The San Jose Sharks reached the Western Conference Final for the first time since before the lockout -- only the second time in the franchise's history -- yet there is still a sense of disappointment because a team that has turned in 99 points or more in six straight seasons isn't expected to merely make the playoffs.
A championship is a realistic objective for San Jose every year, but they just haven't been able to achieve that goal.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Sharks team that has to decide if they are going to keep the band together for one more show or let free agency take its course and move forward with some new faces in key places next season.
A couple of long-tenured Sharks are heading towards free agency and are considered among the most desirable players on the market. Patrick Marleau has been with the Sharks since he was drafted second overall in 1997. He has topped 30 goals and 70 points in four of the last five seasons and last year's 44 goals counts as the 30-year-old's career best. So, yes, there will be widespread interest in his services.
Evgeni Nabokov began his term with the Sharks in 1999-2000 and while there's no denying his regular season success, he's also one of the high-profile constants throughout San Jose's past playoff disappointments and that could leave the Sharks looking to make a change for the sake of making a change at the game's least predictable position.
Presuming that the Sharks get restricted free agents like Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi inked to new deals, it's not likely that San Jose will have room to bring back both vets.
Making one or two major changes, combined with the retirement of defenceman Rob Blake and more potential free agent departures means that the Sharks could have a very different look next season and maybe that's not the worst strategy in the world.
The team is still going to have productive big men Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley anchoring the top line, and they're the two that will be under the gun when the playoffs roll around again, but if the next phase for the Sharks is an increasing role for young players like Pavelski, Setogchi and Logan Couture, then San Jose could very well be right back among the contenders again next season.
Once the changes are in effect, the Sharks may not even be any better -- it's tough to top a team that has averged 110 regular-season points over the last four years -- but they should be different and a different mix may be what it takes.
The thing about the change that is coming this summer is that it's coming after a playoff that the Sharks would have to deem successful, especially when compared to previous spring flameouts.
But, when a team is annually considered a Stanley Cup contender, there isn't a lot of room for satisfaction when the top prize remains elusive.
"We need to be careful we're not walking around patting ourselves on the back," head coach Todd McLellan told the San Jose Mercury News after the Sharks were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. "The season is a success as long as we do something with the growth next year. If we take a step backward, we can't look at this as being successful one bit."
Doug Wilson/Todd McLellan
Though an injury limited him in the postseason, Dany Heatley put up another productive season; the fifth straight year in which he scored at least 39 goals and it was the fourth time in the last five seasons that he played in all 82 games. Heatley's game may be relatively slow and soft, considering his size, but his production is exceptional.
Joe Thornton remains a productive distributor, ranking second in the league with 69 assists, but regular-season point accumulation has never been a problem for Jumbo Joe. He was productive at times in last season's playoffs, before managing just one point in four games against Chicago in the Western Conference Final and finishing the postseason with a minus-11 in 15 games.
Going into the final year of his contract, Thornton will be 31 in July and is at the point of his career that it hardly matters what he does in the regular season. Like many of the Sharks, he'll be measured by the team's postseason success (or lack thereof).
Power forward Ryane Clowe brings a grittiness to the game that the other skilled Sharks forwards don't possess. The 27-year-old tallied a career-high 57 points last season, while accumulating 131 penalty minutes, making him the only player in the league last season to have at least 50 points and 125 penalty minutes.
Though he was kept in a limited role, playing under 10 minutes per game in his first 11 games, Logan Couture did show some offensive ability, picking up on his dominant AHL rookie season as he scored 53 points in 42 games with Worcester to earn his promotion.
21-year-old Couture now needs a set spot in the lineup that will give him a chance to play to his offensive strengths. If he gets one, Couture could be a Calder Trophy contender next season.
It took a long time for Torrey Mitchell to get back into the lineup, missing all of 2008-2009 and nearly the first two months of last season as he recovered from a broken leg, and the 25-year-old checker managed a plus rating despite scoring just two goals.
Now that he's healthy, Mitchell should be able to move into a more prominent checking role in the future and may need to if the Sharks can't retain the services of Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol.
21-year-old Jamie McGinn is trying to earn his place in the lineup and has scored 14 goals in 94 NHL games over the past two seasons. McGinn may not be enough of a scorer to land in a top-six role, so his play away from the puck will determine just how significant his role is going to be.
A sizzling playoff helped expose Joe Pavelski to the masses. The 25-year-old has back-to-back 25-goal seasons and added nine in 15 playoff games, so he's well established as a solid second-line centre; one that can rise to the occasion from time to time.
Getting bumped off Joe Thornton's wing didn't do any good for Devin Setoguchi's production and the 23-year-old finished with 20 goals and 36 points after 31 goals and 65 points the year before.
Setoguchi is a capable complementary scorer, with the speed and quick release that could result in several 30-goal seasons in his future.
Tough guy Brad Staubitz only played six minutes per game, but kept himself busy with a dozen scraps in 47 games. If the team is going to have a part-time enforcer, Staubitz is an economical choice for the job.
Free agency presents some challenges for the Sharks, as long-time leader Patrick Marleau will be one of the most attractive free agents on the market; after all, there are only two free agents who scored more than 40 goals last season and Marleau, with 44, finished ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk on that front.
If the Sharks can keep Marleau, they'll still be loaded up front, but if he goes, then it will be incumbent on young players like Setoguchi and Couture to pick up the slack.
If Marleau departs, and there is some concern about the readiness of the young forwards, the Sharks could turn to a free agent like Ray Whitney or possibly Paul Kariya to help fill the scoring void.
Additionally, checking forwards Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer were valuable, if unheralded, performers last season and may attract free agent interest as a result.
Some free agent checkers that might offset potential losses in that area include wingers Colby Armstrong, Matt Cooke and Christopher Higgins, as well as centres Eric Belanger, Dominic Moore and John Madden.
34-year-old Dan Boyle turned in another outstanding season, ranking fourth among defencemen with 15 goals and 58 points. Boyle ignites the Sharks' attack and logged more than 26 minutes per game for the third time in the last four seasons. He's a cornerstone piece, but needs more support on the Sharks' blueline.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic plays the game with poise that is atypical for a 23-year-old and he did register a career-best plus-21 last season, but his role on the power play also decreased, dropping his point total from 36 in 2008-2009 to 16 in 64 games last season.
Part of the reason for Vlasic seeing less power play time was the emergence of rookie blueliner Jason Demers, who had his overall ice time limited, but still scored 11 of his 21 points with the man advantage. If he can tighten up the defensive side of his game, Demers could rise into a more substantial role.
Douglas Murray is a rock-solid physical presence. He's not very mobile, so he can be exposed by quicker forwards, but Murray's strength and defensive tenacity has helped him earn his way into a shutdown role as he played more than 20 minutes per game for the first time last season.
31-year-old Kent Huskins played all 82 games for the Sharks last season and rather effectively, finishing with a career-best 22 points. So long as he isn't asked to do too much, Huskins is a steady hand.
Certainly, Rob Blake's retirement creates the most obvious hole on the Sharks blueline, which should have San Jose in the market for one of the top free agent defencemen, whether it's Dan Hamhuis, Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov or Zbynek Michalek. Another to consider might be veteran Pavel Kubina, who might have more similar size and skills to those offered by Blake.
24-year-old Thomas Greiss played well in limited duty as the backup last season and. Since he has 13 career starts, it would be asking a lot to move Greiss into the starting role, but he should be able to play more next season, no matter who is slated to handle the starting job.
Evgeni Nabokov won more than 40 games for the third straight season and his .922 save percentage last year was the best of his career, yet the 34-year-old could leave as a free agent, especially if the Sharks are inclined to save some money on goaltending.
Dan Ellis, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore would be among the free agent goaltenders that could come in, likely for less than Nabokov would cost.
||2-12-14,-4, 65 GP
||19-31-50,-6, 58 GP
||22-40-62,-13, 78 GP
||39-19-2, 2.63 GAA, .908 SVPCT, 58 GP
||Tappara Tampere (FNL)
||21-22-4, 2.73 GAA, .915 SVPCT, 49 GP
||16-28-44,+1, 63 GP
||5-27-32,+14, 55 GP
||3-19-22,+16, 64 GP
||24-12-4, 2.34 GAA,. 927 SVPCT, 42 GP
||4-6-1, 3.94 GAA, .860 SVPCT, 13 GP
A first-round pick in 2007, Nick Petrecki is a physically-punishing defender who could use some more grooming before he's turned loose on the NHL. Once he learns how to better pick his spots, Petrecki could have a chance to become a shutdown presence.
Though he was sent down to the AHL after starting the season in San Jose, Benn Ferriero played well in the NHL and should be under consideration for a spot next season. He's a hard-working forward who can play an energy role with some offensive upside.
Steven Zalewski enjoyed a strong second pro season, though the 23-year-old could have a challenge on his hands if he's trying to land a role as a scoring centre in San Jose. Barring a shift to the wing or trade, Zalewski may get another year of AHL duty.
Alex Stalock signed out of Minnesota-Duluth following his junior season and stepped right into an AHL starting gig and performed well under the heavy workload. He's likely ticketed for the AHL again, but Stalock leads San Jose's strong organizational depth at the position.
20-year-old Finn Harri Sateri has been developing nicely in Finland, handling the starting job with Tappara Tampere last season. Signed by the Sharks, Sateri joins a talented group of prospects between the pipes, having as much -- if not more -- upside as any of his competitors.
Towering blueliner Taylor Doherty still has some awkwardness than comes with being 6-foot-8 and 19-years-old, but his game took a step forward in his third junior season, adding a surprising offensive side. He's still going to be a defensive defenceman when his time comes, but anything that will improve Doherty's skills with the puck in the meantime should be welcome.
While Derek Joslin has been little more than an afterthought in 36 NHL games over the past two seasons, the 23-year-old's play at the AHL level suggests he's on the verge of getting a longer look at the next level.
Though Mike Moore is older than most prospects, the 25-year-old has put in two solid seasons with Worcester since finishing at Princeton and there's still something to like about a rugged defensive defenceman who has turned in double-digit plus ratings in his first two pro seasons.
A strong showing in a tryout last season earned Thomas Heemskerk a contract and then he turned in an impressive WHL season. The 20-year-old has time to develop and a lot of bodies to wade through before he's a consideration.
Tyson Sexsmith had a couple of outstanding seasons in the WHL before tailing off a bit in his final year and then struggling last season in his first pro year as he suffered a sports hernia injury. While there's no rush for the 21-year-old, there is also plenty of competition, so he may be looking at a year of regular action in the ECHL to regain his form.
The Sharks have also bolstered their prospect list by signing college players. Tommy Wingels, from Miami-Ohio, and a quartet of players from the Northeast: James Marcou (UMass-Amherst), Justin Braun (UMass-Amherst), Matt Irwin (UMass-Amherst) and Nick Schaus (UMass-Lowell) will get a chance to prove their mettle as pros next season, while William Wrenn, a second-round pick last summer, will continue at the University of Denver.
28th - Tyler Toffoli, Ryan Martindale, Brock Nelson.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sharks have approximately $37.0M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 12 players.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Sharks needed last year: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Dany Heatley, Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer, Jason Demers, Thomas Greiss.
TRADE MARKET Jamie McGinn, Torrey Mitchell.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen