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New core seeks new identity for Sharks

Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, both in their mid-20s, were invited to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, both in their mid-20s, were invited to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

How many times have you heard this before: the San Jose Sharks are different this time.

No. Seriously. For real.

For most of its life, the Sharks franchise has put a remarkably consistent team on the ice. It hasn’t been the “good” kind of consistency when it comes to post-season hockey, but they’ve put themselves in a position to succeed. In 21 years of existence, San Jose has missed the playoffs five times – four of which came in its first six years in the NHL. And they’ve only been eliminated in Round 1 five of 16 times.

They became a good team with Patrick Marleau as the drafted leader, complemented with veterans such as Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse and Teemu Selanne. They became a consistently dangerous team after they made their first huge splash by adding Joe Thornton part way through the 2005-06 season. And when Dan Boyle was acquired to star on the back end, San Jose won a Presidents’ Trophy and reeled off three division titles in a row. They had four (count ‘em, FOUR) players good enough to crack Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics. They seemed poised to push over the playoff hump as the first decade of the 21st century came to an end.

But they never won.

They’re included in a notorious group of teams that should, but never did, have it all come together: the star-studded Ottawa Senators lineups of the ‘00s, the wrong-place, wrong-time Washington Capitals of the mid-‘80s or 2000s, or a long line of Philadelphia Flyers teams that just didn’t have a good enough goalie.

The Sharks don’t inspire confidence – they inspire apprehension. They’ve gone from popular Stanley Cup pick, to a team that probably gets pointed out as a league favorite as often as the Columbus Blue Jackets, even though their regular season performance hasn’t changed all that much.

Won’t get fooled again.

Since they had their core in place, anytime you wanted to convince yourself some new destiny was coming for the Sharks, you’d do it by looking at their depth lines and comment on the effectiveness of a Scott Nichol, Manny Malhotra and the like. Or you’d look at the promising youth coming along. But this was mostly peripheral stuff.

And that’s what’s so different about trying to convince yourself this Sharks team is actually different from all those other ones that crushed your pre-season picks: the core is turning over.

“I think our game has evolved into a quicker game,” Sharks assistant coach Jay Woodcroft said earlier this year. “We’ve gotten results. I’d say two big factors to our team having any kind of success are the play of the goaltender Antti Niemi, who’s been outstanding, and the emergence of Logan Couture as a front-line, big-time, real-deal player.”

Couture, Niemi, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have emerged as the next core of this team. Pavelski and Couture both averaged more playoff ice time than Thornton and are the best goal-scoring options on the team. Vlasic consistently logs well north of 20:00 a night, while Burns slots in effectively anywhere and Niemi quietly plays at Vezina caliber. These guys aren’t inexperienced kids – they’re proven pros more ready to assume control over this roster each year.

And the Sharks are coming to a crossroads. The three remaining Team Canada reps from 2010 are all up for contract renewal after this coming season and with the youngest of them at 34 years old, it’s becoming less palatable to hand out $6.5-7 million contracts to what will be declining assets – especially since the four skaters in the new core are all signed through at least the next four years at smaller cap hits. It’s unlikely the Sharks will let all three veterans walk, though it wouldn’t be shocking to see one or two leave, perhaps via trade. Marleau was stripped of his long-time captaincy four years ago and Boyle was mentioned in trade rumors frequently last season. San Jose is prepared to move into a new era.

They’ve come so close: back-to-back conference final appearances in 2010 and 2011 and a crushing, frustrating, seven-game second round loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Kings this past spring. You can look at that and call the Sharks a group of groomed losers, or you can observe the miniscule difference between celebrated champion and historical footnote.  

It’s conceivable the Sharks could have two reps on Team Canada in Sochi who weren’t on the 2010 team. Couture and Vlasic will be the faces at forward and defense for San Jose in short order, whether proven by a Team Canada nod, or through natural selection on the NHL roster.

None of this is likely to alter your outlook on the Sharks, or keep you from scoffing at the notion they’re capable of anything other than crippling letdowns.

But there’s a sea change blowing through this San Jose roster, on and off the ice.

For real this time.

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Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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