The San Jose Sharks are still alive for a Pacific Division title thanks to a second consecutive regulation loss for the Anaheim Ducks Sunday, April 6. Avoiding the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs not only increases the chance of advancing, but helps in later rounds through a very difficult Western Conference.
However they get there, the Sharks are going to need more to reach the only goal that matters for a team with aging core players. Dan Boyle may be playing his last games for them this spring. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are bound to to start declining with their 35th birthdays coming up before next season, while Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart are already on the way down.
Boyle is a free agent that might not return, but already was a key player for the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Brad Stuart is on for one more year and already was a major supporting piece in for the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings. Either could contribute to a title team for a couple more years at least.
Marleau and Thornton are sticking around for three more years. Their best chance to win it is while they are inexplicably still in their primes. Whatever team survives this summer will not be the same.
Plain and simple, this is a deep team with too much talent on the NHL and developmental rosters to keep everyone with an expiring contract this summer. They can more easily keep the restricted free agents that also have more upside, but why keep the veterans in decline when there are young players to give a chance to grow?
Thus, the legacy of the current roster is on the line. San Jose has not even gotten within a win of the Stanley Cup finals, and that is unacceptable over eight years as an elite team even when there was always another that was actually better.
The Sharks have all the elements: Antti Niemi is a Stanley Cup champion and Vezina Trophy finalist in net, they have elite and deep forward lines and a very solid, deep blue line. Their coaches may be the best top-to-bottom staff in the NHL.
They also had the worst travel schedule of the 2013-14 NHL season, and will need to end some series early. The Pacific Division foes waiting for them will make that tough: Los Angeles is the likely first-round foe and Anaheim (without home-ice advantage) probably the second—or a team good enough to beat them.
The most likely foe left would be the very tough, physical St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference finals. If not, the team could be the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks or maybe even the fast Colorado Avalanche, both of whom have given San Jose some problems.
Even should the Sharks earn the Pacific Division title, they would almost certainly face a very tough Minnesota Wild. Either the Ducks—unlikely because they would go into the Stanley Cup playoffs struggling if they finish second place—or the Kings would be waiting in the second round.
Colorado is currently ahead in the Western Conference standings for potential home-ice advantage. Chicago is behind but St. Louis is two points from being out of reach.
There is no easy road through the Western Conference finals, and San Jose has never been successful that deep in the playoffs. Catching Anaheim for the Pacific Division title would make it easier, but either way there is enough talent to win each matchup. The key to getting a title is the extra recovery time from avoiding seven-game series.
In order to do that, the Sharks will need some players to step up their game—pictured are the three most likely to come through...
Antti Niemi has the pedigree to anchor the San Jose Sharks to the 2014 Stanley Cup. However, they have seen little of that goalie.
Niemi has 25 games with under a .900 save percentage in his last 55 starts. The Sharks will not even make it out of the Pacific Division with him playing poorly five out of every 11 games.
The 2013-14 NHL season has been a difficult one for Dan Boyle. He was run into the boards from behind and knocked unconscious in October. He returned too soon from the hit and has not been the same.
Could it be that his 37-plus years have finally caught up to his body? Could he still be suffering lingering effects of the hit that have robbed him of the time he had left?
It could be his recent games are a sign of recovery. Even if not, veterans can often catch lightning in a bottle late in their careers for one good run.
Boyle has the championship experience to make a big impact in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. He does not have to be the best player on the blue line for the San Jose Sharks to win it all, but they have a real chance if he can be their best offensive threat on the back end.
Raffi Torres had five points in five games after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the San Jose Sharks scored 22 goals while going 4-0-1. He has not been able to play any other games in the entire 2013-14 NHL season.
For the Sharks to make it through the Western Conference, they need secondary scoring. Torres can set the forwards to give the team four lines that can score and defend. His return and ability to avoid suspension while playing on the edge is crucial to giving them a Stanley Cup title.