharks bring back Bob Boughner to coaching staff]

This could get tricky for the two teams, though. Marleau does have a no-trade clause and can ultimately decide his future. 

But Marleau did play seven of his 19 seasons in San Jose under McLellan. There's reason to believe he would waive his no-trade clause and soon become a rival of the Sharks.