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Inside The Cage: A Season of Transition

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Every team every NHL season has the same ultimate goal: Win the Stanley Cup.

The reality is 30 teams fall short and only one fulfills its dream of hoisting hockey's most treasured hardware.

And every team - even the champion - assesses where they are and adjust in an effort to move forward. Payroll, salary-cap restrictions, expiring contracts and inevitable roster turnover are all reasons for change.  

The Sharks had every intention of contending again in 2017-18. And, after reaching the postseason for the 13th time in 14 seasons, San Jose was focused on advancing to the point of taking that one final step that eluded the team in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

In the background, however, this was also very much a transition season for the Sharks. That's not to make an excuse for falling two rounds short. San Jose was undergoing a delicate process of folding in younger players to blend with prime-age and even more experienced veterans to keep the momentum of the franchise moving forward. 

And, in those terms, the process appears on solid footing.

"This was probably the hardest part of the transitional year because it relied on the young players taking advantage of the opportunity they were given," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "Almost to a man they stepped up and seized it. That's a credit to the leadership of this group, who set the environment, and the coaching staff."

Compare the 20 Sharks who dressed for Game 6 of the '16 Cup Final against Pittsburgh and Game 6 of their recent second-round ouster at the hands of Vegas and there were 10 new faces - exactly half the lineup. That's how fast things change in today's game.

Besides Tomas Hertl, who was injured late in '16, and new back-up goalie Aaron Dell, five fresh-faced skaters including Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen, Dylan DeMelo and Joakim Ryan were new to the lineup. The quintet ranged from 0-70 NHL games played before the season started. And they range in age from 21-25.

In addition, young vets including Chris Tierney, Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, Brenden Dillon - and even goalie Martin Jones to a certain extent - were challenged before the start of the season to take another step in their personal development. It's all about passing the baton, a younger core has to be ready to accept the mantel of winning. And it doesn't happen over night.

"All year they were growing their games as we all were," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "In the playoffs - to go on this little run - it was important for them and all of us. It was good to see what they brought and what they can do. Hopefully it can be a step in the right direction, keep improving and get over that hump."

The early season was a time for trial and error. Head coach Peter DeBoer balanced the needs of the organization to find who fits and who doesn't while competing on a night-to-night basis to remain in the hunt. San Jose was just 6-5 at the end of October as younger players were given an opportunity to make a difference.

"We knew when we started this a couple years ago this would be a challenging year for us," Wilson said. "Our coaches did a very good job. They were part of this journey and this plan."

In addition to his track record of success, DeBoer has in his first three years with San Jose displayed the ability to fold in new talent, to remain patient with the mistakes they're inevitably going to make and to provide support and positive reinforcement in hopes it will lead to success.

"As a coach you don't really know how it's going to come together," DeBoer said. "You hope the group is prepared to deal with the challenges and adversity and the opportunities they've been given in a year. Every year you get different buy-in to those things and I thought our buy-in this year was really good in all those areas."

San Jose was remarkably consistent from month-to-month. The Sharks followed October by going 7-3-2 in November, 7-4-2 in December, 6-4-4 in January and 8-5-1 in February. The difference-making month was March, which on paper was the biggest challenge. San Jose negotiated its busiest month by going 10-4-1 in 15 games.

That's also when all that experimenting with young players paid off despite the loss of franchise cornerstone Joe Thornton to injury.

"I'm proud of the guys for all the things that was thrown at them," DeBoer said. "I'm proud of the responses we got from the guys in the room - both veterans, their leadership, and the young guys with the steps they took. You still have a bad taste in your mouth. We all feel like we should still be playing, and we're disappointed we're not."

For all the changes and transition, San Jose reached the 100-point plateau for the first time in four seasons. Described as a team that's the sum of its parts, San Jose boasted 11 players with double-figure totals in goals while playing exclusively for the Sharks. It's 12 when counting Evander Kane's combined total of nine in San Jose and 20 he scored with Buffalo before the trade deadline. The only other time San Jose had as many as 12 double-figure goal-scorers was in 1993-94 when the NHL was more widen open than it is today.

Does that suggest the team exceeded expectations?

"I don't think we overachieved," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "It's difficult to look back on a season when it ends just a few days ago. It's still raw, the emotions are still there. But we can be proud as a player on the Sharks this year in what we did accomplish."

"We were a good team, and we knew we were a good team," Pavelski added. "There's some good teams that didn't make the playoffs. We'll be just as hungry next year. We'll have to be a good team again, and try to turn into a great team."

DeBoer's vision where the game is going was confirmed by Vegas' execution. Besides the emphasis on speed, a north-south attack and possessing a mobile defense, teams with four lines are going to be there in the end. The Golden Knights executed a similar game plan longer than the Sharks. 

"There is no right answer, there's no one template and it is a true grind every year to just get in the playoffs," DeBoer said. "To get to the final eight is an accomplishment. There are a lot of franchises that haven't been out of the first round in a long time or haven't made the playoffs in a long time."

"We didn't win so it's a disappointment," defenseman Brent Burns added. "I don't think people realize how hard it is to get there. But getting there's not good enough. … You lose in the Stanley Cup Final and it's still disappointing. … I don't know - 750 guys? - 25 get to win. It's obviously not very easy."

Teams evolve from one season to the next. Even this year's Stanley Cup champ will experience change. And while the Sharks successfully added new blood that should only get better with age, there will be more tweaks before the start of the next season.

"We think we have the players who fit with where the game is at and where it's going," Wilson said. "They're knocking on the door. It's hard to feel this way right now, but I'm almost excited for training camp for the competition."

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