Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle may be known as San Jose's "Big Three," but Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture represent two-thirds of San Jose's "Next Three."
The San Jose Sharks currently possess an enviable mix of youth and experience, making the future bright for the perennially dominant organization.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has already made it a point to lock up the team’s emerging young stars—including Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic—with lengthy contracts.
Historically, Wilson has also traded aggressively to supplement San Jose’s drafted talent. With the team’s core set to be pushing 40 in five years (or in some cases—Dan Boyle—beyond), it’s very likely that at least one of the Sharks’ future key players currently wears another NHL sweater.
While keeping that possibility to a minimum, let’s take a glimpse into the future to see who will be leading the San Jose Sharks.
One important thing to keep in mind as you read on is that this is not an evaluation of a player’s complete body of work. Joe Pavelski probably won’t ever reach the levels of success that Joe Thornton has, but that does not preclude the idea that in five years, Pavelski might be a better player than Thornton at that particular point in time.
Nonetheless, these predictions are not backed by empirical evidence, but rather through a consistent tracking of the current and upcoming talent within the San Jose Sharks organization.
With a Cup to his credit, the San Jose Sharks will look to Antti Niemi to repeat that feat in teal.
No offense to San Jose’s solid backup goaltender, Alex Stalock, but unless the Sharks opt to acquire a new goaltender, Antti Niemi will likely still reign supreme five years down the road.
But Niemi will be 35 in five years, so it’s entirely possible that San Jose could have a new face tending to their net.
So without exploring external options, Niemi is the obvious choice going forward. His numbers will likely still leave him behind Evgeni Nabokov on the Sharks all-time list in any number of stats, but Niemi does edge out Nabokov in one category: Cup rings.
For an organization that hasn’t had a whiff of the Stanley Cup in their 23 years, it seems clear that a Cup-proven goaltender is a priority in San Jose, and Niemi fits that bill.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic has quietly become an elite shutdown defenseman in the NHL—news to everyone except Sharks fans.
No surprise here—Marc-Edouard Vlasic has gradually become the Sharks’ defensive rock, and at only 26 years old and signed through the 2017-18 season, his future in San Jose is bright.
While no one outside of the Bay Area was looking, Vlasic has become an elite-level defender in the NHL, constantly matching up against the best opponents have to offer.
"He is a big part of our team," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told NHL.com. "I thought six years ago when I started here, he was a very good defenseman. Now, he's the go-to guy.”
Vlasic may not get the attention seen by the league’s “best” defenders because he doesn’t produce gaudy offensive statistics, but Vlasic embodies everything you could ask for in a defender: a defense-first mentality, strong skating skills, good along the boards and a top penalty killer.
His play has drawn a lot of attention and will likely earn Vlasic a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, but head coach McLellan claims that it’s nothing new.
"He hasn't changed his game, he's played the same way, he does the same things for us," McLellan told The Canadian Press. “I think the Olympic talk amongst the media has now put a focus on him and people are paying more attention to him."
For those who have been watching for the last seven seasons, that attention is long overdue.
Locked up long term, Logan Couture will play a significant role for San Jose for years to come.
No position in the Sharks organization features more depth than center. In five years, Joe Thornton will be 39 and very likely settling into place as one of the greatest passers of all time. Should Thornton still be lacing up his skates five seasons from now in San Jose, it’s hard to imagine him as anything but the team’s top center.
But Thornton’s complete body of work is not what’s being evaluated, and San Jose’s best center will be 24-year-old Logan Couture.
Couture might never put up the point totals that Jumbo Joe does, but Couture’s all-around talent is already evident in the Olympic hopeful’s game, as he continues to be groomed for a future leadership role in San Jose.
Couture logs time in all situations, including the top power-play unit and as one of coach Todd McLellan's go-to forwards on the penalty kill.
A workhorse, dependable in all zones, Wilson wisely locked up Couture through 2019.
The future is bright for 20-year-old Tomas Hertl.
In an organization that lacks quality wingers, Tomas Hertl is a tremendous bright spot. His dramatic entry to the NHL has been well documented, so projecting Hertl to be an elite-level talent down the road isn’t much of a stretch.
Hertl’s abilities are well known in his native Czech Republic, where he is already being compared to his childhood idol, Jaromir Jagr. Prior to a recent game between Hertl’s Sharks and Jagr’s Devils, the latter offered plenty of praise for the budding superstar.
“He’s playing a similar style. I like to play on the boards. I like to play in the corners. And, he’s got a lot of skill, and he’s shown it,” Jagr said. “He's got a long way to go and can learn a lot. He’s got the potential to be a top guy. It’s up to him how he’s going to handle it.”
In five years, Hertl will be 25 and inevitably possess a wealth of knowledge and experience to go with his talent and skill set. His opportunity to play with and learn from Joe Thornton sets Hertl up to be a powerful force in the years to come.
Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto have both shown glimpses. But are they merely products of the talent around them?
This is where things get a little hairy for San Jose. The farm system lacks wings, which means the player standing alongside Couture and Hertl may remain a mystery for the immediate future.
Let’s take a look at some options.
Among the current crop of wings, an argument could be made for Brent Burns, who will be 33. Burns likes to play physical, which takes its toll on players’ bodies. No guarantee how effective Burns will be in five years.
Two other options for this spot could be Tommy Wingels or Matt Nieto. Wingels is having a career year, thriving in San Jose’s potent offense. Yet Wingel’s offensive statistics are more a product of his surroundings than his standard. He will likely remain a solid third-line contributor in San Jose or wherever he’s playing in five years.
Perhaps the best bet among the Sharks’ current options is the youngster Nieto. The California native has the dynamic speed to be a top-six forward, but at this point, it’s still difficult to imagine Nieto firmly planted into a top-six role.
Also in the mix could be players like Sharks prospects Dan O'Regan, Brodie Reid or Chris Tierney, but none are currently projected to evolve into top-six caliber forwards.
It’s much more likely that the player in this position will be acquired in the next five years. General manager Doug Wilson has never shied away from going after high-end talent through free agency or the trading block.
Who do you think will take this missing forward spot? Let us know in the comments below.