The San Jose Sharks have made the playoffs in 15 of the past 16 seasons, but after blowing a three-games-to-none lead against the Los Angeles Kings in Round One, disappointment reigns in Northern California once again.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Sharks team that has promised changes, but might be better off sticking with the core of a team that, even without a Stanley Cup win, has consistently been among the league's best.
Understandably, the Sharks are disappointed. No team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations likes to get bounced in the first round, but there should be some mitigating factors considered.
First and foremost, the Sharks have to consider that they had outscored the Kings 17-8 in the first three games of the playoffs and needed one more win to oust the team that is now favoured to win the Stanley Cup. That should indicate that, while improvement is necessary, the Sharks should realize that they aren't far off.
They were the league's third-best possession team and that isn't a team that should be blown up just because the Western Conference Murderer's Row tripped them up once again. This is relevant because rumours have surfaced that long-time Sharks Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton could be asked to waive no-movement clauses.
There's no sure answer to say that the Sharks will be just fine if they keep this core together, but it's harder to see this team as a Cup contender in the next year or two if they move out players like Thornton or Marleau. Value always depends on what the return is, but those won't be easy holes to fill if that is the direction in which the Sharks are headed.
Until that decision becomes clear, this team will be one of the most compelling to watch this offseason. Such is the nature of a contending team that is getting impatient with its inability to get over the hump.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Doug Wilson/Todd McLellan
Free Agent Forwards
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Coming off a career-best season, fueled in part by a career-high 18.2% shooting percentage, Joe Pavelski plays in all situations, hasn't missed a game in three seasons and, over the course of those three seasons, ranks sixth in goals. He's a very good two-way player but, prior to last season, had scored more than 0.75 points per game (a 60-point pace)twice in seven seasons.
Over the past four seasons, there are two players under the age of 24 with more goals than Logan Couture's 107-- Steven Stamkos (159) and John Tavares (112). That's pretty good company. Last season, Couture's goal-scoring was down, thanks to a career-low 9.9% shooting percentage, but 53 points in 65 games represented a career-best rate of 0.82 points per game, and that came while facing the hardest competition with the highest percentage of defensive zone starts of his career.
Having played nearly 1400 (regular season plus playoff) games for the Sharks, Patrick Marleau gets branded, at times, as the face of the franchise's disappointment, but he's the fourth-leading goal scorer in the league over the past six seasons, giving little indication that he's slowing down, even as he enters his mid-30s. While playoff shortcomings get pinned to Marleau, since 2002, he's scored 55 goals in 125 postseason games, which leaves him with the second-best goals-per-game among players to play at least 100 playoff games in that time.
He won't be able to do this forever, but Marleau has been extremely durable, having not missed a game in the past five years. He will slow down at some point, but he's hardly the reason the Sharks haven't yet won a Stanley Cup.
Raffi Torres's per-game contributions were way out of line last season, but that's a small sample at work. He's a hard-hitting third-line winger who can chip in offensively when he's not hurt, or suspended.
With Teemu Selanne retiring, Jaromir Jagr is the only active player with more points than Joe Thornton, who has accrued 1194 in 1207 career games, and while he's managed a modest 18 goals over the past two seasons, Thornton still has 116 points in that span, tied with Tyler Seguin and Jonathan Toews for 12th in the league. Even so, that may not be enough. The 34-year-old could be available for trade, though that's a complicated matter since he has a no-movement clause tied to the three years remaining on his contract.
Like Marleau, Thornton takes the heat for San Jose's playoff stumbles but, even after scoring three points in seven games this season, he still has 82 points in 97 playoff games since joining the Sharks. If he is made available, and is amenable to the right move, there ought to be a long line of suitors.
Tomas Hertl burst into the NHL with six goals in his first three games, but his production was slowing down even before he suffered a knee injury that kept him out for nearly four months, and he finished with seven points in his last 20 games after scoring 18 points in 17 games to start the year. However, Hertl has size, speed, skill and is just 20-years-old. He's due to have some percentages fall, but can also play a bigger role, which could help offset that anticipated regression.
33-year-old Martin Havlat has had a rough ride in San Jose, scoring 27 goals and 67 points in 127 games over the past three seasons, and his points-per-game over the last two were under half-a-point-per-game for the first time in his career. Sharks GM Doug Wilson has said that Havlat won't be back, which would presumably mean a buyout of the final year of his contract.
A speedy winger who earned a bigger role and produced more as his rookie season went on, Matt Nieto figures to have a top-nine, possibly top-six, role next season. He's scored enough before arriving in the NHL to believe that there is more production possible as he matures.
Tyler Kennedy's play has dipped over the past couple seasons, when he's no longer had Jordan Staal as his centre like he did for his best years in Pittsburgh, and was a non-factor down the stretch for the Sharks, going without a goal in his last 25 games and managing two assists in his last 23 games.
The proverbial great team guy, Adam Burish has nonetheless put up one goal and three points in 61 games, while getting beat up in puck possession terms, with the Sharks over the past two seasons. Can a healthy Burish even handle a regular role on the fourth line? There's two years and $3.7-million left on his deal that makes that a question worth answering.
Hard-hitting winger Tommy Wingels had a breakout season last year, getting the opportunity to play a regular role with skilled players. He was one of 25 forwards to record at least 200 hits last season and, among those with more hits than Wingels' 210, only David Backes, Milan Lucic and Brandon Dubinsky had more than Wingels' 38 points.
It's been a long strange trip for James Sheppard, the ninth overall pick by Minnesota in 2006, who nearly lost his career after an ATV accident, but he has worked his way back into a regular NHL role, playing top-nine minutes down the stretch for the Sharks as he finished the year with 11 points in his last 19 games before delivering six points in seven playoff games. He only has 16 goals in 323 career games, but if Sheppard is able to handle a third-line centre role, that's a remarkable recovery.
If the Sharks are prepared to push forward, bringing in at least one scoring winger would make sense. With Brent Burns moving back to defence and Martin Havlat on the way out, maybe a free agent like Ales Hemsky, Mike Cammalleri or Jarome Iginla would have some appeal.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
After a productive run at right wing, where he scored 68 points (31 G, 37 A in 92 GP) over the past season-and-a-half, Brent Burns is moving back to defence, where he had shown plenty of promise before the move to Thornton's wing.
This becomes a value judgement. Would the Sharks prefer to have Burns playing on the top defence pair and logging 23-24 minutes a night, or would they like a potential 30-goal power forward who plays 17 minutes per game? Both are desirable commodities, but the Sharks might find it easier to add a scoring winger than they would a top pair defenceman, even if the scoring winger may not come in a 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame.
In eight NHL seasons, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has missed more than two games in a season just once and finds himself in very good company in terms of puck possession for big-minute defencemen and that is despite consistently starting more shifts in the defensive zone, even on a strong team like the Sharks. Last season's 24 points was the highest season total for Vlasic since 2009, yet he's still very valuable in his defensive role. There aren't many defence-only defencemen that hold a lot of value, but Vlasic is one.
Matt Irwin hasn't been able to secure his spot on the Sharks' blueline, still getting scratched at times, but he's been effective enough through his first 100 NHL games, although his performance wasn't as strong last season. He has a bomb from the point and quite reasonably priced if he plays regularly.
Playing increasingly difficult minutes, Justin Braun has matured into a relaible top-four defenceman, playing a career-high 20:59 per game last season. Not a lot of frills to his game, but Braun blocks shots (four behind Vlasic for the team lead) and has spent time paired with Vlasic in a shutdown role.
It's been a long time (been a long time, been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time) since Brad Stuart was drafted third overall in 1998 by the Sharks, and he's used in a much different, defence-first, role. Like many physical defensive defencemen, he's lost a step, and played a career-low 19:10 per game last season, but Stuart is certainly capable of filling a regular role in the top six.
Jason Demers had something of a breakout year in 2013-2014, playing a career-high 19:29 per game and tallying a career-best 34 points as the Sharks' most effective offensive contributor from the blueline. As such, he's likely due for a nice raise as a restricted free agent this summer.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Antti Niemi's play has been up and down over his five-plus NHL seasons, though last season likely counts as the worst to date, with a below-average .913 save percentage and an even-strength save percentage that ranked 22nd out of 24 goaltenders to play at least 2000 5-on-5 minutes in 2013-2014. Given how the season ended, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Sharks try to make a change, but they could also play out the final year of Niemi's current deal.
With Alex Stalock headed for free agency, the Sharks may want to grab better than a basic backup; ideally, someone that could step in to handle the job if Niemi doesn't bounce back next season.
||5-22-27, +1, 60 GP
||40-49-89, +44, 67 GP
||22-21-43, -14, 64 GP
||6-15-21, even, 57 GP
||16-19-35, +8, 67 GP
||7-14-21, -25, 54 GP
||4-11-15, -6, 69 GP
||2-22-24, -17, 68 GP
||12-17-29, -1, 38 GP
||Bowling Green (WCHA)
||8-8-16, +3, 15 GP
||17-14-31, +2, 47 GP
Last summer's first-round pick, Mirco Mueller's point production dipped ever-so-slightly from his first WHL season, but he's a highly-regarded puck-mover. Can the Swiss rearguard make the jump next year, or will he be better served with another year in the Dub?
A second-round pick in 2012, Chris Tierney has increased his offensive output at the junior level. Starting with the 2013 playoffs, he has 127 points ( 52 G, 75 A) in 97 games. There's no rush to get him to San Jose, but Tierney is a good one to have in the pipeline.
Freddie Hamilton, a fifth-round pick in 2010, made a nice progression in his second pro season and earned 11 games with San Jose. He struggled in the NHL, but the 22-year-old is available if the Sharks need a call-up.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, 6-foot-5 Konrad Abeltshauser made a nice transition to the AHL and could push quickly in an organization that, aside from Mueller, doesn't have great blueline prospects.
Taken in the second round last year, Gabryel Boudreau saw his scoring dive from 63 points in 2012-2013 to 35 points last season. That's not very encouraging, but is also an indication that he's due for further development before he gets his turn at pro hockey.
With 50 points in 121 AHL games over two-plus seasons, Matt Tennyson has shown the puck skills to warrant consideration for promotion, but the free agent out of Western Michigan hasn't been reliable enough defensively.
A 6-foot-8 defenceman with three-plus years of AHL exerperience, Taylor Doherty isn't going to score his way to the Show, and has yet to see action in an NHL game, but he's 6-foot-8 and can move well for that size, so the 2009 second-round pick shouldn't be discounted yet.
Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Dylan DeMelo has worked his way into position to contend with other San Jose blueline prospects. At the same time, he's 21-years-old and could use further development.
Picked in the fifth round in 2011, Sean Kuraly is a winger with good size who had a nice bump in production as a sophomore, finishing third on his team in scoring. With another year or two of development, he could turn into a solid two-way contributor.
Signed out of Bowling Green after scoring 16 points in 15 during an injury-plauged junior season, Ryan Carpenter struggled in his first taste of pro hockey, registering a couple of assists in 11 games with Worcester, but he's a low-risk signing that could be interesting based on his improving numbers in college.
Daniil Tarasov has worked his way up from the USHL and has 31 goals and 59 points in 90 AHL games over the past couple seasons.
Sharks advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
20th - Josh Ho-Sang, Roland McKeown, David Pastrnak
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sharks have approximately $58.7M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 17 players.
Check out my possible Sharks lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Sharks needed last year: One top six forward, two defencemen.
They added: Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Tyler Kennedy, Scott Hannan.
Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Irwin, Antti Niemi.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.