Amidst all of the success of the San Jose Sharks, there is still one piece of unfinished business.
When you think about reoccurring or prolonged storylines of the San Jose Sharks, there’s one in particular that has haunted the men in teal for years. One word, eight letters: playoffs.
But the 2013-14 Sharks season offers a handful of exceptionally ripe and riveting storylines that go well beyond San Jose’s playoff pressure and encompass a variety of players—expiring contracts, key injuries, over- and underachieving players to name a few.
Let's take a look at the storylines that are currently defining the San Jose Sharks.
Will Jumbo Joe Thornton finally get a shot at the Stanley Cup? Maybe, but it won't be easy.
An asterisk might as well accompany any success that San Jose incurs throughout the course of the regular season. Winning streak, asterisk. Dominant victory, asterisk. Division championship, asterisk. At the footnote, that asterisk will be defined as, “So what? They’ll still choke come playoffs.”
The Sharks have more than proved their mettle in the regular season, winning the Pacific Division five of the last nine seasons, including one Presidents' Trophy for the league’s best record.
Over the course of those nine seasons, the Sharks played a whopping 107 playoff games (ranking second only to the Detroit Red Wings during that span), and still have yet to play in a single Stanley Cup Final. In fact, San Jose is a lowly 3-12 in their three Western Conference Final appearances and continues to be haunted by the “playoff choker” moniker.
It’s gotten so bad for San Jose that there is literally nothing that the Sharks can accomplish in the regular season that will have people believing in a different playoff fate.
A Stanley Cup Final appearance should be enough to rid San Jose of the playoff-failure stigma, but given the strength in the Western Conference and Pacific Division, that won’t be easy.
This could be the final season in San Jose for either Patrick Marleau or Dan Boyle—maybe both.
While San Jose’s quest for a Stanley Cup remains firmly planted at the forefront of the team’s storylines, general manager Doug Wilson is facing some major decisions regarding the future of the team and three of its core pieces.
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are all in the last year of their contracts, and Wilson must decide whether the team’s three captains will be in San Jose next season.
According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the salary cap will increase over 10 percent from $64.3 million to roughly $71 million for the 2014-15 season. The increase, which is larger than originally anticipated, makes Wilson’s task much more mathematically feasible should he decide to keep all three.
According to David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News, the negotiations have already started for all three players, though there are still plenty of details to iron out for each.
It’s hard to imagine Wilson allowing any of the three to hit the market, but the reality remains that San Jose has yet to find the winning recipe for a Cup. And with a rapidly closing window, the pressure is on to win in San Jose, and it starts with these three players.
Alex Stalock could see more starts in the second half of the season in an attempt to keep starter Antti Niemi fresh for the playoffs.
Nearing the midway point of the season, Sharks starting goaltender Antti Niemi is on pace for 70 starts, which would be a career high.
Like 100-plus pitch counts or 200-plus innings pitched for baseball pitchers, 70 starts tends to be that threshold ripe for retrospective criticism. In the last 10 seasons, only Martin Brodeur has led his team to a Stanley Cup after starting 70 or more games.
Niemi has been adamant that he prefers a heavy workload, but a 9-6-5 record and a save percentage barely clinging to the 90 percent mark after a 9-1-1 start should reiterate that it’s the coaches need to maintain control over the goaltending situation, with the best interest of the team in mind.
Meanwhile backup goaltender Alex Stalock has been solid in his limited time in net, posting a 4-1 record, and the team has responded to each change in the crease.
With the looming Olympic break and the realistic possibility that Niemi may be tapped to represent Finland, head coach Todd McLellan will need to prepare to ensure San Jose is peaking for the playoffs.
San Jose will miss Tomas Hertl, with any luck, for only a month.
Tomas Hertl has filled headlines across the league since his four-goal performance in October, but after a knee-on-knee collision with Kings captain Dustin Brown, the latest press surrounding the league’s leading rookie scorer (15 G, 10 A) and front-runner for the Calder Trophy is considerably more bleak.
Swelling has prevented San Jose from knowing the full extent of the injury, but the immediate diagnosis has Hertl out for a month at the minimum. Sounds bad, but when you hear Wilson discuss the potential of Hertl’s season being over, suddenly a month doesn’t seem so long.
Hertl joins fellow forwards Raffi Torres and Adam Burish on the long-term injured reserve list.
No doubt Hertl leaves a significant hole in the San Jose lineup, and how McLellan handles the line combinations should be interesting going forward as San Jose searches for a resurgence of that early-season magic.
Plagued by injuries, Marty Havlat has not lived up to expectations in San Jose. But the injury to Tomas Hertl brings new opportunity for the winger to prove he should stay.
Marty Havlat has arguably endured more criticism than any other San Jose player. His slow recovery from offseason groin surgery prevented San Jose from using one of its two compliance buyouts and left management frustrated with the injury-prone winger.
Things didn’t improve for Havlat when he finally returned to the lineup. With just two points in his first nine games back, Havlat immediately found himself in the middle of trade rumors. Despite claims of wanting to stay in San Jose, the rumors continued while Havlat amassed just three points over his next 10 games.
However, with Hertl out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, San Jose’s patience with Havlat may pay off. He has been considerably better in recent games, as his role in the offense has increased.
But it may still be too late for the winger who never quite found his place in San Jose.