Sunday night in Washington, the San Jose Sharks suffered what might have been their most humiliating defeat in a season that has had its fair share of embarrassing losses. Ahead by one in the third period against the league-leading Capitals, Logan Couture seemingly iced the outing when he put the Sharks ahead by two with an empty-net goal in the final minute of regulation.
We say seemingly, of course, because San Jose coughed up that late two-goal lead – Washington scored twice in the final 47 seconds of the third – before surrendering the overtime winner two minutes into the extra frame.
In the wake of that defeat, the general consensus was that things couldn’t get much worse for the Sharks. After all, what could be worse than an already-struggling and vastly underachieving squad squandering a two-goal lead in the final minute of what would have been a massive win over the NHL’s top team?
As it turns out, that’s not a rhetorical question, and San Jose got their answer Tuesday when Couture crashed into the boards midway through the Sharks’ 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues. He needed help off the ice, was seen in a walking boot after the game and the dark cloud that has hung over the Sharks all season got that much darker when TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported Couture has a fractured ankle and could be sidelined more than six weeks. In their own announcement, the Sharks said Couture will miss “several weeks.”
To say losing Couture for an extended period is a blow to the Sharks is akin to saying slamming into that iceberg was a blow to the Titanic. While the San Jose offense has sputtered at the best of times, Couture has been the Sharks’ leading scorer through 45 games, his 14 goals fourth-best on the team and his 36 points three clear of the next-highest producer. But it’s not just the offense the Sharks will miss in Couture’s absence. His loss creates a massive void, particularly on both special teams units. Couture leads Sharks forwards in power play ice time and sits third in penalty kill ice time. He’s third in even strength ice time among Sharks forwards, as well.
It’d be one thing, too, if Couture was out for a week or two. That would almost be manageable, a short enough absence that the Sharks would be able to cope. But that his time on the shelf stands to be upwards of a month is devastating for San Jose. A six-week recovery would see him miss 14 games, seven weeks would be 18 games and eight weeks would be 21 games. If this were a typical Sharks season, if San Jose was sitting pretty in the Pacific Division and on its way to another playoff berth, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. Hey, if nothing else, it would keep Couture fresh for the post-season. But this isn’t a typical Sharks season and San Jose isn’t sitting pretty in the Pacific Division. Quite the opposite.
Entering action Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sharks find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in and staring up at almost the entire Western Conference. Nine points and four teams separate the Sharks from the Calgary Flames, who currently hold the conference’s second wild-card spot, and San Jose doesn’t have a single game in hand on any of those clubs. And that might leave Sharks GM Doug Wilson with only one option: take the lumps, acknowledge this is fast becoming a lost season and make plans to sell at the deadline.
Look, by no means is that optimal for the Sharks. This was supposed to be another year spent in Cup contention. San Jose made the difficult decisions they believed would lead the Sharks to the promised land, including saying a tough goodbye to Joe Pavelski and inking Erik Karlsson to a monster eight-year, $92-million pact. But Wilson and Co. have to consider the position San Jose finds itself in and accept some harsh realities.
For instance, the coaching change that was supposed to spur a turnaround has not. Since Peter DeBoer’s firing and subsequent replacement by Bob Boughner, San Jose has a 4-6-2 record. That works out to a .417 points percentage, worse than San Jose's .485 points percentage under DeBoer. Boughner hasn’t had much time to implement his desired changes, that much is true, but the results thus far have been mediocre. Add to it that the Sharks offensive woes have continued, that their goaltending remains subpar and that they’re now without their leading scorer and there’s little reason to expect some late-campaign, season-saving surge a la the 2018-19 Blues.
So, yes, while suggesting the Sharks should get set to become sellers may seem rash, does anyone truly believe the opposite approach or simply holding out hope for a magical run into the playoffs is what's right for San Jose? Does anyone truly believe the Sharks adding to their roster in an effort to squeak into the post-season is a worthwhile pursuit? Does anyone truly believe that a wild-card San Jose team, with all its deficiencies this season, can stun the rest of the NHL and win the Stanley Cup? None of that seems realistic. That’s why no matter how bad one might feel for the Joe Thorntons and the Patrick Marleaus, veterans who have spent careers seeking a championship and may very well be playing in their final big-league campaigns, the Sharks are probably best to put their Cup aspirations aside and think about the future.
There are pieces, to be sure, that can be moved out. Defenseman Brenden Dillion is probably chief among the players who may be ripe for rehoming. Melker Karlsson likely fits the bill, too. If there are buyers for Tim Heed and Aaron Dell – though the latter seems remarkably unlikely – both could be moved, as well. Whether it’s middle-round picks or decent prospects or project players that come back the Sharks’ way, it’s all better than leaving this season without no hardware and watching those same players, all due to be unrestricted free agents in July, walk on the open market. If Thornton or Marleau wanted the opportunity to chase a Cup elsewhere, Wilson could also give them that chance. Maybe the returns are limited. But again, something is better than the nothing San Jose will get when one or both hang up their skates.
Admittedly, none of the assets the Sharks will receive in deals involving any of the aforementioned players nets San Jose will be transformative for the franchise. There will be no first-round picks, probably not even any second-rounders, and that’s going to sting a little more given the Sharks are already without their 2020 first-round pick, sent to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Erik Karlsson acquisition. What San Jose will get, however, are some of the potential secondary pieces that are necessary to surround their high-priced core. There's value in that, particularly given the Sharks will need some cost-efficient options.
And let's make clear that one year on the outside of the race – and one year selling – isn’t a death sentence. It doesn’t mean the Sharks will be mired in the basement for years to come. The last time San Jose missed the post-season, back in 2014-15, the Sharks followed it with a trip to the Stanley Cup final the next campaign and have appeared in the playoffs in all four seasons since. There’s no reason another season as sellers, which will be followed by a summer spent tinkering with and fine-tuning a roster that has plenty of top-end talent even if it does have its flaws, can’t be followed by a similar return to contention.
In order for that to happen, though, the Sharks need to accept that this season is beyond saving. Prior to the Couture injury, that might not have been the case. But in the aftermath, it almost certainly is.
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