In today's NHL, there is one and only one team that takes on the role of perennial choke artists. For the last four years the San Jose Sharks have been referred to as Stanley Cup favorites, but have failed to even once reach the Western Conference Finals in that time span.
Now, since the Stanley Cup Playoffs are such an emotional grind, a couple of early second-round exits could have been brushed off as just bad luck for San Jose. But with a third straight second-round exit followed up with a first-round collapse, the Sharks have earned the nickname "regular season darlings" and "playoff chokers."
There is no denying it anymore, the Sharks are in a playoff slump rivaling that of the Chicago Cubs of the last decade. While there hasn't been a "Bartman" incident for San Jose, the same high expectations and lousy postseason performances have got both fan bases almost completely uninterested in regular season play.
No matter the amount of regular season success, fans will be tearing the team to shreds come more postseason failures.
But this season, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has put together arguably the most talented team ever assembled offensively. San Jose's entire top forward line will be representing the best team in the world (Team Canada) come February in the Olympics.
Its second-line center, Joe Pavelski, will be also be in the Olympics, representing Team USA.
Add in role players like Manny Malhotra, Jed Ortmeyer, Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn, Frazer McLaren, and Brad Staubitz, and the Sharks truly have Stanley Cup-caliber forward lines.
However, despite the fact the Sharks are sending their top two defensemen to represent their countries in the Olympics (Dan Boyle, Canada; Douglas Murray, Sweden), the bottom four defensemen have not been playing up to a Stanley Cup level.
Rob Blake, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kent Huskins, and Jason Demers have had their ups and downs this season, but, unfortunately for Sharks fans, they have had more than their fair share of downs.
Taking that into consideration, one of these four will most likely be packaged in a trade to bring in a better defenseman.
Now, while I have constantly been questioning the play of Blake, since he's in his first year as Sharks captain, I don't see him being traded.
Huskins and Demers simply wouldn't bring much value back in return for trading either one of them.
But then there is the curious case of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. "Pickles," as his teammates call him, is just 22-years-old, but he is in his fourth full year with San Jose. In his rookie year back in 2006-07, Vlasic was a surprise addition coming out of training camp who played his way onto the opening night roster.
In that rookie year Vlasic played solid defensively and racked up 26 points with a plus-13 plus/minus rating. Vlasic was well on his way to becoming a fan-favorite before a sophomore slump struck fast and hard.
During the 2007-08 season Vlasic's point total dropped to 14, and his plus/minus rating fell to a minus-12.
Therefore, coming into last season, it was a hot topic about how Vlasic would re-adjust to the league in his third season.
"Pickles" came out of the gate on a mission last season, and finished his third campaign with flying colors. Vlasic finished last season with six goals and 30 assists for 36 points and a plus-15. All were career-highs.
In fact, Vlasic's play from a year ago reached a level where I made the point that he may be a future Norris Trophy recipient.
But what I was banking on in that article was for Vlasic's point totals to jump into the 40-45-point range this season and an increased plus/minus rating with superb play in the defensive zone.
Unfortunately, Vlasic has had another setback this season, and it has come at a very inopportune time. The Sharks lost two quality defenseman in Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich in an offseason trade, and Vlasic was one of the defensemen who was going to be asked to play a larger role in their absence.
So far this season, Vlasic has tallied just 10 points, which puts him on pace for just 18 points, half his season total from last year. His plus/minus rating of plus-5 is solid, but Vlasic hasn't nearly been playing as well defensively as he has in the past.
While his style of defense, potential, and young age make No. 44 a player that a team would typically prefer to keep on its roster to build around, this Sharks team has the highest of expectations.
Since Vlasic is now a four-year veteran, this dropoff of a year has been far from what Wilson could have expected.
In the past, the Sharks might have been willing to chalk a season like Vlasic's having as just a bad year and that he will be able to turn his game around.
But, given the high expectations of this team, Vlasic's decline in all-around play makes it increasingly likely that he will be one of the Sharks on the chopping block come the trade deadline.
Considering the Sharks could use both a scoring defenseman and another punishing physical type, don't be surprised if the Sharks ship Vlasic out for either a Marek Zidlicky or a Christoph Schubert–type defenseman.
Zidlicky, the former Nashville Predator, is now in his second season with the Minnesota Wild, and has four goals and 28 points on the season. In his career, Zidlicky has posted 37 power-play goals and 99 power-play assists in 428 games.
If brought into San Jose, he would be able to complement Boyle on the point of the Sharks' No. 1 power-play unit, instead of the rotation of Demers/Huskins/Blake/Pavelski that has occupied that spot.
Schubert, the fifth-year defenseman from Germany, is in his first year with Atlanta after spending his first four with Ottawa. At 6'3" and 230 pounds, Schubert would be another Douglass Murray–type bruiser who would help put fear into the quick and agile Western Conference forwards the Sharks will be facing in the playoffs.
Schubert's career numbers are incredibly rock-solid at both ends of the ice, as he managed 25 points and a plus-30 plus/minus during the 2006-07 campaign.
Whether or not the Sharks would have to throw in some draft picks or prospects in a deal to pick up either defenseman is a moot point. In order to get some value in return, Vlasic will have to be the key figure in the deal.
None of the Sharks' top-six forwards are likely to be traded, and Vlasic fits the bill as a guy that Wilson would be willing to part ways with if he were to get what he's looking for in return.
If San Jose's defensive corps doesn't improve its play by the deadline, look for the "Pickles" jar to be in somebody else's cabinet.