Quite possibly the most interesting offseason in the history of the San Jose Sharks has begun.
That it started in the first week of May instead of sometime in June is part of the reason the Sharks will be an intriguing team to monitor in the coming days and weeks. The other is obviously the way their 2013-14 season ended.
The Sharks were a dominant team in the regular season, with 111 points, and by most advanced metrics were one of the top three or four teams in the NHL. They also took a 3-0 lead in their best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series.
Unfortunately for San Jose, the opponent was another one of the top teams in the League, and the Los Angeles Kings came all the way back to win the series in seven games. The final blow came Wednesday at SAP Center, when the Kings scored the final five goals in a 5-1 victory.
What went wrong for the Sharks? How did San Jose look so dominant then so meager? While fans and media might be calling for changes within the organization, deciding which parts actually need fixing is going to be a challenge.
The Sharks have to figure that out this offseason. Here are five reasons that process is starting now and not in June:
1. Core issues
The Sharks were incredible offensively in the first three games, then they weren't. After scoring 17 goals to earn that 3-0 series lead, San Jose scored five goals in the last four games.
None of the top forwards produced in the second half of the series. Joe Pavelski had one goal and no assists in the final four games. Among Sharks players in this series, he had the had the second-lowest percentage of shot attempts (Corsi) at even strength when the score was close (42.9 percent).
Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Logan Couture had no points in the last four games, and Patrick Marleau had no goals and two assists. Burns, Marleau and Thornton held their own but did not excel in puck possession. Couture's overall even-strength numbers look much better than his score close totals. His line did more when the games were out of hand.
Other players also failed to find the back of the net, but those five stars are the reason San Jose's offense can be so dominant. For three games they were, then for four games they were not.
2. Net pains
For the second consecutive year, Jonathan Quick won the goaltending matchup in this series. It certainly didn't start out that way, with Quick yielding 16 goals in three losses. He ended the series with a .914 save percentage.
Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was pulled in Games 4 and 5 and did not play in Game 6. He finished the series with an .884 save percentage. The Sharks and Kings are so evenly matched that a disparity like that can tip the balance in the series.
3. In a pickle
San Jose's defense is deep and moves the puck well. The Sharks lost their anchor on the blue line, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, for much of Game 5 and all of Games 6 and 7 because of head and lower-body injuries.
Vlasic was a premier defenseman this season and was a huge part of San Jose's ability to possess the puck and create transition chances. He's a rock in the defensive end, and given how much time the Kings like to spend in the other team's zone, not having Vlasic was damaging.
The Kings picked on Justin Braun and Brad Stuart a lot in the final two games. Dan Boyle and Scott Hannan are pending unrestricted free agents and San Jose may try to get younger and faster on defense, especially after their older defensemen were exposed.
4. Shooting blanks
The fourth line earned lots of praise for its work in the first couple of games, but the offensive contributions were a false flag. It was getting beaten soundly in puck possession but created a few goals. As the puck possession woes continued, the offense dried up and Los Angeles' depth took over.
Another unsustainable part of San Jose's success was the goals the Sharks were getting on odd-man rushes. A team like the Kings was eventually going to clean up their defensive deficiencies, and they did.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said the staff couldn't convince the players that these easy chances weren't going to keep coming. They probably believe that now, but it's too late.
5. Flip a coin
The Kings, by nearly every advanced metric, were one of the best teams in the NHL this season. This series was expected to be extremely tight, and after six games the goals were 21-21 and the shot attempts at even strength were almost even.
Losing four out of seven in a series that was essentially a coin flip should not be the catalyst for sweeping change. Losing four straight and "being on the wrong side of history" as Stuart put it, is a huge part of why people will want changes in San Jose.
Which thought process wins out could determine both the near-term and long-term future of a proud, successful franchise. If anyone thinks this could be a long-term blow for the Sharks, remember that the last team to blow a 3-0 series lead was the Boston Bruins in 2010, and they won the Stanley Cup the following season.
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