Sharks ready for one last Cup chance (Trending Topics)

NHL

The long-term outlook for the San Jose Sharks is not great.

Almost everyone on the team who makes any sort of meaningful impact is out of their prime already. They only have two forwards signed beyond 2018-19. And the guys they have signed beyond that are mostly on the wrong side of 30.

Moreover, their success in recent years and some notable draft misses have combined to thin out their prospect pool to a shocking extent. It is, in fact, one of the worst in the league.

But two things are probably true for the Sharks: As long as they have Joe Thornton and as long as Brent Burns can still move effectively, they’re going to at least make their division interesting.

Thornton, at 38, is on a one-year deal and probably pretty close to reaching the end of the road on a guaranteed first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career. Last year, he had the worst year of his career since he was a teenager — so that’s an ebb not seen in almost 20 years. And yet, he put up 50 points (fourth on the team), got kinda-sorta first-line minutes and still came in with a borderline-elite possession number. This against other teams’ best defensive players every night. And again, he’s 38.

Granted, he benefits from playing with a solid player like Joe Pavelski (they spent just 76 minutes apart at 5-on-5 last season) as well as Burns, but it shouldn’t surprise you to find he made just about everyone he played with better. He’s Joe Thornton.

It’s hard to have particularly high hopes for the Sharks this season, just on paper. It’s not that they’re bad — this is largely the roster that went to a Cup Final just two springs ago — it’s that the rest of the Pacific Division is catching up to them. Edmonton and Calgary have markedly improved since that time, for instance, and the Ducks are as pesky and talented as ever.

Meanwhile, Thornton’s pushing 40, Brent Burns is already 32 (and beginning the first season of an eight-year contract), Pavelski’s 33, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are both 30. Even most of the “young” guys on the roster, with the exception of Tomas Hertl, are in the 26-to-28 range, which means “just out of their primes.”

Perhaps more problematic for Peter DeBoer this year is that this is certainly not a team built to keep up with a host of divisional rivals whose games are predicated on speed. Looking at this roster, do you see any guys for whom “fleet of foot” is a good descriptor?

One thing to keep in mind here is that, when the Sharks aren’t playing quite as well as they did last year, people will talk about the loss of Patrick Marleau. He’s a guy who, I think, we’re going to collectively realize in December or so that he was scoring a lot of goals through Thornton, Pavelski, Couture, and Burns. That’s not a knock on Marleau, necessarily, but when you have four talents like that, it’s going to make you look good. (As an aside, there’s also plenty of top-end talent in Toronto, so maybe let’s not pencil him in for a career-worst season quite yet.)

I’m not sure the Sharks replaced Marleau. They’d probably say the trade for Jannik Hansen last season was the cover for him, and maybe a full year getting power play time with the Sharks’ remaining Big Four makes him look like a good add, but I’m a little dubious that he can be a 45-point guy or so, mainly because he doesn’t seem capable of staying healthy the past two years. Now that he’s 30-plus, that’s less likely, but then again you never know with these things.

The issue for the Sharks isn’t the top-six and whether Hansen can produce, though. Their bottom-six is far more worrisome. There was a very clear division last season in this team’s scoring ability. Everyone in the top five was north of 46 points. No one else even hit 30. So when you’re looking at potential outputs from guys like Joel Ward and Mikkel Boedkker of, say, 9-12 goals each, you’re asking the big guns to really carry the water for you.

Between them, the Sharks’ top power play unit last year scored 117 goals last season (Thornton netted just seven, but he’s never been a shooter). The rest of the team combined has 102. And this team did not have a good power play last year, either, with the Big Five scoring 34 of their 41 power play goals. And no meaningful help is coming from any potential rookies, and the only real potential for an increase in goalscoring comes from an affirmative answer to the “Can Hertl play the full 82?” question.

Of course, this team nearly hit 100 points last year, and if the offense didn’t get them there, that means the defense did. And you have to say that once again, this is a group that runs pretty solid in spots Nos. 1 to 6. Maybe you have concerns about Paul Martin, who’s 36 and at some point has to run out of juice as Burns’s normal partner. But other than that, this is a team that could defense-first its way to a meaningful competition for the playoffs.

That is, if Martin Jones can hold it together. His first year in San Jose, he was a .918 goalie in 65 games, a little above league average. This past season, he was only .912 in the same number of appearances, which was a little below the average (sunk by a quite-bad save percentage at 5-on-5 specifically). If he can get back to the former number, rather than hovering around the latter, this is a club with a chance to pull into a wild card spot.

But again, this is a team that’s just running out of highway before a cliff. If they don’t make the playoffs this year, it’s probably time to do as much as humanly possible to blow it up. The structure of the contracts they’ve set up here could allow them to do that, which is a nice jumping-off point, but nonetheless, hard decisions will have to be made.

It’s not a surprise, I guess, that the team’s fortunes probably ride on the best player in franchise history (Thornton) and goaltending, but by now, surprises aren’t really the point. It’d be nice to see Thornton take one last run here, but he’ll have to carry an awful heavy load to do it.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.