The San Jose Sharks have made the playoffs in 11 of the past 12 seasons. Over that span they have frequently been one of the top teams in the league, but have failed to win the Stanley Cup.
This lack of deep playoff success is why many Sharks fans are pessimistic going into each playoff run. However, every season is different, and the 2015-16 Sharks roster is much more well rounded than arguably any previous iteration. Is it the best roster ever in franchise history? Let’s take a look.
After entering the league in 1991, the Sharks had some decent underdog teams in the 90’s and early 00’s. However, no Sharks team from their inception through the 2006-07 season had enough fire power to even belong in this conversation.
The only past Sharks teams in consideration for best roster ever are 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2012-13. Let’s compare each team with the current roster, shall we?
Outside of the one great season from Sandis Ozolinsh in 1993-94, the Sharks from 1991-2007 simply did not have the elite, puck-moving defenseman on the back end needed to win the Stanley Cup. However, at the trade deadline in 2008, the Sharks acquired said defenseman in Brian Campbell.
Immediately upon his arrival, the Sharks went on a ridiculous hot streak. San Jose lost their final game before the trade, but then immediately went 16-0-2 over their next 18 games down the stretch. Campbell was a driving force, scoring at exactly a point-per-game rate over those 18 games including one of the slickest goals in franchise history.
Soupy would leave during the offseason as a free agent, but it is this writer’s opinion that Sharks fans should not boo Campbell like they have in the years since. The current Florida Panthers defenseman was great for the Sharks during the regular season and a key contributor during the 2008 playoffs (seven points in 13 games). Choosing to sign elsewhere in the offseason shouldn’t make fans hate him. That’s a rant for another day.
As for the Sharks overall in 2007-08, their defense with Campbell was terrific. Campbell, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Craig Rivet, Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Carle and Douglas Murray provided a solid defensive core. The forwards and goaltending though had numerous cracks.
Joe Thornton was amazing as per usual with 96 points. Unfortunately the next highest scorer was Milan Michalek with just 55. Jonathan Cheechoo was in the midst of his sharp decline. He posted just 37 points in 2007-08 after 69 the previous year and 93 the year before that. Jeremy Roenick was an awesome story in 2008 as a depth scorer at the tail end of his career, but his presence wasn’t quite enough to carry the team’s depth scoring.
While he was decent in the playoffs, Patrick Marleau’s regular season in 2007-08 was the worst of his career at the time. Marleau finished with just 48 points and a minus-19 rating after scoring 86 and 78 points the previous two seasons. Youngsters Torrey Mitchell and Joe Pavelski added some value, but there simply were too many holes in the forward group to make a deep run.
Furthermore, the Sharks extremely overworked Evgeni Nabokov during the regular season. Then head coach Ron Wilson started Nabokov in an absurd 77 games. Nabby was a great goalie for a long time, but he was approaching the end of his career, and a .910 save percentage did not justify starting him for that many games. While Nabokov did have two crazy saves in the playoffs that year, his overall percentage was just .907 as the Sharks were bounced in the second round against Dallas.
One could argue the 2007-08 Sharks had a slightly deeper/stronger blue line than the current Sharks squad here in 2016, although that is debateable. As per forwards, the late 00’s were the years where if you shut down Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, you easily beat the Sharks. Forward wise, this year’s Sharks are better able to roll four forward lines. Plus, the combination of James Reimer and Martin Jones in net are far better than Nabokov in 2008. Jones currently sports a .919 and Reimer a .920. Between 2007-08 and 2015-16, it’s no contest. The latter clearly features a better overall roster.
Ahh, the infamous President's Trophy winning team. Thornton was typical Thornton, Marleau had a bounce back year, Devin Setoguchi jumped onto the scene and both Pavelski and Ryane Clowe established themselves as top-six players. This team had arguably the best top six of any team in the league that year with lines of Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi and Michalek-Pavelski-Clowe.
Combine those lines with a terrific blue line featuring Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich, Rob Blake, Vlasic, Murray and Ehrhoff. This defensive core was certainly the best San Jose has ever had. With an elite blue line and fantastic top-six scoring lines, it is no surprise why this team was able to finish with the best regular season in hockey.
This team was built for the regular season. Unfortunately the playoffs are where the importance of depth scoring and goaltending rises immensely. San Jose simply didn’t have anywhere close to enough of either one. Unlike the previous year, Roenick was far less effective as he battled through multiple injuries. Cheechoo was yet again even worse than the year before, and veteran Mike Grier was slowing down as well.
Nabokov again struggled between the pipes. During the regular season he posted a respectable .910 save percentage, but he was downright miserable in the first round loss to the Ducks, with an .890 mark.
This comparison is a bit closer in that the 2009 blue line and top-six forwards were better than what San Jose currently is running in 2016. However, they weren’t better by nearly the same margin that this year's bottom-six forwards and goaltenders are better than their 2009 versions. San Jose’s current bottom-six group of Tommy Wingels, Marleau, Melker Karlsson, Chris Tierney, Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling is far better than the 2009 group headlined by Roenick, Grier and Cheechoo. Plus as was the case with 2008, Reimer and Jones are far better than the 2009 Nabokov. These two rosters are closer, but I still give the edge to the 2016 team.
Following up three-straight second-round exits with a first-round exit in 2009 meant the Sharks wanted to make a big shake up. In the offseason the Sharks traded away fan favorites Cheechoo and Michalek for star winger Dany Heatley.
That same offseason Christian Ehrhoff was also traded essentially as a salary dump because he was coming off a career year 42 points in 2009. San Jose sent him to Vancouver for two remedial prospects that weren’t expected and didn’t go on to make any impact with the Sharks. Older guys like Roenick and Grier were gone as well as the Sharks were significantly changed at the forward position.
Heatley, Thornton and Marleau were amazing together as a line and the Sharks up front had three strong lines going into the postseason. Behind the top line, San Jose had a second unit of Clowe, Pavelski and Setoguchi, who were big time contributors in the first two rounds against Colorado and Detroit.
After the top-two lines was an underrated third line centered by the surprisingly solid Manny Malhotra. Signed after a pro-tryout contract in training camp to a one-year deal, Malhotra was a defensive beast and added 14 goals and 33 points offensively. On his wings were Torrey Mitchell and a baby-faced Logan Couture, who played just 25 games in what would have been considered his rookie season had he played just one more game.
Defensively, Boyle was paired with Murray while Blake remained with Vlasic. The third pair was a mixed bag. Jason Demers was an offensive force as a rookie, but struggled defensively. Veteran stay-at-home types Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin were also rather average.
Although solid, this blue line wasn't nearly as strong as the year prior. Not only was Ehrhoff gone, but Blake looked like he had aged five years in one offseason. Blake scored 15 fewer points in his second season with the Sharks and in the conference final against Chicago he looked like a pylon trying to defend the likes of Patrick Kane and others.
As for goaltending, Nabokov had a great regular season, the best of his career at .922, but again he struggled in the playoffs with just a .907.
Comparing this team with the current Sharks is again close. The forward lines are very comparable, including 2010’s underrated fourth line of Jamie McGinn, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer. They combined for pretty similar production to that of 2016’s most frequent fourth line Dainius Zubrus, Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson. Different types of players but similar impact. The slight edge goes to to the 2010 forwards. As for the blue lines, with Blake struggling in 2010, the slight edge for me goes to the 2016 group.
The current top four with Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brent Burns and Paul Martin is better, and the third pairs are basically a wash. Goaltending wise, same as the previous two comparisons. Reimer and Jones are better than Nabokov. The math is simple, 2010 slightly better forwards, 2016 has slightly better blue line and better goaltending. Still going with the current Sharks in this comparison.
One of my favorite seasons as the Sharks were incredibly deep going into the postseason with Thornton, Couture and Pavelski all centering different lines. The top three forward combinations of Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi, Clowe-Couture-Heatley, Mitchell-Pavelski-Wellwood were an absolute nightmare for opposing teams to match up against.
Defensively the Sharks were much better than in 2010. A much younger and more effective Ian White took over Blake’s spot next to Vlasic. Despite a decrease in points, Demers had a much better season defensively in his sophomore campaign. Boyle and Murray were again a terrific top pair. If Demers doesn’t suffer an injury that forced him to miss the entire conference final against Vancouver, that series might have gone differently for the Sharks.
With three really good lines and three solid defense pairs, there is a strong case to be had that this was the best roster in franchise history. Even though the current Sharks are rolling four lines, you have to give the edge to the 2011 forwards by a significant margin. Defensively, the blue lines are pretty comparable. The top four for each iteration is pretty similar. Demers on the third pair was far better than the Sharks current third pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak, so slight edge goes to 2011 defense.
Call me optimistic and living in the now, but even though the forwards and defense of 2011 were better than the 2016 versions, I still think the 2016 team is slightly better overall. The reason is goaltending. Antti Niemi had a terrific regular season in his first year in teal in 2010-11 with a .920 save percentage, but he was awful in the playoffs with an .896. The combination of Jones and Reimer is far, far superior to Niemi and Antero Niittymaki in 2011. If we are to assign, a max of 20 points to forwards, defense and goaltending, this is how I would compare these two teams.
2011: Forwards: 20 Defense: 17 Goaltending: 12
2016: Forwards: 17 Defense: 16 Goaltending: 17
Pretty sure I don’t need to do the math for you, but the 2011 team adds up to 49, whereas the 2016 team adds up to 50.
After a considerable drop off in 2011-12 where the Sharks moved Pavelski back into the top-six without anyone remotely good enough to lead the third line, the Sharks were back as a top contender in the lockout shortened season of 2013. In the middle of the season, Brent Burns was moved to forward from defense, and the Sharks entered the playoffs with three incredibly strong scoring lines once again. T.J. Galiardi-Thornton-Burns, Marleau-Couture-Martin Havlat, Raffi Torres-Joe Pavelski-Tommy Wingels were excellent.
On the blue line, Boyle with Matt Irwin and Vlasic with Justin Braun were a really strong top-four defense, although not quite as good as in years prior. Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan offered little puck moving ability, but were reliable veterans on the third pair.
Between the pipes, Niemi had a career year in 2013. He was a Vezina candidate with a .924 regular season save percentage and a .930 postseason mark. Overall, the forwards and defense were slightly weaker than 2011, but Niemi was far better than he was two years prior. Again, let’s look at the max 20 scale to compare.
2013: Forwards: 15 Defense: 15 Goaltending 19
2016: Forwards: 17 Defense: 16 Goaltending 17
This is far from a scientific scale, this is simply an assigning of numbers based primarily on my memory/eye test. If Havlat and Torres had been reliable in terms of staying in the lineup, the 2013 team would be the best in franchise history. Those forwards lines were amazing when Havlat was healthy and Torres wasn’t suspended. However, they get knocked down a few points for not being able to stay on the ice. Even still, the 2013 team was tremendous, just one point less than the the 2016 team. I give the slight edge to the current Sharks team because I believe in the veteran Paul Martin more than the strong rookie campaign of Irwin in 2013.
Sharks fans should be more optimistic going into this postseason than they ever have before. Some Sharks teams of years past had better forwards, some had better defense, and one had better goaltending, but the sum of the 2016 Sharks parts is more than any other season. San Jose currently features their second best and most reliable forward group, second best blue line and second best goaltending. There are strong cases to be had that 2011 and 2013 rosters were better, but I’ll take the current group by a nose. Even those who disagree with me have to agree that the current squad is certainly the most well-rounded/reliable at each position. 2011 and 2013 may have had more firepower, but the 2011 goaltending was huge sore spot and the 2013 forwards weren’t reliable to stay on the ice.