On opening night of the 2016-17 NHL season the San Jose Sharks raised another banner.
A conference championship banner.
The Sharks have a lot of banners for a team that has never won a Stanley Cup. There are six division titles, one celebrating a Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team, and of course, that conference championship last season.
For an organization with as much as success as the Sharks have had, countless words have been written about how they can not win the big one.
That lack of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has caused more than a few rifts in the organization. There was the time they stripped Patrick Marleau’s captaincy. There was the time they stripped Joe Thronton’s captaincy.
It all seemed to click last year, only for the team to fall at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.
What was another kick in the teeth to Sharks fans should be looked at as yet another chance at the NHL’s grand prize. 2018 is your year, people of the South Bay.
The East is a meatgrinder
The Pittsburgh Penguins returned damn near everyone from a juggernaut of a team that kicked into gear following their December 2015 coaching change.
Sidney Crosby, the Best Player in the World˙, returned. The two headed monster of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury returned in net, despite trade rumors looming over the latter netminder. They even brought back Matt “Team Dad” Cullen.
Elsewhere in the Metropolitan Division, Washington holds a three point lead on the defending champs, Philadelphia ripped off a 10-game win streak as the calendar turned, and Columbus had a history making win streak of their own.
That’s before we address the Atlantic.
Weaker than its Eastern Conference counterpart, the Atlantic boasts Senators and Maple Leafs teams with phenomenal top end talent. The struggling Canadiens just received the gift of Claude Julien at head coach.
This should be a nightmare for whoever wins the West, but it’s actually good news. The playoffs are a war of attrition.
The Penguins and Caps will take care of each other in the Metro bracket. The Canadiens have had their struggles, and their Atlantic counterparts are not experienced or deep enough to pull off a credible title run.
Not your father’s Western Conference
The Sharks still have to make their way out of the Western Conference, but it isn’t the Seven Circles of Hell it used to be.
Chicago remains a Cup contender if only out of deference to their past accomplishments. Despite their come-from-behind victory over Minnesota last night, there are holes on this roster that weren’t there on their 2010, ’13, and ’15 championship teams.
Minnesota might be San Jose’s biggest threat out West, but a knock down, drag out battle with Chicago might do them in early. The wonders of the NHL’s playoff system.
That brings us to San Jose’s home in the Pacific Division.
The LA Kings can trot out Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar to make Peter Budaj look like an All-Star, but a recent skid has them outside the playoff picture. Jonathan Quick’s return may not cure their goaltening woes.
The Ducks have been a pleasant surprise. A lot of that is thanks to Ryan Kesler, and a 32-year old averaging near career highs in ice time doesn’t inspire confidence.
Connor McDavid pretty much is the Edmonton Oilers. The Flames are very much Ottawa west.
The Sharks can win this thing
As crazy as this sounds, the Sharks have an underrated core of defensemen.
Brent Burns is a fringe Hart Trophy candidate and will almost assuredly win the Norris. Behind him is the quietly excellent Marc-Edourd Vlasic and minute-munching Justin Braun.
Up front the team sports an aging core, but it’s still producing. Joe Thornton is nearing 1000 career assists. Joe Pavelski’s production has dipped slightly, but he’s on his way to his fourth consecutive 30-goal season.
Most impressive from a team building perspective is how Martin Jones has acquited himself as a starter. Although he sports a sub-.920 even strength save percentage this year, Jones carried the team through the 2016 postseason.
They were close then. The road might be even easier now.