They might just be hockey’s best franchise, featuring a little-lauded group of players who are so consistently good each and every regular season that they’re now pretty much taken for granted.
But there the San Jose Sharks are again this season, up at the top of the NHL standings with just three regulation losses after 27 games, and attempting yet again to prove they’re true contenders.
Just don’t ask if their window for winning a Stanley Cup might be closing.
“We don’t like that question,” said Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle, a 37-year-old veteran who has gone as underappreciated as his team at times. “Good teams find a way to keep the window open. We kind of get annoyed with it.”
That’s because they have been hearing it for a while.
Last season marked San Jose’s ninth straight in the playoffs, a string that would normally be lauded as a sign of incredible organizational strength in a league in which that kind of reliability is exceedingly rare.
But the Sharks team fans tend to remember is the one that won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09 and then was abruptly eliminated in six games in the first round of playoffs.
Only five Sharks remain from that team, but they’re all key cogs – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Boyle, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic – and as such, they’ve grown accustomed to being labeled as postseason failures who can’t win in the clutch.
The reality is that San Jose went deep in both 2010 and 2011, making it all the way to the Western Conference finals and outlasting 26 other teams in doing so.
Their last two regular seasons have been below standard after the five consecutive 100-plus point ones they had previously, but they’re back on that heady track again, with an 18-3-5 record going into Tuesday’s meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But Sharks coach Todd McLellan – whose first season was that fateful Presidents’ Trophy one – knows his club will never be judged on those kinds of results again.
“We don’t build our team to win in the regular season,” McLellan said. “We want a team to win in the playoffs, and we haven’t fully done that yet. Until we get to that point as an organization, there’s always going to be that question mark that’s over our heads.”
There’s plenty of evidence that this may just be the Sharks year, if not to win, then to at least again contend in a difficult Western Conference. They are second in the NHL in goals scored, fifth in goals against, fifth in team save percentage and first in shot differential, at a remarkable 8.2 per game.
They also remain a big team, but they’re speedier, with general manager Doug Wilson trying to allow his group to keep pace with what is an increasingly fast-paced league.
What’s particularly different about this San Jose team compared to those that flamed out in year’s past, however, is its depth, as Wilson and McLellan have integrated youngsters such as Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels as key offensive cogs without losing much firepower from their vets.
McLellan also felt comfortable enough in his blueline to convert Brent Burns to forward, a move that has paid off handsomely as he’s become yet another big-bodied winger with a point a game so far this season.
“We’re just so deep,” Thornton said. “Every line we throw out there can hurt you … In the past, there might not have been guys to kind of hurt you on the third and fourth lines. This year, guys can really bite you.”
There’s also the culture, something that has come in part due to McLellan importing some of what he learned in Detroit, where he was an assistant coach for three years. While the Sharks don’t have a Cup on their resume, that’s the expectation, something that’s immediately evident to newcomers when they land with the team.
Tyler Kennedy, who came to the Sharks in a June trade after six years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, sees a lot of similarities between the two organizations.
“It’s definitely comparable,” Kennedy said. “Everyone in here expects to come in every night and win. That’s how it was in Pittsburgh. They demanded a lot of us. And that’s the way it should be.
“Winning is a habit that goes through the year. That’s a good characteristic to have. You expect to win and you learn how to win in tough situations.”
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