These Sharks are a real Cup threat

Once led by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks have transformed into a team led by young star Logan Couture. (Rocky Widner/Getty)

As the San Jose Sharks roll through Western Canada this week, once again icing as mighty a team as there is in the National Hockey League today, we bring you this little factoid about GM Doug Wilson’s club: The Sharks have never bought out a contract.

Think about that for a second.

Does it tell us that Wilson has never made the mistake of acquiring a high-priced superstar who simply did not deliver, and had to be bought out? Well, he did have Dany Heatley a few years back, but deftly unloaded him on the Minnesota Wild.

Does it say that the Sharks are simply a more patient organization, or that players who join their lineup produce more because of their superior teammates and surroundings? Well, Martin Havlat was part of the return in the Heatley deal. He’s been a bit of a dog, but he’s still a Shark.

So perhaps Havlat leads us to our answer. The truth is, San Jose’s owners do everything right, but still can’t afford to buy anyone out. While Flyers GM Paul Holmgren received clearance for $36 million in compliance buy-outs this past summer, Wilson would never even inquire about the possibility. Despite a home sell-out streak of 142 regular-season games and the second-longest active string of consecutive playoff appearances at nine (Detroit leads at 22), Forbes reports Sharks losses of $15 million in 2011-12. There have been reports of losses in the $20-million range, despite the fact that San Jose has been the model NHL organization.

It should be worrisome for commissioner Gary Bettman that a franchise run more skillfully than any of the seven Canadian teams could be a money loser, while averaging slightly better than two playoff rounds per season for the past nine seasons. Oh, and by the way, having never closed the deal on a Stanley Cup appearance, the Sharks have looked in the mirror and made the requisite improvements this season as well. “We’ve been a big team for a lot of years, and that size, strength and skill has won us a lot of games,” says coach Todd McLellan. “But as the game has changed over the last few years, we had to add an element of speed into our lineup. I don’t know if we’re as big as we used to be, but we like to think we’re faster.”

It used to be an accepted tenet of the NHL that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal gave the Pittsburgh Penguins the best collection of centremen in the league. But today, Staal is in Carolina, and the best group of centres resides in California wine country, with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski down the middle. Patrick Marleau, a centre of Olympic pedigree, mans the wing for the meantime. Throw in a Vezina finalist in goal in Antti Niemi, and a solid, veteran defence that includes Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, and Scott Hannan underneath likely Olympian Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and the Sharks have it all covered.

“The first couple of years I was here we were a top-heavy team,” says the thoughtful Boyle, who set up the overtime winner in Calgary on Tuesday, then scored it Thursday in Vancouver. “Meaning, the first two lines would win games for us, with Joe and Patty. Now one, two, three, on any given night, they are all capable of being the difference. A couple of the young guys have been around for a couple years have stepped up. The veteran guys that everyone is writing off are still very significant, impact-type players…”

On Friday Pavelski, the third-line centre, was tied atop San Jose scoring with Thornton at 20 points. Couture has 19. Tomas Hertl, a typically savvy Sharks draft pick, is already five points clear atop the NHL’s rookie scoring list and is an early Calder Trophy favourite. None of Couture, Vlasic, Hertl, Justin Braun or Tommy Wingels, is more than 26 years of age. Most are younger.

And that team that has burnt so many prognosticators over the years? Well, I’ve been burnt a few times myself by picking the Sharks to win the West. But I also consider the Vancouver Canucks a pretty good hockey team, and in 2013 Vancouver has beaten San Jose just once in 11 tries.

It’s got to happen, people. You can’t be this good for this long, and take this many runs at Stanley with this many different roster dynamics, and not win it all one day. San Jose is back, and is good. Again.

I think I’m ready to take another run at that football, Lucy.

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