On the surface, the San Jose Sharks do not seem like candidates for a rebuild. The headline on a Sports Illustrated recap of the week's big hockey stories included "youth served in San Jose" right behind the record restricted free agent (RFA) contract of P.K. Subban.
That story carried a photo of Nikolay Goldobin, one of many pictured San Jose prospects listed in order of their likelihood of having what amounts to a real rookie year (more than 27 games for the first time) during 2014-15 NHL season. The article referenced The Hockey News Saturday detailing why general manager Doug Wilson said this team may go from one of the oldest to one of the youngest.
Sports Illustrated had one paragraph covering the Sharks concluded with a suggestion that there had indeed been a rebuild. The Hockey News talked about the oddity of rebuilding coming off a 111-point 2013-14 NHL season, but never mentioned the word rebuild.
San Jose could easily start the 2014-15 NHL season with 18 of the same 20 players part of the fifth team in major North American sports history to choke a 3-0 playoff series lead. Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart were the only players that were significant contributors at any point last season to depart from the team that lost its fourth Stanley Cup playoff series in its last five.
That is not a rebuild, but the Sharks have pulled off a youth movement against all odds. Most of them were Wilson's own doing.
For years, he continued to put his stock in the core and locked them up before free agency by accepting no-trade clauses. He traded away draft picks and prospects to add a veteran to push San Jose from mere Stanley Cup contender to at least finalist, then he picked very late because of it without getting past 10 wins in any postseason.
In 2013, he had seen enough from the Sharks and decided to build for the future. When his core bought in before the Stanley Cup playoffs, he added low-cost complimentary pieces and the team had one of its best postseason runs (7-4).
Then he bought into them again in the winter of 2014. Once Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were under contract with no-movement clauses, any hopes Wilson had of a true rebuild were gone since neither seemed to be willing to waive it.
With fewer prospects, Wilson at least kept the draft picks he had amassed in his "refresh and reload" stage—many of which were higher selections because of San Jose's recent decline. The 2014 Stanley Cup playoff choke may have made him want to accelerate to a full rebuild, but he has at least finally achieved the 2013 goal.
In fact, Wilson has reloaded so well that the 2014-15 NHL season could see improvement despite more off-season losses than gains in talent. With full seasons from co-rookies of the year for the Sharks last season, Matt Nieto and especially Tomas Hertl can make up for Brent Burns sliding back to the blue line to likely fill Boyle's skates admirably.
Stuart was only the fifth-best player on the San Jose blue line in the 2013-14 NHL season outside of a strong stretch while Boyle was out. That fifth spot on the depth chart is not hurt much in turning to returning veterans Matt Irwin or even Scott Hannan.
The final blue-line role could be filled by one of several prospects: Mirco Mueller (19) and Taylor Doherty (22) seem ready to make their first NHL appearances, while Matt Tennyson (23) and Taylor Fedun (26) have only played four career games each.
Meanwhile, several forward prospects are pushing for more NHL ice time: Freddie Hamilton and Eriah Hayes have already played for the Sharks, while Tye McGinn and Michael Haley played elsewhere in the league. Goldobin was the first pick this summer and is also already in the running for a roster spot to start the 2014-15 NHL season.
Forwards will have more difficulty making San Jose's roster, making Goldobin unlikely to be in the NHL beyond the 10 games he can be kept without a full-season commitment. The other four players can be sent down to and called up from the AHL Worcester Sharks as needed throughout the season. Even with 14 veteran forwards on the roster, more than one of those four projected to start the 2014-15 NHL season in the AHL will likely be called up at some point thanks to injuries.
Including the two players eligible to juniors, nine Sharks with 122 total games of NHL experience and no more than 27 games in any season for any of them playing daily in two months. If more than one is ready to take a larger role, a deeper Stanley Cup run is possible. Either way, Wilson should be commended for having that much talent in spite of his own actions limiting his prospect pool.