The show is over, the lights are on and the stage is being dismantled at HP Pavilion now that the Sharks have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs once again.
For the ninth year in a row, the Sharks made the postseason but failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals. They played a different tune this year, however, which is why general manager Doug Wilson needs to bring back the band for one more tour.
At this point last year, the fins appeared to be floating belly-up. The St. Louis Blues had bounced them from the first round in five games and fans in the South Bay were calling for the end of the Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle era, saying they were too old, too slow and too soft to navigate the choppy waters of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But instead of blowing up the boat, Wilson tweaked the engine and this year the Sharks entered the postseason with a ship built to handle the rigors of playoff hockey. Had Joe Pavelski lifted the puck up a couple of inches higher late in the third period of Game 7 on Tuesday, the Sharks could still be in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Right now, the Sharks have everything a team needs to make a deep run in the playoffs: airtight defense, exceptional goaltending, strong forechecking, smart coaching and veteran leadership. The only question is whether those old legs will keep moving over the course of a full 82-game season next year.
The Sharks certainly benefited from playing a lockout-shortened schedule in 2013, so it’s fair to question whether there will be any gas left in the tank for the playoffs in 2014. But after this year’s run, it seems logical to give them one more try.
If Wilson stays put in the offseason, the 2013-14 season will likely be this group’s last push together. Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Pavelski and Logan Couture will all be free agents after next season’s conclusion and Couture is the only member of the group who is a restricted free agent, so big decisions will be made.
Wilson’s No. 1 priority this summer should be retaining Raffi Torres, who is an unrestricted free agent. The speedy left wing gives Todd McLellan’s club the intimidating presence, the mean streak it’s lacked in recent years. With Torres skating on a line with Couture and Marleau, the Sharks suddenly have the physicality to grind it out with a team like the Los Angeles Kings, and one can only wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been suspended for the last six games of this year’s series.
The Sharks could certainly trade Boyle or Marleau in the offseason if they’re determined to get younger. But Wilson managed to collect two second-round picks, a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft by dealing Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus at the trade deadline, so he can afford to hold on to the veterans for another year.
The Sharks probably had their best chance of bringing the Cup to Northern California this spring. It’s worth it to give this group an encore next winter.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.