From 2007-08 to 2010-11, the San Jose Sharks were among the NHL’s dominant clubs, topping the Pacific Division four times, finishing first in the Western Conference in consecutive seasons (’08-’09, ’09-’10), second overall in two others (’07-’08, ’10-11) and making back-to-back appearances (2010 and 2011) in the Western Conference Finals.
Last season, however, saw a significant decline in the Sharks’ fortunes, finishing seventh in the West and getting bounced from the conference quarterfinals in five games by the up-and-coming St. Louis Blues.
The Sharks struggles were partially due to the decline of stars like center Joe Thornton, left winger Patrick Marleau and defenseman Dan Boyle. Thornton and Marleau are 33, Boyle is 36, and time is catching up with them.
Offensively, the Sharks declined to 13th overall during the regular season, attributable to the corresponding drop in production of Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, left winger Ryane Clowe and right winger Martin Havlat, who missed 43 games to a knee injury.
Goaltender Antti Niemi, 29, had a solid regular season (34 wins, six shutouts), but tired down the stretch and was inconsistent against the Blues in the quarterfinals.
Defenseman Brent Burns, acquired from the Minnesota Wild in the summer of ’11, struggled to play up to expectations as Boyle’s heir apparent.
The Sharks also had the league’s second-worst penalty kill in the regular season, which didn’t improve in their short post-season appearance. The Blues manhandling of the Sharks was another reason for the latter’s early exit.
Overall, they appear a team in transition, with younger players like center Logan Couture (23), right winger Joe Pavelski (28) and Burns (27) poised to move into prominent roles.
This season could be an interesting one, as the Sharks try to return to their accustomed spot among the Conference’s top teams.
GM Doug Wilson was very busy in the summer of 2011, adding seven players, including Burns and Havlat. This summer, however, his only significant moves were bringing back defenseman Brad Stuart and signing gritty right winger Adam Burish.
It wasn’t from lack of effort on Wilson’s part, as the Sharks were linked to Rick Nash (prior to his trade from Columbus to the NY Rangers) and Shane Doan (before his return to the Phoenix Coyotes) in this summer’s rumor mill.
The Sharks GM was also rumored to have some interest in left winger Sergei Samsonov, Thornton’s former teammate during their years with the Boston Bruins.
Samsonov, who last played in the NHL in 2010-11, was attempting a comeback prior to the lockout. It remains to be seen, however, if Wilson’s rumored interest carries over post-lockout.
Should Wilson seek another scoring forward, Boyle could become a valuable trade chip.
Despite his age, Boyle still led the Sharks in ice time last season and had 48 points in 81 games. Though the veteran blueliner has two seasons remaining on his contract (at over $6.7 million per), Boyle now has a limited no-trade clause, in which he indicates eight teams he won’t accept being traded to.
Boyle had been suggested by some in the Philadelphia media as a potential replacement for Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger if he remains sidelined by post-concussion symptoms.
It was also rumored Wilson had offered Boyle to the Rangers for Marian Gaborik this spring but the deal feel through when Gaborik underwent off-season shoulder surgery.
With the addition of Stuart and the hope Burns will meet expectations this season, Boyle’s name could resurface in the rumor mill with more frequency, especially if the Sharks struggle to secure a playoff berth.
The Sharks payroll currently sits at just over $65.2 million. Shedding Boyle’s contract would put them under the anticipated $59-million cap.
It could also provide more flexibility for 2013-14, with over $54.3 million committed to 14 players, depending on what kind of return Wilson could get for the veteran defenseman and the contents of the new CBA.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.