Well, now that we're gearing toward the Stanley Cup Finals, we will be reviewing the seasons of teams as they're eliminated from the playoffs. Obviously, the last team reviewed will be the one that wins the Cup.
Now the runner-ups in the Western Conference Finals: The San Jose Sharks.
Season expectations: While we here were somewhat skeptical of their supremacy, many hockey analysts felt this was going to be a strong year for the Sharks. And rightfully so, as the team managed to acquired Dany Heatley from the Ottawa Senators to round out their first scoring line. With a solid group of internally-developed scoring forwads like Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, and Ryan Clowe to help out Patrick Marleau and Jumbo Joe Thornton, the team had a great group of scoring forwards before you even consider the rest of this strong and formidable team. While they had the reputation of being choke artists come playoff time, the Sharks were expected to go deep into the playoffs.
My prediction: I figured they would finish second in the Pacific Division and sixth overall in the Western Conference.
The truth: They did far better, finishing first in both for the second straight season. They made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they were swept by the Chicago Blackhawks. They beat the Blackhawks in the standings by one point during the regular season.
What went right?: During the regular season, the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley unit averaged a point-per-game. To top it off, Dan Boyle, Pavelski and Clowe broke the 50 point barrier while Setoguchi put up 36 points in 70 games. Pavelski deserves a special mention because he was also the Sharks most dominant performer come playoff time and stepped up in a way that some of his teammates couldn't. Evgeni Nabokov did well for the team, putting up a 44-16-10 record in 71 appearances while Tomas Greiss posted up a 2.69 GAA and .912 save percentage in 16 appearances. The brightest spot for the team, however, was the fact that everyone on the squad committed to playing excellent two-way hockey. Only six players finished with a minus rating for the regular season and out of those six, four of those players didn't play in more than 9 games while Niklas Wallin's rating was affected by his tenure during the Carolina Hurricanes (he finished with an even rating during his time with the Sharks.)
What went wrong?: Come playoff time, the team's first line began to dissipate, and while they were all dominant performers come playoff time, none of them managed to break the point-per-game average that they had during the regular season and each ended up as minus players. Joe Thornton's play was more exceptional in terms of falling off, putting up 12 points to go with a -11 rating in 15 games during their post-season run. Also, like most other teams who rely on their goaltenders heavily during the regular season, Nabokov lost some of his effectiveness come playoff time; begging the question as to why Greiss hasn't received more playing time despite being competent enough to goaltend in the NHL. And while it might not be an "official" reason to losing, one wonders how trading away enforcer Jody Shelly affected how other teams played against them. He was skating a regular shift for them and defending them; since he wasn't replaced that may have allowed the intimidation factor to set in.
So what's next?: Despite their salary commitments, the Sharks are in excellent shape going into next season, having $35.7M committed to salaries next season. However, Pavelski and Setoguchi need to be qualified while Marleau, Rob Blake, and Nabokov are the more notable UFAs going onto the open market, not to mention the fact that Manny Malhotra's due for a raise considering his strong season. There's a lot of good components that are locked down though, so hopefully they can lock down their key players or get solid reinforcements should the UFAs decide to go elsewhere.