It is time for the review of the San Jose Sharks season. Last year, you can pretty much guess what was covered. The Sharks 2014-15 season was a mess and they missed the playoffs. Last year, I had plenty of time to write my season review before the offseason began in earnest. This year, the offseason is already under way. I’ll be trying to get these up and done with before free agency begins on July 1. There will be eight pieces as follows:
- Main Points
- The Roster and the Cap
I’ll start with the obvious. This 25th anniversary season was time to celebrate. Then it became the best season in franchise history, including the Sharks first trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The roots of this success are traceable to three main elements: a core group of talented players, the desire to put recent miseries behind them and good fortune along the way.
The Sharks, from ownership on down, seemed to understand their predicament entering last offseason. There was a good core group with some reasonable young talent. There was also a really bad trend line coupled with a fan base heading for the exits. Fortunately, the higher-ups decided the 2014-15 dysfunction must not last. Good thing, too. Once a negative culture takes root, it is difficult to change. The Sharks did not let one negative season turn into a long-term culture change.
General manager Doug Wilson hired competent coaching in the person of Peter DeBoer. Measured by wins and losses, DeBoer came with a less than stellar record. He coached teams with less than stellar personnel. Sometimes the best lessons are learned the hard way and DeBoer certainly had that opportunity. Wilson added two competent veteran players. He took a gamble and traded a high draft pick for the goalie he wanted the most. Among other free agents, he added a young player from the top Finnish league. All these moves worked.
Regular Season – The Beginning
As the season began, I described this as a season of ‘ifs’. It took about half a season before the ‘ifs’ started generating overwhelmingly positive answers. Free agent addition Paul Martin not only played solid hockey, but he helped Brent Burns to turn around the defensive side of his game. The goalie acquired in the trade, Martin Jones, settled in and showed he could be an everyday starter in the league. Joonas Donskoi showed his experiences in Finland translated effectively to the NHL.
Joe Thornton, no longer the team’s captain, looked crisp from the start of the season. Then he kept getting better. Whatever held him back the prior season (likely a midseason injury) was resolved and the future Hall of Famer played like a future Hall of Famer. New captain Joe Pavelski was perfectly comfortable wearing the ‘C’.
Injuries to Logan Couture made things dicey for the Sharks in the first half of the season, but provided the chance for the team to give its younger players stepped up roles. For a team needing depth, the first portion of the season gave several players a chance to grow.
Regular Season – Second Half
In early January, the team played a miserable game against Winnipeg. It was at that point the Sharks seemed to recognize they needed to demand more from themselves. What followed was a long and strong run. In a division with fading competition, the Sharks easily held the final playoff spot in the Pacific Division, finishing with 98 points, not far behind Los Angeles and Anaheim. While the point total was unimpressive by historical standards, the team was far better in the second half of the season.
A bizarre schedule forced San Jose to deal with insane travel, but the Sharks turned themselves into road warriors and led the league in road wins. Over a stretch lasting a quarter of the season, San Jose only played back-to-back games in the same venue once. The road successes seemed to bond the team, even if home success continued to elude them.
Seeing a team with potential, Doug Wilson added three pieces at the trade deadline, shedding players who had no future with the Sharks along with a few high draft picks. The three were backup goalie James Reimer, depth forward Nick Spaling and third pair defenseman Roman Polak.
Over the course of the season, Peter DeBoer steadily reshaped the team to his liking. Changes to the system and adjustments to personnel came in increments. By the end of the regular season, the Sharks had evolved quite a bit and things were looking up.
The Playoff Run
By year-end, the only obvious missing piece to San Jose’s potential in the playoffs was home ice success. In the opening round, they dispatched arch-rival Los Angeles in five games, splitting the home games and sweeping on the road. While the Kings reputation is formidable, they were depleted in a few key areas and the Sharks took advantage. What was expected to be a long, difficult series was anything but. Health was an advantage for San Jose throughout the playoffs. This is largely attributable to good fortune; good fortune played an important role.
The second round featured a tough Nashville team. The wild card Predators upset the Pacific Division winning Anaheim Ducks in the opening round. The Sharks and Predators series went seven games, the home team winning every game. The Sharks suffered their only blowout loss of the postseason against Nashville, but in Game 7, they played a near perfect game. It was a dominant win in a crucial game. If San Jose needed a win that could propel them far, this was it.
Matched against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final, the Sharks dropped the road opener in a tightly played game, but won four of the next five to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. In most articles, I have downplayed (or ignored) the historic nature of this season, as this team deserves its own spotlight, not the burdens of past Sharks teams. Still it bears mentioning, the series clinching Game 6 win was the most important win in Shark Tank history. It happened in front of a raucous crowd fully grasping the magnitude of the game.
Against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks simply did not have it with the notable exception of Martin Jones. Jones’ brilliant goaltending made it into a six game series, with every game close. Without Jones, Pittsburgh likely delivers a blow-out filled sweep. Game 3 of the series in San Jose, with the dramatic overtime winner by Donskoi, was the lone home win in the series. It ranks high among the most glorious moments in franchise history.
Size, Speed and Special Teams
Special teams were good, the power play led the league in goals. The penalty kill was hit and miss, finishing in the middle of the pack. In the playoffs, the power play was exceptional until it disappeared against Pittsburgh at the exact wrong time
As a team, San Jose was smaller and quicker to start the season. Still, management understood the importance of being able to handle a heavy game, and they were able to hang in the physical Western Conference. San Jose added big Dainius Zubrus early in the year. The trade deadline additions, Spaling and Polak, also added size and physicality to the roster. Tommy Wingels again led the team in hits, though he fell out of favor with the coaches, as evidenced by his diminished role in the playoffs and especially in the Final.
Peter DeBoer emphasized a pressure game, and for the first time in a very long time, the Sharks rolled four forward lines. It paid major dividends in the second half of the season and in the playoffs.
Highlights, Debuts and Swan Songs
Aside from the obvious, the best postseason in team history, a few noteworthy moments stand out. Patrick Marleau scored career point 1,000 in Pittsburgh.
Nikolay Goldobin, a first round draft pick on 2014, made his NHL debut, albeit an uneven one. Joonas Donskoi’s debut was a major hit and Dylan DeMelo played well in his rookie season. Also making a debut, the San Jose Barracuda. The Sharks moved their top farm team to San Jose from Massachusetts in 2015. Both teams played their home games in the Shark Tank. The Barracuda managed to get to the playoffs, while head coach Roy Sommer became the winningest coach in AHL history.
As for possible swan songs, Zubrus may have finished his NHL career in San Jose. He played 64 games for the Sharks, upping his NHL career total (regular and playoff) to 1399 games.
Another notable departure was perhaps the most controversial player ever to wear teal. It is likely the end of the NHL road for Raffi Torres. Torres played briefly in the preseason and earned himself a massive 41 game suspension for a head hit. Ultimately though, he was unable to recover from a knee injury and was traded late in the season.
The postseason awards will not highlight many Sharks. Joe Thornton was deserving for several major awards, but not according the voters. The one Shark who did break through is defenseman Brent Burns, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
The Bottom Line
The Sharks are a business and well, the team struggled to sell out for most of the season. In some cases, the Shark Tank was barely half full. The playoff run brought the place back to life. During the season, management made several notable changes to encourage fans to come back, a good sign. It is not clear how much of the playoff fan base was on the postseason bandwagon only, but there is bound to be some carry over to next season. The latter round playoff games were among the most intense crowds in Shark Tank history.
Following a 2014-15 season with had plenty of bad and ugly, the 2015-16 season had a whole lot of good. And great. The best result in San Jose Sharks history. One question remains open, was this team the best team in San Jose Sharks history? I’ll tackle that question in the upcoming articles.