A down year in 2014-15 meant the Sharks missed the post-season for the first time in a decade, but they’re looking to get right back to the playoffs in 2015-16 thanks to three key off-season acquisitions. In goal, former Los Angeles Kings backup Martin Jones will get the chance to show he can be a No. 1 in the NHL.
2014-15 Record: 40-33-9 (89 pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 4th, Pacific Division
What To Expect: San Jose’s playoff melt-down against the Kings in 2014 sent the franchise into a daze. A season later, the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Talk of a rebuild didn’t persist, though, as GM Doug Wilson aggressively added to his middling club. Middle-six right winger
Joel Ward, top-four D-man
Paul Martin, and talented-but-unproven netminder
Martin Jones are the notable additions. The roster is better on paper, but questions linger. Will echoes of the supposedly settled public rift between Wilson and
Joe Thornton affect the club? Can new coach Peter DeBoer inspire? And, perhaps most importantly, is Jones a No. 1? The Sharks will have trouble climbing out of bubble territory but look improved enough to tack on some points and have a sniff at the post-season.
Concerning is the decline of Thornton and
Patrick Marleau. Marleau fell to 19 goals. Thornton remains a top setup man but, at 36, a dropoff is imminent. It’s on the young forwards to pick up the slack.
Tomas Hertl needs to rebound after a sophomore slump, and
Chris Tierney, 21, can build off an impressive rookie year. Ward, 34, should chip in 15 to 20 goals. Thornton will again lead the dangerous power play, sixth-best last year. San Jose hopes Martin bolsters a defense that allowed the seventh-most goals in the NHL. He’ll log top minutes and improve the penalty kill, which was sixth-worst. DeBoer sees him as a natural fit alongside
Brent Burns. The hope is
Justin Braun can improve by playing with reliable
Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Pressure is enormous on Jones, who cost the Sharks a first-round pick. His numbers were outstanding with L.A., but the sample size is small, and he’s never had to be “the guy.” DeBoer says the team will have a captain. It will likely be
Joe Pavelski. San Jose’s peculiar leadership carousel saw the ‘C’ stripped from Marleau and then Thornton, who will both take the ice with the newest captain. How the Sharks label their leadership could affect morale, but they’ll still sit on the playoff bubble.
Best-Case Scenario: Wilson made it clear he wasn’t interested in a rebuild for the Sharks with his off-season acquisitions of Ward, Martin and Jones, and now it’s up to his restructured squad to make good on Wilson’s off-season moves. After missing the post-season for the first time in more than a decade in 2014-15, the Sharks don’t need to be Stanley Cup contenders quite yet — just getting back to the playoffs will be a great improvement after this past season’s let down.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Sharks’ run of 10-straight playoff appearances was snapped in 2014-15 and the hope in San Jose has to be that 2014-15’s result isn’t the start of a post-season drought. Some expected Wilson to get rid of aging talent in favor of speeding up a rebuild, but instead he went out and tried to bolster his lineup. If that backfires, it could be hard for the Sharks to get the same value for veterans Marleau and Thornton that they could have at the 2015 trade deadline.
Who To Watch: San Jose’s season could hinge on the play of Jones. The Sharks chose to walk away from
Antti Niemi and are giving Jones, the former Kings backup, a shot at becoming true No. 1 netminder ahead of
Alex Stalock and
Troy Grosenick. It could be a risky proposition, though. In 2014-15, Jones was one of 61 netminders to play at least 600 minutes at 5-on-5. His even strength save percentage ranked 42nd at .916. Other goaltenders in Jones’ statistical vicinity included
Kari Lehtonen and
Cam Ward. The full workload will be a huge test for Jones, but if he’s equal to the task, the Sharks could surprise some people in 2015-16.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The numbers still think the Sharks are an elite team. And not just that, the best team in hockey. Trust me, I was surprised too. But we’ve been fooled by San Jose teams that looked good on paper way too many times in the past. They’re the boy who cried wolf of hockey teams. Last season was a huge disappointment for the Sharks, but this year’s team should be different. For starters, depth shouldn’t be an issue as new off-season additions should change the equation for them. In San Jose it’s always been about those top-end guys, but their age means surrounding them with talent will be vital to their success. The lineup above looks like they’ve done just that with key contributors throughout the lineup that can ease the load from the top guys. The core is still the driving force for this team and they can be among the league’s best groups, but they’re not what they used to be.
During their peak, the six contributed 20 WAR combined, but that dropped to 14 last season. Even the latter is still good considering the average for an entire team is around 11, but it’s concerning given the average age of San Jose’s core is over 30. (San Jose likely loses two wins this season from this group’s aging alone). What that means is that it’s likely a sign of things to come rather than a blip on the radar. At 20 WAR, San Jose could cruise to the playoffs on the backs of their core group. The lower that gets, the higher the margin of error is for the team, making depth guys critical to their success. This year that shouldn’t be a problem for them and if the core group doesn’t slip too much there’s no question they could still be elite. But again, we’ve heard this team yell wolf too many times before. It’s time for the Sharks to show some teeth.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.