If one set expectations for the San Jose Sharks based on the first game they played in 2016, the expectations would have been wrong. Against the Winnipeg Jets, back on Jan. 2, the Sharks played an abysmal game, losing 4-1.
After the Winnipeg loss, San Jose held a 18-17-2 record. Their playoff hopes remained intact due to a weak division, but the prospects of a strong finish to the season seemed unlikely. Then the unlikely happened.
Simply put, 2016 is the best calendar year in San Jose Sharks history.
A Big Year
During this calendar year, the Sharks have gone 50-26-3 in regular season games, with two more games to be played. The centerpiece of 2016 was the 24-game playoff run, beginning in April and finishing in June. In the process, the team set a variety of franchise records. The 14 postseason wins are a franchise record and Logan Couture became the first Shark to lead the playoffs in scoring.
First year Shark Martin Jones played respectably during the stretch between January and March. But it was in the playoffs, beginning in April, he became a upper-echelon goalie. The brighter the spotlight, the better Jones played. For the franchise’s entire existence, they have lacked a goalie who could meet the big moments. No longer. Jones played perhaps the most spectacular big game in Sharks playoff history, single-handedly winning Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Remarkably, the “standing on his head” performance came in hostile territory – in front of a frenzied crowd in Pittsburgh hoping to see the home team clinch the Cup.
In the first Stanley Cup Final game ever in San Jose, another new arrival took center stage. Rookie Joonas Donskoi delivered what is now the biggest goal in Sharks history. With the Sharks down 2-0 in the series to Pittsburgh, Game 3 was, realistically, the Sharks’ last chance to make a series of it.
The tension-filled game went into overtime. Just over 12 minutes into the overtime, Donskoi came from behind the net and picked a corner for the game winner. It gave the Sharks franchise their first ever win in a Stanley Cup Final. Unlike Jamie Baker’s Game 7 goal in an opening round series against the Detroit Red Wings over two decades ago (often considered the biggest goal in Sharks history), Donskoi’s goal happened at the Shark Tank in front of a boisterous, overflow crowd. The result was likely the loudest and certainly the most magical moment in franchise history.
New and Old
Donskoi was a rookie surprise for San Jose. Though lost in the shadows of other high-profile rookies such as Connor McDavid, Donskoi showed he was among the leagues better rookies in 2016. Two more rookies are playing for the Sharks now, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc. While early for both, signs are promising. For a Sharks team among the oldest in the league, having success with youth matters.
What mattered not a lot, but sure got a lot of attention, were a pair of beards. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns grew the most notable beards in hockey. What mattered more was that both players delivered big time. Burns entered 2016 with a minus-13 rating. In January 2016, he began a stunning turnaround on the defensive side of his game.
For the calendar year of 2016, Burns is plus-21. His turnaround earned him a spot as a Norris Trophy finalist for the league’s best defenseman (ultimately finishing third). So far this season, Burns is the Norris favorite (by a lot) and is in the MVP conversation as well.
Thornton, perennially the Sharks best player, has been terrific all year. In 79 regular season games thus far in 2016, Thornton has 80 points. This is the first time Thornton has been at the point per game mark since the 2009-10 season. He continues to climb the all-time leaderboards in 2016, now sitting 25th all-time in points and 13th in assists.
Topping all this off, though, is another story which matters a lot. The Sharks celebrated their 25th anniversary. When the team first played in 1991, it was not a given there would be a 25th anniversary for the franchise in San Jose. But good management and a devoted fan base helped develop a functional franchise in one of the more unlikely spots for hockey success.
While never the top local sports story (and often not the second or third story either, given the number of professional teams in the Bay Area), the Sharks have made a mark. Though excitement over the Sharks had dipped in recent years, the events of 2016 have helped bring back new energy to the Sharks and the community.
As 2016 comes to a close, the Sharks sit in first place in their division. They are one of the hottest teams in the league and one of the best defensive teams in the league.
For the San Jose Sharks, 2016 was a very good year. Just two more playoff wins and it would have been great. Perhaps this is what awaits in 2017.