There are many parts to the cycle of a team – rebuild, contender, elite, wannabe, and declining. The San Jose Sharks are a team that definitely fall into the latter category. Perhaps people were fooled by the Sharks 7-0 start, but the team has one just 1 of their last 10 games and are in a free-fall in the Western Conference standings.
So who are the real Sharks? Probably somewhere in the middle. In my Western Conference predictions, I had the Sharks finishing 9th in the West, on the outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03 and only the second time since 1997-98. I felt that although Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau might not be over the hill, they are certainly past the peak of the mountain and are on the decline. They got off to a tremendous start, and propelled the Sharks to the 7-0 record, but since then have struggled to provide offense.
The Sharks are in a difficult salary cap position in that they have the 5th highest payroll in the NHL, and have almost $54 million of the $64.2M salary cap committed to just 13 players for next season. That leaves just $10M for 10 players on the roster. They have over $23M committed to 4 players (Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle) who will become unrestricted free agents after the 2013-14 season. Logan Couture will be a RFA after next season, but he is the only big name forward that will not be unrestricted.
The Sharks need to do something to free up salary and bring in some young talent, but what? Should they fall out of the playoff race, look for lots of Boyle, Thornton and Marleau trade rumours, but what teams that are contending will have the cap space to add $6 or $7M to their cap for an extra season? The Sharks could use the amnesty buyouts to clear some space in the off-season, but is the talent out there, or in the system to replace them? The Sharks have not drafted overly well and there are not a lot of top-end prospects in the system, so they cannot really afford to give up a Thornton or a Marleau for nothing. But keeping them just seems to be delaying the inevitable rebuild. They have a couple of younger building blocks in place in Couture (23) and Pavelski (28) along with Brent Burns (27) on the blue line. Surrounding them with younger talented players is essential but easier said than done in today’s environment.
Thornton and Marleau are both 33 and Boyle is 36, and their days of leading the charge are waning. They could be complementary pieces in another environment, but this group didn’t get the job done in their prime and there is no reason to believe that they will get it done now. Couture and Pavelski are the future for the Sharks, but they can’t take over the team while the Boyle/Thornton/Marleau group is still there. That leadership group couldn’t provide the means to get over the top in the playoffs and that shadow is still cast over the franchise.
Lots of question, with not many answers in San Jose.