SAN JOSE — Center Chris Tierney was asked the same question everyone else was posed after the Sharks’ first Training Camp practice Friday:
“Is it weird not having Patrick Marleau out there?”
And Tierney gave the same response, give or take, as everyone else:
“Yeah. It’s weird not seeing his face here every day.”
But as Tierney continued his reasonable and well-thought-through response, he couldn’t help but stare intently at the wall above the lockers opposite his dressing room stall. He locked eyes with a large goal-celebration photo, featuring Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton… And Marleau.
Marleau was Mr. Shark. The future Hall of Famer spent 19 years in San Jose, scoring 1,493 goals along the way. But after signing a massive three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Maple Leafs this offseason, the Sharks enter the 2017-18 season for the first time in two decades without No. 12.
And while Tierney might be able to see Marleau’s printed face from across the dressing room, it is strange not having “Patty” around the team.
Plus, photos aren’t all that effective on the power play.
The Sharks have a solid team heading into this season. They’re not a Stanley Cup favorite, like in years past (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has the Sharks at 20-to-1, right in the middle of the league), but they certainly have the talent to make the playoffs and make a run at the franchise’s first title.
That’s why everyone was so optimistic after the first practice of the season Friday.
But make no mistake, the loss of Marleau is a delineation point for this franchise, which only missed the playoffs only twice in Marleau’s 19-year tenure.
Yes, the playoffs should again be expected from this squad, but this is nonetheless a transition year.
Replacing the team’s leading goal scorer from last year is a tough enough task, but the distinction isn’t directly tied to that — it’s more symbolic.
The core of the team that took the Sharks to the Finals two years ago isn’t going to be the core much longer. It’s time for the next era of Sharks hockey to make itself known.
NHL players generally peak between 28 and 31, but the Sharks enter the season relying on team-leading contributions for players who are past that peak age — again.
Marleau and Thornton were the best duo in Sharks history, but last season Thornton, 38, posted his lowest point total since he was 19. He’s also coming off a knee injury. While he’s one of the best centers of the modern era, there aren’t many reasons to think that he’s going to post one of those 60-assist, 15-goal seasons the Sharks could once count on year-in, year-out. Furthermore, he signed a one-year deal this offseason, despite his desire to play for a few more seasons: both he and the Sharks have an out after this campaign.
Thornton isn’t alone when it comes to having gray in his beard.
Winger Joel Ward is in his age 37 season. So is defenseman Paul Martin.
Pavelski is getting up there in age too. While 33 is hardly old and he scored 29 goals last season, advanced stats say he had his worst season since 2009-10.
Brent Burns is coming off a career year, but he’s right there with Pavelski with this being his age 33 season.
Their era, as first signified by Marleau’s exit, is nearing an end.
And yes, players like Vlasic (29), Logan Couture (28), defenseman Justin Braun (29), and goalie Martin Jones (age 28 season) are in those prime years, but that’s not a big enough group to overlook the overarching issue at hand.
The Sharks have a group of established, been-around-the-block players, and general manager Doug Wilson is keen to carry some young players that went deep in the playoffs last year with the team’s AHL affiliate on this year’s NHL roster.
Together, the veterans and the young players probably aren’t enough to make the playoffs, much less the Stanley Cup Final.
But there’s another group on the roster: the young, but already firmly established at the NHL-level players.
Players like Tierney (23), Timo Meier (age 21 season), Joonas Donskoi (25), and Tomas Hertl (age 24 season).
It’s that group that needs to take some production responsibility off the veterans’ shoulders. It’s their job to bridge the gap between the current stars and the call-ups.
They need to establish themselves as the next wave of Sharks hockey, and they can’t wait until next year to do it.
Replacing Marleau, on the ice, isn’t as big of a deal as it can be made out to be — yes, he was a top-line power play forward and fifth on the team in point shares last season, but he’s a 38-year-old winger, the easiest position to replace in the league.
And no, one player does not have to singlehandedly fill the production lost when Marleau went to Toronto — the Sharks can patch together 46 points across four lines without too much trouble.
But it’s not about matching last season, it’s about exceeding it. That means scoring more than 221 goals (the lowest total of any Western Conference playoff team last year) or allowing fewer than 200 (as only two teams did last season) — the former being the more viable option.
To do that, the Sharks are going to have to do more than just amalgamate Marleau’s production — they’re going to need a few coming-of-age seasons.
The margin for failure in that regard is thin — the Sharks are hardly a surefire bet to make the playoffs in the parity-filled Western Conference.
If the Sharks get those breakout years — if the next wave of Sharks hockey makes itself known this season — the sky is the limit for the team. Seriously.
And if those young players fail to step up, the Sharks’ arrow — which started pointing down last season — could nosedive.
On the season’s first day of practice, optimism was the only dish being served. Time will tell if that optimism towards this pivotal season was founded.
Which is to say that the big picture of Marleau above the Sharks’ lockers could — like all pieces of great art — take on totally different meanings in the coming weeks.
If the young guys step up, that photo of Marleau will be a positive reminder of the franchise’s incredible culture and success — two things that Marleau was critical in establishing, but which remained after his departure.
And if the young guys don’t rise to the occasion — if the gap isn’t bridged — that photo of a smiling Marleau, mid-hug, will serve as a painful reminder a great, but past, era.
Which is it going to be?
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