It was another season in the playoffs and another early exit for the perennial contender San Jose Sharks in 2011-12. They fell just a point short of grabbing the division crown and instead settled for the seventh seed and a first round matchup with the St. Louis Blues. The Blues polished them off in five games, once again ending a season that at times looked like it could be filled with much promise.
After playing for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and 2011, slumping to a seventh seed and a first round playoff exit can't be seen as anything but a disappointment.
The Sharks are still a team very rich with offensive talent and size as they will once again rely on the veteran savvy of players like captain Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat and the young legs of Logan Couture to carry them into the new season.
Of all of those names, a healthy Havlat could be the key as they only had him in the lineup for 39 regular season games last year. A player of his quality could be the difference between fighting for the playoffs and battling for a top seed.
Bringing back veteran defenceman Brad Stuart, who played for the Sharks from 1999-2005 before being dealt to the Boston Bruins in the trade that netted Thornton, is going to be a huge boost to their blue line - especially on the penalty kill which is an area they will need to improve upon going forward for continued success.
Tomas Hertl, the Sharks first pick (17th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, is looked at as a big body forward that can play all three positions with skill. He has neared his 2011-12 totals already with Slavia Praha and was one of the Czech World Junior team's leading scorers at the 2013 tournament. When he does make his way over to North America, his experience playing against men will help his adjustment to the NHL game.
On this side of the pond, the Sharks are getting another year of development from two-way forward Freddie Hamilton. While he might also be a full season away from seeing full-time NHL action, the Toronto native has been getting in valuable time with the team's AHL affiliate in Worcester. He was also a member of the bronze medal winning 2012 Canadian World Junior team helping him gain valuable international experience.
A prospect who has a chance to provide some immediate help is 2007 first-round pick, Nick Petrecki. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound defenceman is a shutdown-type defender who now has three-plus AHL seasons under his belt. He won't provide much offensively, but could be a dependable top-six blueliner as soon as this season.
At this point, the Sharks still have all the talent and experience to be one of the elite teams in the NHL. They have one of the deepest top six forward units in the league and with strong blueliners like Dan Boyle in the mix, there's no reason they shouldn't be playing in the postseason when the dust settles.
Up front, San Jose features a combination of top-end scorers that measures up with many of the league's top teams. The ascendance of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski made players like Dany Heatley and Milan Michalek expendable and allowed the team to distribute some of the scoring responsibility beyond Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
The return to health of Martin Havlat should also help things considerably, as the Sharks were 25-11-3 with Havlat in the lineup, and just 18-18-7 without him. Although he has an injury history, the Czech winger missed only 13 games the past two years prior to last season.
With experience comes age, and the window is starting to close on this Sharks team. If they aren't able to translate all of their great parts into a winning unit soon, they might run out of steam with this group of players.
Both Thornton and Marleau are 33 and core d-men Boyle, Stuart and Murray are all 32 or older. The team has also made trades in recent years in which they surrendered young talent which included the likes of Michalek, Devin Setoguchi and highly regarded prospect Charlie Coyle.
The Sharks have been perennial contenders for over a decade, but still have yet t even reach a Stanley Cup Finals. Many thought that with the acquisition of Joe Thornton, the franchise would assume to new heights, but that was back in 2005 and the team has yet to live up its considerable potential.
General Manager Doug Wilson has done a solid job of retooling and adding and subtracting the talent around his stars, while still competing for a Cup, but with the core three of Thornton, Marleau and Boyle on the back-ends of their careers, the window to contend may not be open for too much longer.
A look at where Sharks players went during the lockout:
Logan Couture (Geneva-Servette, Swiss Elite), Jason Demers (Oulu, Finnish Elite), TJ Galiardi (Bietigheim, German League - T2), Michal Handzus (HC Banska Bystrica, Slovakian League), Douglas Murray (Djurgarden, Swedish Elite), Antti Niemi (Lahti, Finnish Elite), Joe Thornton (Davos, Swiss Elite), Tommy Wingels (Kuovola, Finnish Elite)