Another year, another late round exit for the San Jose Sharks. The team from the South Bay came up short in the playoffs yet again, falling to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Finals. This coming after a 2010 that ended in much the same way, when the Sharks were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Many teams would be happy with back-to-back Conference Finals, but it is all too familiar for the people of San Jose, who continue to see their team play tremendous hockey during the regular season, only to come up short in the playoffs.
It was an up-and-down playoffs for the Sharks. At one moment, they were riding high after a good effort against the Los Angeles Kings led to 3-0 lead against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. Three straight losses later, the Sharks were a bad Game 7 away from completely blowing the team up and starting over.
Fortunately, a strong final game defeated the Red Wings in seven games, and a sense of relief was felt around the Bay Area.
Still, this year’s Western Conference Finals seemed just like 2010. The Sharks were over-matched and seemed to not belong on the same ice with the Vancouver Canucks, or the 2010 Blackhawks, for that matter.
How do the Sharks get over the hump and into the Stanley Cup Finals?
Not blowing up the team, that’s for sure.
A few tweaks here and there should do it, but that is what the Sharks have been doing these last several years, with nothing to show but two heart-breaking losses in the Western Conference Finals.
Next season is a new season, but there is a lot to change in the culture of the team between now and then.
1. Understand This Team Is Built For the Future
Year after year the Sharks are in the running for the Stanley Cup, and every year it seems the fans get disappointed.
It may seem as though the Sharks’ window of opportunity is closing, when, in fact, it is just opening.
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley are all entering the prime of their careers, they have young studs like Logan Couture ready to take on bigger roles and the defensive core of Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are all locked up for a few more seasons. Not to mention, role players like Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski have deals with San Jose that run through 2014.
Compare that to the past teams that have done well in the playoffs.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, only to lose their goalie Antti Niemi and several very good role players, such as Dustin Byfuglien to free agency or trade.
This year’s representative of the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals is the Canucks. At the end of their season, they will see star defensemen Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff all become free agents.
Do not be surprised if one of those defencemen sign with the Sharks, who are in dire need of another strong blueliner to put them over the top in the Western Conference.
So as much as other teams are struggling to stay relevant, the Sharks have been one of the few teams to stay competitive and will continue to stay competitive for at least the next several years.
2. New Defenceman
The Sharks did not have the defensive weapons that teams like the Boston Bruins and Canucks had in 2011.
That is to not say they did not try.
Acquiring Ian White from the Carolina Hurricanes was one of the better roster moves made all season. Although the move did not fully take care of the problem on defense, it did silence the critics, who were demanding a defenceman be acquired.
Still, the Sharks will have to re-sign White in the offseason, but he is sure to pitch San Jose a discounted rate.
As for Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins, neither are expected to return to the team, which frees up a ton of money to spend on a star defenceman.
Some notable free agent defencemen are Tomas Kaberle, Joni Pitkanen, Eric Brewer and Andrei Markov, but do not rule out Kevin Bieksa or Christian Ehrhoff.
Realistically, it would seem as though the Sharks could have their sights set on one of three players in Brewer, Bieksa or Ehrhoff, and any of them would be welcome additions to a defense that was clearly the weakest part of the Sharks’ playoff run.
3. Trust Todd McLellan
Coach McLellan has been the head coach of the Sharks for three years now.
His first year started off spectacular with a President’s Trophy win, but a first round exit to the Anaheim Ducks quickly brought this franchise back to reality.
Since then, McLellan and the Sharks have seemed to elevate their playoff games, hoping to prove that they belong.
A loss in the 2010 Western Conference Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks sufficed then, but two straight Western Conference Finals losses and some are calling for McLellan’s head.
The truth is McLellan made all the right moves. He made the right line changes during the season, and even the right goalie decision, as Niemi started to play well once given the time.
Stand by McLellan and he will take San Jose to the promised land sooner or later. He has proved it by winning in Detroit.
Given the right amenities with the Sharks, he will prove it in San Jose.