March 7, 2021

Sharks analysis: Best-case, worst-case scenarios as puck drops to open season

There have been several times over the last 15 years when it’s been Stanley-Cup-or-bust for the San Jose Sharks.

There were the five straight seasons from 2006 to 2011 when Joe Thornton was in his prime and the Sharks finished in the top five in the NHL’s overall standings, including 2009 when they won the President’s Trophy.

There was the 2018-19 season when general manager Doug Wilson went all-in and acquired Erik Karlsson for what looks now like a king’s ransom.

What about now, though? What’s the Sharks’ perceived ceiling this season, which starts Thursday night against the Arizona Coyotes?

Relative to the glory years, not that high.

“I think Doug Wilson’s very well aware of what he’s got on his roster,” NHL on NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said this week, “and it’s not one of the better rosters in the league. I think he knows that. ”

But is it all doom and gloom?

Maybe not.

The Sharks still have a strong core eager to prove that last season’s debacle was just an aberration. There’s also a handful of younger players who gained some experience through adversity and, overall, the competition level was better this year at training camp than it was at the 2019 camp. A couple more players have emerged as potential full-time NHLers.

Also, a playoff spot is not out the question this season. The West Division is extremely top-heavy with Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis all likely to vie for first place, and San Jose, Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles and Minnesota all feel they have a shot at the fourth and final playoff spot.

And hey, maybe if the Sharks are in the hunt, Wilson will do some shopping before the trade deadline and pick up reinforcements for a playoff run. Making the postseason would be an impressive turnaround after they finished 15th in the Western Conference last season.

That’s probably the best-case scenario for the Sharks, since they would likely be decided underdogs in a first-round series with Vegas, Colorado or St. Louis. Have a good season, fix the culture, find an identity, watch the young players take a step, and the sights a little higher for 2021-22 when you’re (hopefully) back in your normal division.

But if things go south once again for this group this year, it’s probably time to blow it up.

Maybe they’ve already started down that path.

“I think they’ve already started on a rebuild, if you want to know the truth,” McGuire said. “They’re counting on some young guys to step in there and perform. Whether it’s Mario Ferraro on defense, how much tread is left on the tire with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, will Erik Karlsson be 100 percent?

“There’s tons of questions that they have to answer internally.”

Just about every team that was at or near the top of the Western Conference five or 10 years ago had to, or is now going through, a rebuild.

The Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015 but are projected to finish at or near the bottom of their division for the fourth straight season. The Kings haven’t won a playoff round since the 2014 Cup final, but have stockpiled prospects in recent years and could be on the upswing soon.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 12: San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, left, looks in the direction of interim head coach Bob Boughner, right, as he talks to the media during a press conference at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. , on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019 (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

The Ducks won five straight division titles from 2013 to 2017, and although they’ve stunk the last two years, they’ve drafted potential stars Jamie Drysdale and Trevor Zegras in consecutive years. The Vancouver Canucks won their own division for five straight seasons from 2008 to 2013. But they came out of a rebuild and, with a young talented roster, made the second round of the playoffs in the summer.

I asked Wilson on Dec. 12, 2019, the day after Pete DeBoer was fired and Bob Boughner was named interim coach, whether the Sharks had reached a point where they just have to take a step back to go forward again.

“There’s a lot of components that you have to have to evolve and grow,” Wilson said. “But in this league, you can turn your team around pretty quickly.”

Starting an all-out rebuild might not be easy for the Sharks, even if they wanted to go down that path, considering the size of some of the contracts on the books and no-movement or partial no-movement clauses that a few players have .