Who has more fun than the San Jose Sharks? Trick question – no one does. I've covered the NHL for a decade and in that time, I've seen the Sharks in their natural habitat quite a few times. And it's amazing to see how upbeat the team is and how they interact with each other.
Winning certainly helps, but the atmosphere around the squad seems to be a virtuous cycle, because the team leaders – such as Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski – make sure that the pressure never gets unbearable.
“A lot of it starts with Jumbo, Burnzie and Pavs," said defenseman Justin Braun. "They have a light attitude, but they come to play. It keeps the room light even when things aren’t going well. You’ve got those guys saying ‘it’s fine, things will turn around, stay with it.’ When those guys stay light, it helps the younger guys and the role players not grip their sticks so tight. Eventually it will turn around if you work hard.”
While Thornton is more of a playmaker on the ice, he can be a master of deflection in the room. After rookie Tomas Hertl capped off a four-goal game against the Rangers in 2013-14 with a between-the-legs dazzler, some old-schoolers thought the kid was being "disrespectful." That's when Thornton cut into the conversation by making some blue comments that put all the focus on him, sparing Hertl from more scrutiny.
That selflessness of the leaders extends to the more pressure-packed times as well.
“They’ve seen it all," Braun said. "They’ve been through good times and bad times and there’s no need to dwell on it. Last year in the playoffs you saw it: We lose a game on the road in Nashville, push Game 7 – you don’t see any panic in their faces. It really helps everyone else.”
Once again, the Sharks are looking dangerous in the West. The team has gone 6-3-1 in its past ten games and there doesn't appear to be any sort of hangover from last year – a fate sometimes suffered by squads that have lost the previous Stanley Cup. But witness a morning skate and you might find the team cheering every goal scored on a drill. Go in the dressing room and you might hear explosions of laughter from the back, the origins of which are a secret the players share between themselves.
For new recruits, it's a great atmosphere to come into, once you get settled.
“They’re a pretty tight group," said Mikkel Boedker, who came over from Colorado in the off-season. "A lot of guys have been here for a long time. It takes some time to get into it, but once you’re in there are a lot of smiles, a lot of fun. It’s just a good vibe and it helps us on the ice.”
The only question left, really, is how long the fun will last. While keystones such as Burns, Pavelski and Logan Couture are locked up for at least a couple more years each, Thornton and Sharks lifer Patrick Marleau are both unrestricted free agents this summer. Since both are 37 years old, the Sharks will have to be prudent in their decision-making, especially with a new generation of talents (Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Mirco Mueller, etc.) poking their heads up.
But in a surprisingly shallow Western Conference, there's no reason to doubt the Sharks could make one more last run with this current cohort. Last year's appearance in the final helped shake the "choker" label and even when the team was going through that grueling stretch, the sunny attitude didn't wither.
“Those are the times you relish," Marleau said. "You’ve got to have fun with it.”
I mean, they're the Sharks; what else are they gonna do?