When The Hockey News editorial staff convened last summer to put together our annual Yearbook, there was no consensus when we were hashing out our collective pick to win the Stanley Cup this season. It was like any group of hockey observers, really. Some liked Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins; others picked the Bruins, the Kings or the Rangers.
We wound up settling on the Blues – and with St. Louis tied with Boston for the NHL’s best regular-season record right now, we’re feeling good as a group about that – but that team wasn’t my personal selection. I went with a franchise that not long ago was the darling of hockey pundits everywhere: the San Jose Sharks.
And you know what? I feel better about that pick today than I did when I first made it. It’s fair to question this group’s ability to get over the hump after so many years of disappointment, but it’s also entirely possible they finally take that next step this spring.
Like all teams, the Sharks have struggled at different points in the season. But in the NHL’s new playoff format that emphasizes divisional play, they’re better than solid: only the Ducks have a better record within the division (19-3-3) than San Jose (17-6-3) – and two of Anaheim’s three regulation time divisional losses came against the Sharks.
Meanwhile, as they proved in a 2-1 win Thursday, the Sharks also match up very well against the Kings – especially if star defenseman Drew Doughty is sidelined for any significant stretch of playoff time. Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic won’t win the Norris Trophy this season, but he’s been quietly spectacular for them and their overall blueline group makes goalie Antti Niemi’s job a lot easier. As well, San Jose is the NHL’s most dominant playoff team (53 percent efficiency), something that will take on more importance when the post-season begins.
But here’s why I’ve always liked the Sharks this year: an air of desperation, at least for stars such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, is beginning to loom large over the organization. That’s not to say their prospects for next season and beyond aren’t bright – with Logan Couture, Vlasic, Tomas Hertl and other youngsters, how could they not be? – but the understanding their most experienced veterans won’t get too many more prime opportunities to win a Cup is exactly the type of intangible that can push a team to new heights.
They’re not the sexy pick to win it all anymore and may never be so long as Thornton and Marleau are prominent faces of the group, but for a long time, nobody believed the Kings could evolve into champions, either.
They did. And so could the Sharks.