There was a time in the not so recent past where the San Jose Sharks were perennial favorites to contend for a Stanley Cup championship.
There was also a time where San Jose was the lone Bay Area team enjoying any sort of significant success.
During that tenure, the Sharks did almost everything right.
Aside from never making it to the Stanley Cup finals, San Jose seemed to have all the tools to get deep into the playoffs. There was solid goaltending. There were a plethora of productive and scoring forwards. The defense was good. General manager Doug Wilson was making all the right moves.
The Sharks rode that success, making the playoffs each year since the 2003-04 season and making it to the conference finals in three out of the eight playoff appearances (hockey-reference.com).
There was top talent in San Jose as well. Veteran forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were large parts of the offense and would be complimented by younger talent such as Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The transition from longtime net-minder Evgeni Nabokov to Antii Niemi also proved seamless, and head coach Todd McLellan picked up where former head coach Ron Wilson left off.
Yet in 2012-13, the Sharks have hit a stumbling block.
After a hot 7-0-0 start, San Jose showed signs of weakness, dropping the next 10 of 11, including two shootout losses (cbssports.com). After Tuesday night's 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks are now 11-8-6 in the Western Conference, good for ninth overall in the standings.
If the season were to end today, then San Jose would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03, ending one of the more impressive playoff runs in recent NHL history.
Fortunately for the Sharks, the season does not end today and there is plenty of hockey left. Yet given the recent problems facing the Sharks, the end result might be imminent.
There is no doubt that San Jose is struggling to score. Couture, Marleau, Pavelski, and Thornton are continuing to score goals as expected, but there is no depth to behind their scoring. Pavelski is fourth on the Sharks' roster with 17 points; the next forward below him on the charts is Ryan Clowe with eight points and zero goals (hockey-reference.com).
If you remove the stats of Couture, Marleau, Pavelski and Thornton, then the remaining Sharks skaters have only 19 goals, indicating that San Jose's offense is totally reliant on their top forwards. Martin Havlat has zero goals since February 2, and Brent Burns has been a disappointment. The defense, centered around offensive-defenseman Dan Boyle, is also failing to get pucks to the back of the net.
McLellan noted the defense's woes by stating, “Our back end has not produced the way we expected it to. It’s as simple as that. It’s one of the lowest scoring groups of d-men in the league, for whatever reason" (via cnsbayarea.com).
Currently, the Sharks rank 29 out of 30 NHL teams in goals per game with 2.16.
The Sharks have also seen a dramatic decline in their special teams play over recent weeks. Their power play, which was one of San Jose's greatest strengths for years, has plummeted to 17th in the league, showing the correlation between the lack of scoring and the Sharks' recent record.
Yet the problem does not rely solely on scoring.
While successful playoff teams often have depth in scoring, San Jose's recent struggles encompass so much more. Fortunately, the Sharks have done well this season in the penalty kill and currently rank third, with a percentage of 87.2 (espn.go.com). However, the Sharks offset that with their problems in the transition and passing games. Giveaways and turnovers have been Shark killers thus far and have undoubtedly cost San Jose a few critical wins.
Here is where San Jose's future looks daunting.
The window on the Sharks' success may be closing. Veterans Marleau and Thornton are both 33 years old. Boyle is 36. While San Jose still has younger talent like Couture and Pavelski, it is reasonable to assume that the veteran talent on this team will start to tail off with age in the next couple of years.
Given the Sharks' reliance on players like Boyle, Marleau and Thornton, can they afford to see a significant drop-off in offense?
More a concern is the upcoming contracts for these players.
Boyle, Marleau, Pavelski and Thornton are all set to be free agents after the 2013-14 season (spotrac.com). Depending on the direction San Jose wants to move in, it is possible to see some departures within a season or two.
After that, the situation gets even more complicated.
In recent years, San Jose gambled much of its future by trading away numerous draft picks and prospects to bring in temporary rental players like defenseman Brian Campbell in 2008. They also executed trades, such as the Havlat deal, which have not totally panned out. Furthermore, the years of constant success have provided the Sharks with few high draft picks year after year. As a result, the Sharks' minor league system is lacking in true NHL-potential prospects. Aside from Matt Irwin, who is off to a decent NHL career, and prospect Tomas Hertl, San Jose's developmental system looks grim (hockeysfuture.com).
With that in mind, will the Sharks continue to pin their hopes on their incumbent veterans or will they begin to dismantle the franchise with the hopes of rebuilding for another tenure of dominance down the road?
Regardless of what the Sharks eventually decide to do, the team finds itself at a crossroads with 23 games left in the regular season. There are things that San Jose can improve on and they hope to do so (csnbayarea.com).
Defenseman Brad Stuart put it bluntly:
We can do a better job in transition, getting the forwards going, and at the same time if we’re doing a better job of getting the pucks through and getting the forwards to the front of the net, that will create chances. It’s those two things that need to be better, and we’re certainly a part of that. (via csnbayarea.com)
If the Sharks are able to put Stuart's words into practice, then they might be able to generate enough momentum to propel them into the playoffs. If not, then it figures to be another long offseason in San Jose.
This time, however, the Sharks future may not look so promising.