Monday, August 24, 2015
Are the Sharks Poised to Rebound?
During the 2014-15 NHL season, the San Jose Sharks were a really good story.
Not a good story as in heartwarming or successful, but a good story the same way reality TV or trashy celebrities make for a good story.
This wasn't your typical non-playoff team. Starting off with the reverse-sweep loss to the Los Angeles Kings, there were internal conflicts, external conflicts, a clear coach-GM disconnect, a failure on the biggest regular season stage possible, and a complete collapse for a month leading to the least successful roster in over a decade.
The fanbase didn't take it kindly. Despite a sold-out Stadium Series game, attendance dwindled down the stretch, and the front office had to beg season ticket holders to return. Many, in fact, did not.
Despite all the tabloid-ready turmoil, the team is prepared to knuckle down for the opening of 2015 training camp. And somehow, all of the shenanigans are largely in the rearview. Against all odds, there's a sense of optimism, starting with new coach Peter Deboer all the way down to new goalie (and ex-King) Martin Jones.
GM Doug Wilson had called the 2014-15 campaign a rebuilding year, and while much of the fanbase wondered just how you could have a rebuild when over-the-hill veterans like Scott Hannan and John Scott took up roster spots, the team actually managed to get younger by large margins. In fact, a large portion of the forward group was made up of freshman or sophomore players: Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Melker Karlsson, Chris Tierney, and Barclay Goodrow. That's nearly half the forward group — and one of the biggest reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season.
Both Hertl and Nieto hit sophomore slumps, as injuries and some bad puck luck wound up shaking their respective confidence. A solid bounce-back season by both will shore up much of the missing forward depth. Chris Tierney showed the potential of being a smart, hard-working middle-six forward with potential to be an upper-tier utility forward.
A 40-point campaign with time on both special teams units isn't unreasonable. Karlsson probably overachieved a bit, but still should be capable of 10-15 goals; more importantly, he demonstrated a willingness to constantly drive the net and never give up on the play — something that the team lacked from time to time. Goodrow will probably never be more than a bottom-six player, but his speed and tenacity are something you want out of a fourth-line grinder. In fact, looking at teams that won the Stanley Cup over the past few seasons, those are the types of players that make a difference by eating up minutes while earning the coach's trust.
Should these young forwards live up to expectations, the Sharks will have much more reliable depth. This will take the load off of the established veterans and allow DeBoer to work with spreading the talent around.
Of course, the other big question is in net. Martin Jones has put up spectacular numbers wherever he's played, strong enough that for a short time he even created a minor goaltending controversy in L.A. At the very least, he'd worked his way up through the Kings' system and demonstrated enough potential that he was a valuable trade asset.
Jones' performance will come down to a combination of both his own skill-set and the defense around him. The forward group should be markedly better at helping out, both by the young players getting another season under their belt and the addition of a strong defensive forward like Joel Ward. The blueline should also be tighter, as Paul Martin was signed essentially to be the veteran anchor to roaming Brent Burns. This should make for a stronger defensive foundation, so Jones won't be hung out to dry as much as Antii Niemi was the previous season.
Jones is still an unknown, but if he handles the pressure of a starter as well as he has in the other stops of his career, he should be — at the very least — consistently solid, if not spectacular. Perhaps that's all the team will need to have a bounce-back year.
The sports world loves a good story, and last season's San Jose Sharks made for entertaining fodder, but for all the wrong reasons. A comeback by a franchise known for choking will add more drama. The pieces are in place to make it happen, though this of course ultimately comes down to execution. Still, there's optimism in the air, and considering the disaster of the 2014-15 season, that's a victory in itself.