The pessimists’ view—the Sharks fan’s view, perhaps, by this point—is that after all this, after two fantastic months, San Jose merely found a brand new form of dickpunch. They’ve lost every other way before, in every other round, but not until 2016 did the Sharks and their fans discover what it’s like to make it all the way to the Final and leave empty-handed.
In a way, it’s crueler. Having all that success, running off those wins as you close in on the magic No. 16, finally shaking the ghosts of seasons past and starting to believe that things might actually be different this time. And it was different! This was no choke, just a respectable loss to a team without many flaws. Knowing that win or lose, there were no more series after this one, didn’t make the exit any less sudden. “It’s like you hit a brick wall,” Logan Couture said. Patrick Marleau went with “like being hit by a truck.”
“I tried as hard as I could,” Couture said. “I want to win. Unless you win, you can’t sit back and say it’s been a great season. People are going to doubt you until you win it all. That’s the way that this business with professional sports works, unfortunately. Twenty nine teams lose every year, only one wins. Until you win there’s always going to be people that doubt. That’s the way the world works.”
Then he paused.
“Summer starts tomorrow, right?” Couture said.
These Sharks were fun as hell to watch. Their power play, shut down by the Penguins, had been a thing of beauty. Joe Pavelski got his national due as a worthy captain and an irritating-as-hell presence in front of the net. Brent Burns did his thing. Joe Thornton is still one of the game’s prettiest passers. Martin Jones proved to be a legitimate starter and worth every bit of what it cost to get him.
The good news is, most of them will be back for at least one more year. There are only a few UFAs to deal with this summer, led by Nick Spaling (eh) and Roman Polak (bye).
The bad news in that continuity might be that the Sharks won’t have a ton of room to improve, at least not via free agency, and they’re only going to be a year older. They were the sixth-oldest team in the NHL this season, with the single oldest group of forwards, and Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Burns, Paul Martin, and Joel Ward are all on the wrong side of 30. None of them save Marleau have showed true signs of decline yet, but they’re not going to get any better.
That doesn’t preclude the possibility of an impact trade, as GM Doug Wilson proved by acquiring Martin Jones for a first-round pick last year. But if the Sharks are going to swim against the tide of aging, it’ll be on their younger scorers to keep improving. Tomas Hertl we knew about, but Joonas Donskoi was a real revelation in these playoffs. Same for Couture, still just 27, and if he can carry even some of this postseason hot streak over, he and Pavelski are pretty damned good offensive anchors to move forward with once Thornton and Marleau are gone.
It is time to start thinking about those two, former captains and faces of the franchise. They each have one more year on their deals (as does Brent Burns, who will be paid—the window for the Sharks as we know them is open for one more season); they are the two biggest cap hits this team has. Marleau is coming off his worst season as a pro; the end of his line is probably near. Thornton is still excellent, but it was only two years ago that he appeared ready to be shipped out of town; it’d be foolish for the Sharks not to consider life without him.
As Thornton so properly put it, “it sucks” to come so close, after so many years, and not be able to finish it. The ruthless math of hockey makes it probable, though not certain, that this was the best chance he and Marleau will ever have at a Cup. For all the pride the Sharks can and should take in being a great team that ran into a better one, there’s no satisfaction. “At the end of the day,” Pavelski said of the fans, “we wanted to give them more.”