Sobering challenge awaits newly elite Sharks next season
As if things weren't bad enough the day after having their championship dreams snuffed out, here's the grim reality facing the 2016-17 San Jose Sharks: Over the past 25 years, just five teams that lost in the Stanley Cup Final have come back to claim it later. And only one of them, the 2008 Penguins, managed to win it all the following season. (SI Vault: The Pens are Mightier (6/22/09)
You can do the math.
Even the best clubs aren't guaranteed another kick at the can in a 30-team league. Hard as it is to hear, this may have been the only chance this core group will get.
Not that they will fade away quietly. San Jose proved itself to be an elite franchise this year, and buried the "same ol' Sharks" stigma in the process. Once the numbness of defeat wears off, there's lasting pride to be mined from this season's accomplishments. This group got the monkey off its back by steamrolling the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Then they knocked off the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, two more formidable foes, to make it to the Cup Final, a major moment for a team that had just three losing appearances in the Western Conference Finals prior to this year.
And while they may not skate the Cup next spring either, general manager Doug Wilson has his team well positioned to contend. Depth was a key to their success under first-year head coach Peter DeBoer and with just four peripheral players headed to free agency, it will be again.
Wilson put his job on the line when he went after Martin Jones last summer, and that gamble paid immediate dividends. The 26-year-old has the look of a franchise goaltender after his MVP-caliber turn in the final. James Reimer will move on in free agency, opening up a spot for a backup. It's possible that Wilson will consider signing San Jose Barracuda UFA Aaron Dell, but more likely that he'll look for an experienced keeper like Reimer who can spell Jones for 25+ starts next season and keep him fresh for the playoffs.
The defense will return five of the six Game 6 starters and should rank among the best in the league. Roman Polak (UFA) is the lone man out. The hard-hitting veteran was exposed by the increasing speed of the opposition as the playoffs wore on. His looming departure likely opens up a spot for 23-year-old part-timer Dylan DeMelo, but both he and veteran Brenden Dillon seem like short-term options until Mirco Mueller and Jeremy Roy are ready to step up. Both prospects are strong skaters and puck movers who can rev up the pace from the back end and are better suited to play the game the way it's headed.
There'll be continuity up front as well, where the core of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi, Joel Ward, Melker Karlsson and Patrick Marleau is signed and set to return. That's an excellent group. Thornton is coming off a season in which he finished fourth in scoring (19-63-82) and earned a spot on Team Canada for the World Cup. Pavelski finished fifth in goals (38), and established himself as one of the most effective captains in the league. Couture led the playoffs in scoring (10-20-30) and looks like he'll be the elite two-way center every contender needs. With RFAs Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto in the mix, the Sharks boast a top-nine that's capable of matching up against any in the West.
Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus (UFA) are likely to move on, opening two roster spots up front. Recent first rounders Timo Meier (a complementary winger with good size and a lethal shot) and Nikolay Goldobin (undersized but speedy and creative) could get a long look, though neither is ideally suited for a bottom-six role. It's more likely that someone like part-timer Barclay Goodrow graduates to full-time to take one job, while Wilson explores his options to fill the other with a winger who brings speed and tenacity to the table.
If there's one significant move looming, it could involve Marleau. The veteran forward scored 25 goals this season, but slowed noticeably as the playoffs wore on—no surprise considering he'll be 37 when next season rolls around. Would Wilson consider moving the Sharks lifer at this point in his career? If he does, the assets he gets in return won't step into the lineup and take Marleau's place. But that might be the kind of shake-up that's needed to focus this group's attention ahead of a very challenging season.