SAN JOSE, Calif. - As the San Jose Sharks packed their bags, exchanged farewells and headed into the off-season, the mood around the team was a stark difference from a year ago.
General manager Doug Wilson talked then about needing to perform an "autopsy" after the Sharks lost in the first round to Anaheim after posting the best record in the league in the regular season.
That's not the case this year after the Sharks made it to the Western Conference final for the second time in franchise history before being swept by Chicago.
At his end-of-season media briefing Wednesday, Wilson said he wanted to conduct a review over the next few weeks before making the difficult decisions that face the franchise this off-season.
"We're proud of what this group has accomplished in the last year," Wilson said. "It has been a big step for this organization. We're certainly not satisfied with where we're at. But there are a lot of things that took place in that dressing room and as an organization that puts us in the position to understand what it takes and how we need to approach things."
That was the prevailing attitude in the locker-room, where most players considered the season a success even if the team ultimately fell short of its Stanley Cup goal. They hope they can use this post-season run as a stepping stone.
Coach Todd McLellan said this year's success came out of last year's disappointment, as players responded to the challenge with harder work and better play. He wants that same attitude again this off-season.
"We need to be careful that we're not walking around patting ourselves on the back," McLellan said. "We set some new standards for the organization and the players lived up to them. But ultimately we were beat by a very good Chicago team. I thought we could have played better and challenged them a little bit more.
"The season is a success as long as we do something with the growth next year. If we take a step backward, we can't look at this as being successful one bit."
Now the Sharks shift to off-season mode, where they will have some difficult roster decisions to make when free agency begins July 1.
San Jose has nine unrestricted free agents, with the most notable being leading goal scorer Patrick Marleau and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
Those are the only players left from the Sharks' other conference final appearance in 2004 and they have become staples in San Jose.
"Let's face it, the mission is not accomplished yet," Nabokov said. "I want to be a part of it. But it's not all up to me so we'll see."
Marleau, who joined the organization in 1997, said he loves the Bay Area and that it "feels like home." But after scoring a career-high 44 goals in the regular season, winning a gold medal at the Olympics and scoring six of San Jose's last eight goals in the post-season, he could have other suitors willing to pay even more than the Sharks can. He wouldn't tip his hand about what he wants this off-season.
Key role players like Scott Nichol, Manny Malhotra, Jed Ortmeyer and Niclas Wallin are also unrestricted free agents, while Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi will likely need raises in order to stay as restricted free agents.
With the restraints of the salary cap and a budget, Wilson said there's no way the Sharks will be able to keep all the free agents even if they wanted to. So it's a matter of prioritizing which ones to target.
"There's never a team that stays completely together," McLellan said. "A lot of time with the system the way it works in the NHL, there are significant changes to a lot of hockey clubs. We're in that situation now where we could face that. Would we like to keep this group intact? Of course we would. But common sense and the system says it's almost impossible."
The first big decision will likely come before July 1 when 40-year-old captain Rob Blake announces whether he will retire. Blake, who can be an unrestricted free agent, said he has a good idea of what he plans to do but wants to take some time before announcing his decision. San Jose would welcome him back if he does decide to play.
The Sharks will have plenty of key cogs back in Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe, Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and most likely Pavelski and Setoguchi.
The question remains who will join them.
"You really can't worry about it because it's out of your hands," Thornton said. "Doug has done a great job with it in the past. I assume he'll make this team competitive and hopefully have most of the guys back who we had here this year."