Tenuous playoff status puts San Jose Sharks rebuild at crossroads

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San Jose Sharks' Tomas Hertl (48) fights for possession against Carolina Hurricanes' Brett Bellemore during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Sekera leads Hurricanes past Sharks

San Jose Sharks' Tomas Hertl (48) fights for possession against Carolina Hurricanes' Brett Bellemore during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

NASHVILLE – There’s clearly a separation in the San Jose Sharks dressing room. But it’s not exactly the obvious answer for a team that recently stripped its group of a captain.

There aren’t clear cliques amongst people and picking sides on who may be named the unquestioned leader. It’s a little different.

San Jose now is separated between extremely young players – such as Matt Nieto, Tomas Hertl and Mirco Mueller and relative graybeards like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Antti Niemi, a group that has been together for many years.

In the middle you have the lukewarm water known as Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic – but the ultimate view is that the Sharks are trying to get younger but stay competitive with a veteran mix. It’s a challenging ordeal, and has been the trickier element in the dressing room this year and caused more challenges than stripping Thornton of his captain’s ‘C’ last summer.

“They’re still learning. A lot of the young guys are still learning. And us old guys, we can still learn too,” Thornton said. “It’s still … we’re 58 games in and we’re still learning. I’m not very old, but yeah … we’re still learning.”

Rebuilding on the fly has become all the rage with veteran teams. Why wouldn’t a team want to infuse a group with young talent while keeping its strong veteran pieces together? The Red Wings have set the standard for this, first breaking in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterbeg when Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov were on their way out. And now Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have taken over the mantle with Zetterberg and Datsyuk aging.

But have the Sharks been as successful as the NHL’s never-ending gold standard? It’s not an obvious answer. San Jose is still in the playoff mix. Thornton is as powerful as ever with 51 points in 54 games and a puck possession monster

Vlasic and Couture are solid pieces, but what of the younger guys such as the 21-year-old Hertl and 22-year-old Nieto? After a dynamite start to his career last year that was so riveting it inspired Thornton to talk about his junk, Hertl has slowed quite a bit with 22 points in 58 games this year. He had 25 in 37 a year ago.

Nieto has just four goals on the year. And with rumors swirling that Niemi– a pending unrestricted free agent – is available via trade, this group may even get younger. 

Veteran players tend to want to see stronger vets brought in, not shipped out. Especially older players who want to win now.

If Niemi goes, what does this mean for morale of the likes of Thornton and Marleau, who both signed contract extensions in San Jose a year ago?

“We love (Niemi), we hope he signs a contract extension and stays here for a long time,” Thornton said. “He’s a big part of this team and a super guy, but it’s just the way it goes.”

Even with this younger refresh, rebuild, re-something, the Sharks have remained buoyant (no pun intended) and gone through times of high-level success, such as a streak of winning nine of 10 games. But there hasn’t been as much consistency for the Sharks, which is always a problem when it comes to youthful teams.

Though San Jose is in the playoffs with 66 points, they’ve played two more games than the Los Angeles Kings – who are two points behind San Jose for the final postseason position. San Jose has lost four of five games, which sours the mood somewhat. 

“You just try to do your thing and establish our fundamentals in our culture and do it in the right way and help them along,” Pavelski said. “The first year for anybody is tough in this league. There’s going to be ups and downs, but a lot of them have handled it well and improved along the way, so hopefully we have a strong 24 games here to finish.”

In order to have that, San Jose is going to need more from DJ Nieto, Hertl and 2013 first round pick Mueller. While all have been serviceable, they haven’t taken that next leap to stardom like Vlasic or Couture, which has made San Jose a bit of a tougher read than usual.

“It takes a lot of patience and time and the interesting thing is as we’re teaching the younger guys we seem to be pulling a lot of the older guys in too,” coach Todd McLellan said. “They need to be reminded there are some fundamentals and basics that are part of their success plan too."

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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