The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 20-1
Key Additions: Erik Karlsson, D; Antti Suomela, C; Kyle Wood, D
Key Departures: Chris Tierney, C; Dylan DeMelo, D; Mikkel Boedker, RW; Jannik Hansen, RW; Joel Ward, RW; Eric Fehr, C; Paul Martin, D; Rudolfs Balcers, LW
For most of the past generation, the Sharks have been the NHL’s best team during the regular season. Their 635 wins since 2003-04 are 25 more than the next closest team (Detroit). That’s 15 years of dominance, except San Jose has no Stanley Cups to show for it. And witnessing it all has been GM Doug Wilson, who has done an admirable job restocking the pantry despite few high draft selections. But now he’s swinging for the fences.
Already, Wilson had completed some of his off-season homework when he re-signed deadline acquisition Evander Kane, who appeared to be a great fit in the Bay Area from jump. He put on a trading masterclass in the weeks leading up to the campaign, however, when he flipped a package that, at least now, amount to pennies on the dollar for all-world offensive defenseman Erik Karlsson, which could be a franchise altering decision. Karlsson on a blueline that already includes Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives San Jose three legitimate Norris Trophy contending rearguards, and vaults the Sharks blueline to among the NHL’s best.
Steady Martin Jones has been a calming stopper for 60-plus games in each of the past three years. He’s still just 28 in a league rife with goalies well into their 30s. That’s why there’s every belief he can evolve into a top-five goalie over the life of his six-year contract, which kicks in this season.
It’s wrong to speculate that the window is starting to close on San Jose’s spectacular run of remaining a Cup contender. That’s because they have so many good young forwards making an impact year over year. But you have to wonder when San Jose’s blueline will start showing its age, even with Karlsson in the mix.
Brent Burns had a big dip from his Norris Trophy-winning season in 2016-17. He’s been a shot-taking, minute-munch-machine for a long time. His 1,005 shots over the past three seasons are 323 more than the runner-up defenseman (Dougie Hamilton), and Burns is eighth in ice time during that stretch. What if his drop-off is a case of wearing down? He’s 33 and might start showing his age, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun turn 32 this season. Even Karlsson, 28, is not too far removed serious Achilles surgery and, as he put it, he had half his ankle bone removed the summer before the 2017-18 campaign.
The Sharks don’t have a lot of high-end defensemen in the system – offense-minded Ryan Merkley is the exception, but he’s just 18. San Jose is counting on Burns and Vlasic lasting a long time and banking on a new deal for Karlsson, who can become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
If the game continues to speed up like it has the past few years, the Sharks are susceptible to being a step behind, especially Thornton coming off a knee injury.
Do Kane and Karlsson put San Jose over the top in pursuit of the Cup?
There’s one goal and one goal only for the Sharks this season: the Stanley Cup. Adding Kane last season was the first step in what was apparently a two-step plan for Wilson. The second was bringing Karlsson aboard. That makes it abundantly clear, particularly with Karlsson not yet locked up, that the Sharks are all in on their current window. That’s all the more true when you consider future cap considerations in San Jose. Neither Joe Pavelski or Joe Thornton, who can still be an excellent contributor despite his age, have deals beyond this season. The former would be a big loss, and we can’t overlook how weak the Sharks could be down the middle once the latter moves along.
Offense was the biggest issue in San Jose in the early part of last season, though, and Kane and Karlsson will undoubtedly make the Sharks’ attack better from beginning to end. San Jose will also need Kane and Karlsson to make big contributions is Jones, who finished top 10 in Vezina Trophy voting in 2015-16 and 2016-17, can be anything more than an average keeper.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 2nd in the Pacific Division. It will likely be a photo finish in the Pacific, but the Sharks know the regular season isn’t what matters most. A veteran club is likely to take its foot off the gas at some point before ramping up when the home stretch begins. And once this team starts rolling, they might be impossible to stop.
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