For the second consecutive year, the San Jose Sharks failed to advance beyond the Western Conference finals, falling this time in five games to the Vancouver Canucks.
Naturally, that has led to fans and pundits looking for reasons why the Sharks failed again and questions about the status of the roster looking ahead to next season.
One reason the Sharks fell to the Canucks was their lack of experienced skill and mobility on the blue line. Dan Boyle not only was San Jose’s top defenseman but also among the best in this year’s postseason. His 16 points lead all playoff blue-liners and put him second overall in team scoring this spring.
After Boyle, however, the point production from the defense corps dropped significantly. The next highest-scoring Sharks blue-liner was Ian White, with nine points (two of those coming on assists in the conference finals), good for ninth overall in team scoring. Niclas Wallin was next with four points, none of those coming against the Canucks. Marc-Edouard Vlasic managed only two points in the conference finals and promising Jason Demers was sidelined in the series because of an injury suffered in the second round against Detroit.
White and Wallin did play well defensively, ranking among the playoff leaders for defensemen in blocked shots. Douglas Murray was the Sharks’ best “stay-at-home” blue-liner, finishing the series leading all playoff defensemen in hits and blocked shots.
Still, the Sharks needed more production from their defense corps against Vancouver, especially in power-play situations. Only Boyle was able to come through on a consistent basis.
Oft-criticized team captain Joe Thornton silenced his doubters in this year’s playoffs. He led the Sharks in scoring, including six points in the first three games against the Canucks and was their top faceoff man throughout the postseason.
Thornton was consistently San Jose’s best forward until he suffered a separated right shoulder in Game 4. That limited his effectiveness, but Thornton never used it as an excuse and suited up for Game 5 despite the injury.
Fellow forwards Ryane Clowe (who also played through injury) and rookie Logan Couture were also strong performers. Patrick Marleau silenced his critics by stepping up his game against the Canucks. Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski failed to perform up to expectations in this series, and their lack of consistent offensive production hurt the Sharks.
Pavelski, a playoff hero last season, was very quiet in the conference finals with only three points, two of which came in Game 5. Setoguchi managed a goal and an assist. Heatley, one of the highest-paid and biggest stars on the Sharks, had only one assist against the Sharks. He was without a goal in eight straight games split between this series and the Detroit round.
Although the Sharks lost in five games, this series was — except for Game 2 — a close affair, especially the final two games. The Canucks won those two games despite being outplayed by the Sharks, who outshot Vancouver 35-13 in Game 4 and 54-30 in Game 5.
The results of those games could have been different if Heatley, Pavelski and Setoguchi had been able to score more often.
Head coach Todd McLellan will likely face criticism from Sharks followers over his team’s inexplicable third-period lapses, a trait that dogged them throughout this year’s postseason and nearly proved disastrous in the Red Wings series.
Against the Canucks, those third-period lapses were deadly, costing them leads and potential victories in Games 1 and 5, and nearly costing them in Game 3 — their only win in the series.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson could use that as an excuse for a coaching change, but most likely he’ll stick by McLellan, pointing out he has coached the Sharks to consecutive conference final appearances.
Wilson also isn’t likely to dump most of his more notable playoff under-achievers this summer.
Heatley has three more years remaining on his contract paying him $7.5 million per season. Pavelski was re-signed last summer to a four-year, $16 million extension. Setoguchi, however, is a restricted free agent. It’s possible he could become trade bait, perhaps to add another experienced, puck-moving defenseman.