Is San Jose’s Year of Hell Finally Over?

Shortly after the San Jose Sharks traded for goalie Martin Jones and signed defenseman Paul Martin, GM Doug Wilson met with the media and declared that the team's rebuild was over.

It only lasted a year, but what a year it was. Tumultuous internally and externally, frustrating, and confusing, the Sharks have emerged from their year of hell with a new goalie who may potentially be their starter for the next decade, a minute munching veteran defenseman to anchor Brent Burns, and a versatile tough-as-nails forward who can play anywhere in the top nine. Add a new coach on top of that and the emergence of a number of young prospects, and suddenly the future looks bright.

It's almost surreal now when you examine San Jose's year of hell, bookended by the infamous reverse sweep to the Los Angeles Kings and the acquisition of the Kings' top goaltending prospect. In between, there was a stripped captaincy, a stadium game loss, and a coach who appeared to defy his GM by playing veterans over rookies.

Strangely, time and a few shrewd moves may have been all this team needed. For three-fourths of last season, they showed that they were a playoff team. The wheels fell off for no reason in particular other than the team felt rudderless despite a wealth of forward talent. Shaky goaltending and a thin blueline didn't help, but this team shot itself in the skate rather than getting bulldozed by the competition.

Was the coaching message stagnant? It's certainly possible, and if you examine the way the Sharks played during their lulls, they appeared predictable and mentally soft on all ends. Part of that comes from coaching, and much of it is fixable.

Now things have changed, and even the most disgruntled fan — and there were quite a few of them, as judging by the drop in season ticket holders — has some reason for optimism. Promising forwards Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto underwent injury-plagued sophomore slumps (in Hertl's case, it was the previous season's injury leading to a long rehab). If they return to expectations, San Jose's forward depth will be immediately different.

However, the change to youth saw several bright lights last season. Chris Tierney showed versatility, poise, and talent in his second stint with the big club while Barclay Goodrow played as a serviceable grinder with good speed and Melker Karlsson played with enough edge to score plenty of dirty goals. Should they all progress rather than regress, San Jose suddenly has more forward depth than they've had in awhile — perhaps ever.

However, the biggest question mark comes in the crease. Martin Jones has a strong AHL pedigree, and in his limited NHL time, has put up strong numbers. Last season, Jones' stunning run even led to a minor goaltending controversy in Los Angeles. He still hasn't proved it at the NHL level, but Jones is at the point in his career where that's the only logical step for him; he's simply succeeded everywhere else.

Of the available goaltending group in the offseason (Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack, etc.), Jones was often the one to have the most upside due to his AHL performance and age. Now he's got a shot at the big time, and he's the biggest variable in the San Jose's quest for success.

During the Joe Thornton era, the San Jose Sharks were perennial contenders. Now that the so-called rebuild is over, are they elite once again? There's potential there, but many ifs need to be answered: if Martin Jones can be an effective started, if San Jose's young forwards improve with experience, if their veterans feel reinvigorated by new coach Peter Deboer, if the new UFA signings bring a clutch mentality and roster stability, this team can turn it around quickly — and as the post-lockout NHL has shown us, teams can rebound fast in a young man's game.

Of course, given San Jose's reputation, a solid regular season won't be good enough. The test, as always, starts with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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