With the Los Angeles Kings dispatched from the playoff picture, the burn of yet another San Jose Sharks playoff elimination at the hands of a team from SoCal has eased some. Enough, at least, to free my hands from covering my grimacing face, so as to place them on the keyboard and find the silver lining on a season that ended disappointingly, but was full of far more upside than anticipated.
Looking back at January, and the very real possibility of an altogether lackluster season for the San Jose Sharks, I don’t see how — OK, aside from the massive losing streak and early playoff elimination — you look at what the Sharks managed to do this season and be all that disappointed. The team opened the season with a franchise-best nine wins before their first loss — not to mention Patty Marleau tying the all-time NHL record with goals in each of the first four games of the season. Talk about a statement from Captain Gutless, eh, JR?
From a management and roster perspective, the big story of the regular season was, of course, the big names, both traded away and acquired: in particular Doug Murray (to the Penguins) and Ryane Clowe (now a Ranger). Now, I love these guys to death, but those moves were astonishing in their addition-by-subtraction nature.
The team had simply gotten too slow to compete in certain facets of the game, and what a hat tip is due to management for pulling the trigger and moving these guys. The decision to make those changes had to rest on confidence in a number of areas including how well the team can do with the spades of draft picks now available to the Sharks in both 2013 and 2014, as well as the more immediate issues of trusting available to call-ups from Worcester, and the ability to make a move for another key piece or two to help build a complete team. Like picking up Raffi Torres (*ducks and covers* — we’re getting used to doing that here in Bay Area, not on account of the earthquakes, but rather how y’all tend to throw things and boo and hiss when we drop that particular name).
As any Sharks fan knows, the nail biting really gets underway in the playoffs. The first round this year, however, the boys in teal were a whole lot of fun to watch. After attaining the 6 seed in the west, the Sharks proceeded to sweep the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. (Sweep! And I don’t mean that to be a swipe at Vancouver, at least not any more than it obviously is.) In doing so, the Sharks, no doubt, shook off some playoff demons and nightmares from match-ups past. And rudely provided fans and media, both, with what eventually turned out to be false hope about the prospects for the match-up in round 2.
I really don’t mean to come down too hard on the team here. The Sharks did indeed take the defending Stanley Cup champions to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. Yes, they lost that game, in a grinding 2-1 defeat. But as a fan, you sense something unusual: a feeling of disappointment THAT the team lost, which is a real departure from years past, where the disappointment was aggravated by HOW the team lost. Team Teal has certainly done itself no favor in trying to shake the title of “chokers” during its previous eight consecutive years’ worth of postseason appearances.
In this year’s playoffs, though, it seems like this Sharks team finally managed to rid the franchise of that albatross; at the very least, I felt like they at least began to make that case, short of winning it all. This team was not one you could say went down without a fight. In fact, we saw a team that stayed in the fight, and that took that fight all the way down to the wire. They lost in game seven, they lost by a goal, and they lost by playing one hell of a series, after simply demolishing a familiar and fearsome foe the series before.
No, that doesn’t change how playoff elimination, especially in a close seventh game, is a gut-wrenching experience. I’m not trying to be a soothsayer in that regard. But, as I wrote at the very beginning of the season, this is not a team in as bad a shape as some people would have you believe. The coaching staff has, I think, proven themselves worthy. As the roster evolved over the season, it, perhaps improbably, became an entirely better lineup than at the beginning of the year, despite a lot of people thinking the roster was in more or less intractable shape.
The cabinet of prospects, bare as could be back in January, is now flush with picks in what was going to be an otherwise slim couple of drafts in 2013 and 2014. Leadership among the team seems to be managing an incredibly graceful transition: Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle — all UFAs at the end of next season, as it happens — as the grizzled vets providing guidance and voices of experience, with Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski well-poised to take the reins for the future, playing in front of Antti Niemi who’s under contract in net for the next couple years yet.
Another season gone by, culminating in playoff disappointment for the San Jose Sharks. You’d be right to suspect frustration as the primary outcome. But if you ask me, the future is looking a good bit brighter than it was at the start of the season, and that’s an altogether pleasant surprise. Of course, every Sharks fan wants to see the boys win a Cup, but if this is plan B, it sure beats some of the other options, like just blowing the team up.
Finally I know I speak for all of us here in the Bay Area when I wish good luck to the Bruins and the Blackhawks as they head into Game 2 in the greatest sporting battle of them all, the Stanley Cup Final. May the half-a-championship* go to the best team, indeed.
* – I’m kidding, I’m kidding! You people are so sensitive about the impending record-book asterisk, aren’t you!?