At the outset of the Sharks opening-round series against the Kings, to a man, San Jose maintained a quiet confidence based around one concept: depth.
Depth, a notion that’s easy to define, but hard to measure, had the Sharks believing that they could reverse their postseason curse against the Kings. That after years of relying heavily on Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and company, that despite this San Jose team not starting the playoffs with home-ice advantage as in past years, that these Sharks had too many players capable of inflicting damage for the Kings to defend.
In the dramatic, tense and oh so very sweet series-clinching win in Game 5, this sentiment proved to be prophetic.
Two goals from rookie Joonas Donskoi, including the game-winner that broke a 3-3 tie in the third period; another from second-year center Chris Tierney. The first career playoff goal of Melker Karlsson and another by 23-year-old Matt Nieto.
“It was our depth that came through in the end,” Logan Couture said moments after the series-clinching win. “It’s something that we were preaching.”
Was this win cathartic for the veteran core, centered around Couture and Thornton and Marleau, that has received its share of criticism in the past? You bet.
But that the series-clinching victory was largely facilitated by the Sharks next generation – three of the five goal scorers weren’t on the 2014 team – proves that this team’s belief that depth would change its fate after several near-misses in past playoffs was spot on.
It also begs the question: If depth was what was needed for the Sharks to vanquish the Kings, why didn’t they just go out and get some of this depth stuff years ago?
Well, if it were that easy, everybody would do it.
In a salary cap league, where perennial top finishers like the Sharks aren’t rewarded with high draft picks, finding quality depth is much easier said than done.
Melker Karlsson, for example, was never drafted and only the eighth leading scorer on his Swedish club team when the Sharks scouting staff found him playing in a small town just south of the Arctic Circle.
Joonas Donskoi was a 24-year-old who had been toiling in the Finnish league for five years, before some clutch postseason scoring last spring, similar to what he displayed in Game 5, convinced the Sharks to give him a chance in North America.
“I sure didn’t envision him here when I saw him in rookie camp,” head coach Peter DeBoer said of Donskoi. “I didn’t know a lot about him as a player. All I knew is he had had a great year in the Finnish Elite League. I think an NHL coach says, automatically, that he’ll help our American League team this year, and then we’ll see how he does. He just kept knocking on the door and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Another of Game 5’s goal scorers, Matt Nieto, also wouldn’t take no for an answer when he famously took up hockey in his native Long Beach at the local YMCA. Same for Joe Pavelski, who now a star, was once the 205th player taken in the 2003 NHL Draft.
None of the 204 players taken ahead of him scored more than Pavelski’s 38 goals this season, despite that draft class being considered the most successful in league history.
The lengths that the Sharks staff has gone to bring this team back to prominence might best be represented by two stats: 1) how much of the scoring has come from young players and 2) how unheralded many of these players were when they entered the organization.
These stats, official as of the beginning of play on April 25, show that the Sharks have had an admirable, but not league-leading, level of production from their young players.
But here’s where it gets impressive.
What ‘these’ numbers show is that yes, a few other teams have a little more production from young players than the Sharks have. But where the Panthers, Islanders and Lightning, among others, have benefited from a handful of dead last seasons and lottery picks, nobody’s done better than the Sharks at digging extra deep to find the players they need to stay competitive.
“There aren’t many things that the guys in that room haven’t been a part of or seen, or been in that situation before,” DeBoer said. “When you look at the veterans in that room…. they’ve won a lot of games.”
Although in this case, as much as the victory over Los Angeles provided redemption for San Jose’s veterans, using some new blood to end the bad blood didn’t hurt the cause.