The San Jose Sharks suffered another heartbreaking playoff loss on Tuesday night when the Los Angeles Kings eliminated their division rivals from the 2013 NHL playoffs with a 2-1 Game 7 victory at the Staples Center.
There wasn't much separating these two teams in this second-round series, with the Kings outscoring the Sharks by a slim 14-10 margin. But in the end, the defending champions protected home ice by winning all four of their games in Los Angeles during this series.
Unfortunately for Sharks fans, their team's lockout-shortened season had an all-too-familiar ending.
San Jose has been a top contender in the Western Conference since the team acquired superstar center Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins early in the 2005-06 season. But as well as Thornton and the Sharks have played since that trade, this era in the franchise's history will likely be remembered as one of massive disappointment.
The Sharks have made the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons, but the team has reached the Western Conference Final on just two occasions, where it had a combined record of 1-8.
With an aging core of veterans and several players with contracts expiring this summer or after next season, the Sharks' future is uncertain.
Which begs the question: Is San Jose's Stanley Cup window now closed?
For starters, the Sharks don't need a major retooling over the summer to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender next season.
The emergence of young forward Logan Couture as an elite player and the successful transition of former defenseman Brent Burns to a permanent role on the wing has improved the team's offense, including the power play.
Between the pipes, Antti Niemi had his best season in San Jose with a league-leading 24 wins, a 2.16 GAA and a .924 save percentage, which resulted in him being nominated for the Vezina Trophy. Niemi's impressive year resulted in the Sharks finishing sixth in GAA and penalty-killing during the regular season, and he played very well against the Kings in the second round.
The goaltending and defensive improvement that San Jose made this year was an encouraging development for its fans, but there are some areas of improvement that must be made for one last run at a championship with the current core of veterans.
General manager Doug Wilson needs to add another scorer to his third line. The Sharks have one of the best top-six forward groups in the NHL, but there isn't enough scoring depth on the bottom two lines to help the team win important playoff games when players like Thornton and Marleau don't make an impact offensively, which was the case in Tuesday's Game 7 loss.
With three second-round picks in a very deep and talented 2013 NHL draft, Wilson has the assets needed to explore the trade market and find the missing pieces.
There is still an opportunity for the Sharks to win a championship with their current roster. But it's likely that this team will get two more opportunities to accomplish its ultimate goal after looking at the number of important players who are not signed beyond 2013-14.
|Player||Position||Age||Salary Cap Hit||FA Status|
|Joe Thornton||Center||33||$7 million||UFA in 2014|
|Patrick Marleau||Left Wing||33||$6.9 million||UFA in 2014|
|Joe Pavelski||Center||28||$4 million||UFA in 2014|
|Logan Couture||Center||24||$2.875 million||RFA in 2014|
|Dan Boyle||Defenseman||36||$6.66 million||UFA in 2014|
The NHL's salary cap will decrease from about $70 million this season to $64.3 million next year. Unless the league's revenues are better than expected in 2013-14, the Sharks probably won't have the cap space needed to re-sign Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and Couture.
Couture is a franchise player and the future of the team. A superstar with an improving two-way game, the 24-year-old could be a $7 million-plus player when he's an RFA in the summer of 2014. Pavelski will also deserve a nice raise after his many years of consistent scoring and strong playoff performances.
As Thornton and Marleau exit their prime years, the Sharks will need to find younger talent to replace these veterans long-term. Tomas Hertl, whom the team selected in the first round of last year's draft, is San Jose's only blue-chip prospect throughout the organization.
The lack of elite young talent ready to impact the NHL club in the next two years is a concern for the Sharks, and it will force them to restock the cupboard by making quality selections with the surplus of picks they have in the 2013 and 2014 drafts.
Despite all of their playoff failures in recent seasons, the Sharks have not been willing to make any major roster shakeups to get this team to the Stanley Cup Final. At some point, significant changes must be made when the same group of players repeatedly fails to accomplish the team's goals. But this process shouldn't begin next season.
The smart plan for the Sharks going into the summer would be to give the veteran core of Thornton, Marleau and Boyle one more chance to win a Cup before their current contracts expire, then break up this group if it fails to get the job done.
The Sharks just need to complete some minor moves in the offseason, not a franchise-altering trade, to make one last title run with the veteran group led by Thornton.
Acquiring a player with Stanley Cup-winning experience and a proven record of playoff success—someone like Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton (UFA this summer)—would be a good start.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All salary information via Capgeek.
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