Stanley Cup or Bust for San Jose?: Why There Is No "Next Year"

Andy BenschSenior Writer IFebruary 2, 2010

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 16:  Patrick Marleau #12, Dany Heatley #15, Douglas Murray #3 and Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks celebrate scoring a goal during their game against the Edmonton Oilers at HP Pavilion on January 16, 2010 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Rob Blake, Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Brad Staubitz could all find themselves leaving the Bay Area after the season.

Let me rephrase that: The San Jose Sharks have their leading goal scorer, starting netminder, captain, most versatile forward, and two key bottom-six grinding forwards who will all be unrestricted free agents come the end of the season.

Furthermore, their second-line center and member of Team USA's Olympic squad, as well as their second-line right-winger, and one of their hard-nosed enforcers are all restricted free agents come season's end.

And the best player on the team, Joe Thornton, might just be run out of town if he has a fifth mediocre/awful postseason in a row.

One thing is for certain, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson is going to have quite the busy summer.

Unless of course his team wins the Stanley Cup this season and the majority of the club's free agents choose to take a hometown discount to stay in San Jose.

However, we are talking about the perennial playoff-choking Sharks. Winning the cup is easier said than done for a team that hasn't reached the finals once in its history and has only reached the conference finals once.

But while nobody on the Sharks will tell you this, San Jose currently has the strongest team top-to-bottom in the history of the franchise.

With the additions of a bona fide sniper in Dany Heatley, the most versatile forward in hockey in Manny Malhotra, and two sandpaper role players in Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer, the Sharks have the strongest and deepest forward group in their history.

Defensively, the Sharks may be thin, but they still bode three Olympians who make their living shutting down the best forwards in the world.

Defensemen Dan Boyle (Canada), Douglas Murray (Sweden), and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (Russia) all have a shot to come home with a gold medal.

And it is a safe bet to claim that one way or another, a gold medal will be around the neck of a San Jose Shark come the end of February.

When (not if) the Sharks acquire a quality veteran defenseman at the trade deadline, San Jose will have no weaknesses. On paper, it will be a complete team.

Unfortunately for Sharks fans, this complete team won't be back next season.

While San Jose has been at the top of the league and sporting Stanley Cup expectations for the last five seasons, the days of an truly elite team are closing.

Including this season, San Jose will have finished fifth or higher in the Western Conference the last six seasons. Assuming the Sharks finish no worse than second come the end of the season, they will have had four top-two finishes in those six seasons.

If they can't win one cup in six years of those expectations and top finishes, then a major shake-up will be inevitable.

Last season, many fans wanted the major shake-up after the first-round exit against the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks.

But there were plenty of excuses (whether or not the team will admit them) for the poor performance in last year's playoffs.

  • Todd McLellan was in his first year as a head coach.
  • Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Rob Blake, and Mike Grier weren't healthy.
  • Travis Moen, Marcel Goc, Jonathan Cheechoo, Jeremy Roenick, and Tomas Plihal were nothing but a rag-tag group of bottom-six forwards.
  • San Jose had clearly peaked too early and ran into a hot team in the Ducks.

However, none of those excuses are going to work two years in a row.

McLellan is in his second year and has a better grasp of the locker room and how he wants to go about things differently this season.

Marleau, Nabokov, and Blake can't be injured this year. That excuse (whether legitimate or not) won't be enough to suffice for poor playoff performances because all three of them are in contract years.

If Nabokov has another playoff similar to last season, you can be pretty much guaranteed that the 34-going-on-35-year-old goaltender won't be re-signed to another contract.

San Jose can't afford to rest their future playoff hopes on a injury prone 35-year-old goaltender who always seems to run out of gas in the playoffs when playing a high number of regular-season games.

If Blake has another playoffs similar to his performance from last season, then there is hardly any chance that the Sharks sign him to another one-year deal, given his age and declining abilities on both ends of the ice. Even if Blake has a strong playoffs, being 40 next season will probably lead to the Sharks spending money on other free agents.

The only one who may be resigned if an injury causes a poor playoff performance is Marleau. By the sheer fact that he is still the face of the team and will probably be willing to take a hometown discount, Marleau has the best chance to return without a strong playoff performance.

But on the same note, fans were furious when he seemingly went completely unnoticed in last year's playoffs. Fans can count the number of quality shifts No. 12 had in last year's playoffs on one hand.

A second year of disappearing in the playoffs, and Marleau might have to move on somewhere else.

Now as for the role players, the Sharks' top guns no longer can deflect blame on the bottom-six forwards. This year's "bottom-six" forwards bring much more to the table than last year.

Malhotra and Nichol dominating in the face-off circle and Ryane Clowe being allowed to add offense to the third line has created a depth at forward that this team has never seen.

None of these excuses from last year will be usable this time around, and San Jose used nearly every excuse in the book a year ago.

Unlike in years past, this year is a must-execute year for San Jose or significant changes will be inevitable.

Jed Ortmeyer, for example, is having a career year at both ends of the ice. The Sharks are paying him next to nothing this season. One way or another, he is certainly going to be due for a raise, and a team more desperate for bottom-six forward help might just snatch him away from San Jose.

The same can be said for Manny Malhotra who is on pace to match his career point totals, as well as setting a new high in the plus/minus department. Malhotra is only making 700K this season, and surely someone will offer him more than that next season.

Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi are two offensive weapons who will be subject to more money next season, as well. The Sharks will have to give both forwards more money one way or another. Signing them to a new deal or allowing other teams to make them offers, and San Jose will have to decide whether or not they want to match that offer.

Even if the Sharks are able to re-sign a handful of their free agents, there is almost definitely going to be a few of them who won't return, even if the team does win the Stanley Cup.

If they don't win the Cup or at least get back to the conference finals, even more of them won't be back next season.

Plus when you add in the fact that Thornton could be moved with another poor postseason performance, and this year's playoffs is going to decide the fates of most of the Sharks' top contributors.

Playoff success or playoff failure, there will be plenty of faces who may not return next season.

Therefore, winning it all this year is more critical than ever as the window of being a truly complete team is coming to a close.

I have never been one to fully agree with fans who claim "championship or bust," but when it comes to the Sharks this season, that statement holds more truth than it ever has before.

And because of that, there truly is no "next year" in San Jose.