In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion tells Indiana Jones, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago.”
Indiana responds, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”
And so it was for the San Jose Sharks in their 2016-17 season. The team with arguably the best roster in franchise history went down to a first-round defeat – not because of the years, but because of the mileage.
We’ll cover the season that was in eight parts. Today, we’ll cover the main points. As this goes forward over the next couple weeks, we’ll take deep dives into each area.
- Main Points
- Roster and Cap
- GM and Owner
Game 5 of the playoff series against Edmonton was a microcosm of the Sharks’ season. They started and played competitive hockey past the halfway point, leading 3-1, and in a solid position to win. But the team simply ran out of gas, and couldn’t stop Edmonton from controlling the game the rest of the way. For the season, the Sharks were good well past the halfway point, but, to borrow from head coach Peter’s DeBoer post-game press conference after the series against Edmonton ended, the team “ran out of gas” in March and never recovered.
This was going to be a challenging season for the San Jose Sharks. They had a long season last year, followed by a shortened offseason. Which was further shortened for several players who participated in September’s World Cup of Hockey. The Sharks had several older players in major roles, led the league in travel over the past two seasons and were dealing with a compressed schedule.
Other teams faced some of these factors, but all these factors worked against the Sharks either repeating last season or going it one better.
The question has to be asked, though, why did the team do so little to mitigate the obvious challenges, especially in light of the well-known history? After all, teams rarely make it to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons.
San Jose welcomed two major free agents to the opening day roster, the brightest was speedy winger Mikkel Boedker. He finished the season as a major disappointment. The most effective free agent signing was defenseman David Schlemko. His skills include mobility and puck moving ability. He proved a welcome addition to the third defensive pair.
The most positive additions to the Sharks roster began their season on the AHL San Jose Barracuda. Among those who found their way to the Sharks roster and made an impact were Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen and Timo Meier. Also making his NHL debut, backup goalie Aaron Dell, whose first NHL season was a success.
The Sharks acquired veteran winger Jannik Hansen from Vancouver at the trade deadline. Hansen made minimal difference this season, though unlike most trade deadline acquisitions, he has another season on his deal.
Good Start, Weak Finish
As a team with tremendous continuity, the Sharks got off to a respectable start. They were 6-3-0 in October. By New Year’s Day, they were 23-13-1, solidly in a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division. A daunting schedule starting in mid-December and running into mid-January did not slow the team down. January was their best month, with a 14-4-1 record. The Sharks continued to advance in the standings into February and through early March, benefitting from an easier schedule after mid-January. Still, there were signs the team was slowing down.
In mid-March, the team, as DeBoer indicated, “ran out of gas.” At one point, they lost eight of nine games, all losses came in regulation, while the lone win came in overtime. Losing Logan Couture to a brutal injury, the result of a puck to the face, didn’t help matters.
The Sharks won back-to-back games to start April, both against a reeling Vancouver team. In the April 2 game, Joe Thornton left the ice, unable to skate on his left leg. The details on Thornton’s injury didn’t come out until after season’s end, but two torn ligaments do not bode well for the future Hall of Famer and Sharks all-time leader in, well, a whole lot of areas. It is likely Thornton attempts a return next season, but there are many questions surrounding the best player in team history.
The Sharks’ March skid sent them from the Pacific Division lead into third place. The result was a first round match-up with Edmonton. In an unevenly played series, a worn down and beat-up Sharks team fell in six games.
There were plenty of things to enjoy during the season. Thornton and Patrick Marleau each hit major milestones, Marleau scoring career goal 500 against Vancouver (the 45th player to reach the milestone), and Thornton dishing off career assist number 1,000 against Winnipeg (the 13th player to get there).
Brent Burns spent most of the season as a dominating defenseman. Until his numbers waned considerably in the closing weeks of the season, he was on track to reach 90 points. His 29 goals were the second most by a defenseman in the past 20 years. He also signed the richest contract in Sharks history, an eight year deal worth $64 million.
Youngsters made a mark. Six rookies saw action, a few made good impressions. Kevin Labanc was the leading scorer among the Sharks rookies. Timo Meier had a late start to the season, then played questionable hockey for both the Sharks and their AHL team, the San Jose Barracuda. Meier, however, showed better in the playoff series against Edmonton. Meier, as the highest draft pick the Sharks have had in years (ninth overall), came with high expectations. The slow start was cause for concern, so there was a metaphorical sigh of relief when he played well in the playoffs. Two other notable rookies, Marcus Sorensen and Ryan Carpenter, filled fourth line roles and did so admirably. Sorensen played all six playoff games for the Sharks.
Non-rookie rookie, Aaron Dell had a solid season backing up Martin Jones. Dell, in his NHL debut season, was too old to be a rookie according the NHL rules. Still this was a good NHL start for him. Though his smaller than desired workload leaves room for question, in the games he played, Dell showed he belongs in the NHL.
Ups and Downs, Comings and Goings
It was a down year for several players, including Martin Jones, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, but a nice rebound season from Marleau, whose game had fallen off dramatically in the two prior seasons. Logan Couture continued to improve his game and was the best Sharks forward. Amongst the veteran arrivals, David Schlemko made the most positive impression.
During the season, the Sharks parted with Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels. Former first round pick Nikolay Goldobin, an infrequent visitor to the Sharks roster, was traded midseason to Vancouver, with Jannik Hansen coming to San Jose. Roman Polak, James Reimer and Nick Spaling, trade deadline acquisitions last season, all moved on. Dainuis Zubrus and Matt Tennyson also departed.
Expectations and Results
The Sharks roster was as good and deep as any in team history. It was a better roster than last season’s which many consider the best in team history. They rolled four good lines and three strong defensive pairs, all in front of good goaltenders. Defensively, the Sharks were among the best teams in hockey for long stretches. The team finished fifth best in goals allowed, and gave up the third fewest shots on goal.
The offense, though, was sluggish. The power play was especially disappointing. The power play rolled out the same personnel who led the league in power play goals a season earlier. This season, the Sharks were tied for 24th, all teams which finished behind San Jose in this category missed the playoffs. The Sharks scored 18 fewer goals than last season. The power play made up more the 100% of the difference, netting 21 fewer goals.
As an older team coming off a very short offseason, they risked (using DeBoer’s phrase) running out of gas. This was a concern before the start of the season, but little was done to prevent this. Not surprisingly, they ran out of gas. Combined with several major injuries (most notably to Thornton and Couture, but also to Marleau, Donskoi and Hertl), the Sharks had no shot at the sort of playoff success they had last season. They were done in Rd. 1, falling to Edmonton in six games.
After all, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.