Is the window still open for the Sharks?

Is the window still open for the Sharks?
January 18, 2013, 6:15 pm
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SAN JOSE – After years of coming oh-so-close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final, and then not close at all last season, it’s a question that the San Jose Sharks cannot escape as they prepare for the shortened 48-game schedule.

Has the window of opportunity on this veteran club finally been slammed shut?

“We’re starting to be one of those teams that’s written off a little bit,” Dan Boyle said. “People keep asking me about the window, and if it’s gone, and all this stuff. A lot of people think the opportunity has passed. It doesn’t really faze me. It’s just another opportunity.

“If you don’t win, guys are going to leave and guys are going to move. It’s another opportunity for us to get a crack at this thing.”

The perception exists that the players that have led the Sharks to some dominant regular seasons and a pair of appearances in the Western Conference Final are now on the decline. Joe Thornton, 33, is no longer near the player that put up 114 points in 2006-07. Patrick Marleau, 33, recorded his lowest point total in four seasons in 2011-12 and was invisible down the stretch. Ryane Clowe, 30, saw his scoring output decrease by 17 points last season. It’s only a matter of time before Boyle, 36, starts to break down.

Or so the narrative goes.

Management doesn’t see it that way, as general manager Doug Wilson decided to make just some minor tweaks to the roster and alterations to the coaching staff. The head coach and core, veteran players remain, and it will be mainly up to them to make good on what was a disappointing 2011-12 season that ended with a meek first round ouster.

The Sharks want to prove that they are still a club capable of making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs – not the team that squeaked into the postseason last spring and won a solitary playoff game.

“You look at this team on paper and see how much skill we have, and talent,” Logan Couture said. “We need to get back to the way that Sharks hockey is. When teams come into our rink, they need to know that we’re going to give them a hard game. When we play on the road, play tough.”

“I think that’s the team we are, definitely,” Joe Pavelski said, referring to the playoff runs of 2010 and 2011. “It’s not just going to happen, there’s a lot of things that have to go right, and a lot of guys have to play well and work on a daily basis.”

* * *

So, what went wrong last season?

The starting point is the miserable 2-6-1 road trip in February, after which the Sharks were not the same. Some moves made by Wilson in the offseason via trade and free agency didn’t pan out as planned. Marty Havlat’s prolonged absence after his line-change mishap in December was detrimental, while other additions either took a while to adjust to their new team (Brent Burns, Colin White) or failed to have much of any positive impact whatsoever (Michal Handzus, Dominic Moore).

All-Star Logan Couture faded in the second half, perhaps as the result of a shoulder injury, while the Jamie McGinn-to-Colorado trade for Daniel Winnik and TJ Galiardi hurt more than it helped.

Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above that caused some doubt to creep into the heads of players that were used to being among the NHL’s big dogs, after putting up 107, 108, 117, 113 and 105 points in the standings in the previous five seasons.

“I think last year, personally, we lost a bit of our swagger or mojo,” Clowe said. “We used to always go into games knowing we were going to win. If we played our game, we were going to win. Last year we might have lost a bit of that confidence.”

Couture agreed with his linemate.

“That was probably the first time I ever felt like that with this team,” Couture said. “The first two-and-a-half years I was here, I would walk into the rink and you knew you were going to win the game. You knew you had a great chance to win, whereas last year at times you’d walk in and you’d question that early, or at least you had that sense that there was a questioning of that.”

Head coach Todd McLellan, though, doesn’t want to hear any of it.

“I hear that all the time. I hear individuals talk about losing their confidence, I hear that we lost our swagger. Did we go to the mall and lose it somewhere? I don’t understand what losing your confidence is,” McLellan said.

“You earn the right to feel good about yourself as an individual, and you earn the right to feel good about yourselves as a team. If you’re putting the time in, and you’re working hard and the results aren’t there, you have to continue to bang away at it and the results will come your way. If you start to pout and feel sorry for yourself, then I guess you’ve lost your swagger or confidence.

“Confidence is an earned thing. It’s our job to go and earn it.”

* * *

The Sharks’ familiarity with one another could aid them at the start. In fact, their first two opponents in Calgary and Edmonton both have new coaching staffs that only had a week to implement their systems and get the players up to speed.

The San Jose staff has opted to keep its top scoring lines together, in the hope that they’ll rekindle some of the chemistry they’ve shown in the past.

If it fails to click and the Sharks have a repeat performance of last season, or continue their decline, there’s a real possibility that the roster could get blown up in the summer.

No one’s job would be safe. And that’s not something any of them wants to think about.

“You lose people every year and that’s the sad part of the business, you have to say goodbye to friends and stuff,” Boyle said. “Only one team gets to win, and it’s hard, but we certainly need a better performance than we had last year.”

Pavelski said: “We want to make that move every year. We’ll let that play out however it’s going to play out. Obviously, we’ve got to take care of business right now.”

Thornton, still the face of the franchise, didn’t want to go there either.

“Really, I’m just day-to-day. I’m always kind of worried about today and I’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes,” he said.

“We expect big things out of this group. It starts Sunday.”

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