The NHL does a 30-in-30 review of every team over the slowest news month of each year. The San Jose Sharks were the subject Sunday, August 9.
The focus of more than one story was the net-minding change that is the biggest difference in the new Sharks. Just two veterans were added via free agency and starting goalie Antti Niemi played the most games of any player lost (61), departing along with a cavalcade of regulars and reserves that were at least occasionally healthy scratches during the 2014-15 NHL season.
However, the changes that matter most are internal with those that remain in San Jose. The reality is this roster has been getting a makeover since 2013.
In addition to the seven players no longer on the roster that had been at the end of the 2014-15 NHL season, six others were moved before the trade deadline. Players were let go after the choke of a 3-0 series lead over the rival Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals, and more were moved at the 2013 trade deadline.
In fact, only eight Sharks remain from the team that started the lockout-condensed 2013 NHL season: Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Tommy Wingels, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun (Alex Stalock and Matt Tennyson came up in March of that season).
The question is whether the remaining eight players might be the problem in San Jose’s annual spring underachievement. Marleau was the subject of another NHL.com article and is the only constant on a team that has never made it past the Western Conference finals.
Since Thornton joined the Sharks following the season lost to the lockout, they have been considered Stanley Cup contenders every season. Yet they lost at least three in a row or four of five in every series in which they were eliminated except 2008 and 2009…when they lost three of the first four in that final series.
Leadership has always been a question for San Jose. This is the only team to have two deposed captains (absolutely the right call on any captain of an underachieving team that has leadership questions, especially when both have personally failed to meet expectations in more than one of those failed Stanley Cup-playoff runs) still on the roster and that was the source of much distraction with it during the 2014-15 NHL season.
New head coach Peter DeBoer has stated it is not something he wants to continue into the 2015-16 NHL season. Joe Pavelski is the obvious choice after playing that role with the media over the last year and after having been captain of the 2006 NCAA Champion Wisconsin Badgers.
He is the team’s smartest, most versatile skater, playing every position but goalie and excelling at both ends of the ice and at the peak (one must assume he will not continue to get better at age 31) of his career. He also handled that media role because he is always accountable, and he has the ability to motivate the team.
However, even he must be questioned after having been part of the Sharks for eight failed Stanley Cup quests. Five of those were against lower seeds and they were 38-43 in the game Pavelski played.
Unless Pavelski (or whomever is chosen as captain) and the new coaching staff can answer the leadership question, this team is headed for its annual meltdown in March, April or May. While the Stanley Cup-playoff success hinges on leadership, the 2015-16 NHL season itself hinges on Martin Jones being any kind of an upgrade over Niemi’s last 12-plus months in San Jose.
Niemi was not very good for the Sharks during the Pacific Division semifinals nor the preceding 2014-15 NHL season. The additions of Joel Ward and Paul Martin should make things easier for Jones over the next year.
The players should adjust to Peter DeBoer fairly early in the 2015-16 NHL season since his philosophy is similar to outgoing coach Todd McLellan. There are many younger players 30-in-30 covered capable of stepping up either into a regular role or even perform more consistently when they are there: Mirco Mueller, Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Chris Tierney and Barclay Goodrow are all under 23 years old and have fewer than 150 games of experience including the Stanley Cup playoffs.
San Jose’s arc is definitely pointed up, but it remains to be seen whether the moves will be enough to even return to the postseason. Even if the first postseason absence in the 12-year tenure of general manager Doug Wilson is limited to the 2014-15 NHL season, is there is enough leadership for this team to rise above a deep Western Conference in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs?