Who's to Blame for the San Jose Sharks' Epic Collapse vs. the Los Angeles Kings?
The San Jose Sharks started off the 2013-14 season an absolute terror to opposing NHL teams. Trolling the frozen ponds of the league, the Sharks devoured anyone who got in the way beginning in October, when the club went 10-1-2—while also posting a 51-22 goal advantage—initiating what would turn out to be a dominant year.
Assumed to be potentially the most dangerous Cup contender in the Western Conference, this campaign seemed to be the one where the Sharks would finally get it done in the playoffs. The Northern California club finished fifth in the NHL, fourth in the Western Conference and second in the Pacific Division with a 51-22-9 record. Nobody could consistently match up against San Jose and come out on top.
Next stop, Stanley Cup Final, right?
San Jose has never made it to the Cup Final. In fact the club has only made it as far as the Conference Final, each time leaving the tournament early for a disappointing return home. The Cup Final is like sacred ground that may never be touched by a player donning a Sharks jersey as a postseason letdown is almost inevitable at this point.
Such was the case again this year, when the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the quarterfinal round, bowing out prematurely but also unsurprisingly. The Kings' comeback marked just the fourth time in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs that a team has overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series, adding to the woebegone legacy of San Jose’s recent inadequacies.
While there are many to blame for the club’s failures in the playoffs this time around, what follows is a list of players—in order of importance—responsible for the club's early demise.
Regular season: 26-year-old Sharks forward Tommy Wingels had a pretty good regular season. He finished sixth on the club in scoring, having put up 16 goals for 38 points through 77 games, and he did it while averaging roughly 16 minutes of playing time per game.
Wingels provided San Jose with depth scoring—making the most of his chances against second-tier defensive coverage—and looked to continue his career-best season in the playoffs, giving the Sharks some added firepower up front.
Postseason: Wingels had just three assists entering Game 4 of the series, and the well dried up for the seemingly late bloomer. Suddenly Wingels fell prey to bad play, turning in his scoring touch for a minus-four goal differential while on the ice, watching the series unravel in front of him.
Wingels finished with just nine shots on net in the final four matches and provided little help to the Sharks when a hero was needed. Hardly expected to lead the team, Wingels was supposed to to make the most of his matchups.
Regular season: Justin Braun wrapped up his first full, 82-game season in the NHL this year with a serviceable four goals and 13 assists. He averaged nearly 21 minutes of ice time per game and began to shine as one of the more reliable defensemen on the roster.
He faced the toughest competition on most nights and would be called upon to continue his shutdown game, helping the Sharks keep the high-scoring tempo rolling into the playoffs.
Postseason: The 27-year-old defenseman finished the best-of-seven series with one goal—a game-winner—and an assist, but that’s where the compliments end. Unable to prevent the frequent Los Angeles Kings surges, Braun saw his reputation turn to dust with a minus-six goal differential through the final four contests.
His insufficiencies mirrored that of his team, and his one assist and four shots speak to how little he had to contribute to the woeful offense.
Regular season: The transition from defense to offense for now-forward Brent Burns has been amazing to watch. The 29-year-old Canadian mountain man finished fifth on the Sharks in points this season, hoarding 22 goals for 48 points in just 69 contests.
He capped off his first 20-goal campaign with a superb two-way game, speaking to his ability as a former rear guard. A threat with the puck, Burns factored heavily in the San Jose strategy at both ends of the ice.
Postseason: It’s safe to say that Burns got off to a good start as San Jose took an early 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings. Two goals and a helper on another seemed to have him on the right track. The meltdown was swift for Burns, though, as he would finish the next four losses with a minus-four goal differential, no points and 19 penalty minutes.
He hardly had the kind of impact that he made during the regular season, despite his 17 shots to close out the series, and served as beacon of the offensive struggles that haunted San Jose.
Regular season: Logan Couture had an average 2013-14 season for the San Jose Sharks. He’s had better and he’s had worse, but it’s hard to say that 23 goals and another 31 assists is a bad year for the 25-year-old forward—once picked last at the NHL All-Star Game. Sidelined by a hand injury, Couture did only play in 65 contests for the Sharks, hindering his total production significantly.
He took some momentum with him into the playoffs regardless, potting three goals for six points in his last five games of the regular campaign.
Postseason: How bad was Logan Couture when the season was on the line? Roughly as bad as everyone else—but at some point, one of the handful of ridiculous superstars on the team needed to make some magic happen if the second level of the playoffs was going to be unlocked. It wouldn’t be Couture, who had zero points on 11 shots in his final four matches.
With roughly 18 minutes of time on ice per night, Couture did little to put his team up. Instead, his minus-six goal differential speaks to the influence he did have on the collapse.
Regular season: Putting away 36 points in 75 games isn’t bad for 37-year-old blueliner Dan Boyle. Hardly his best season, the numbers prove that he can still contribute in a significant way, providing an additional threat from the back end. Thrown a few sheltered zone starts, he led all San Jose Sharks defensemen in both goals (12) and points, something that can be a valuable asset in the playoffs.
Postseason: The same would be true for the first three games of the series against the Los Angeles Kings. Boyle helped on four different goals as San Jose got off to an early 3-0 lead, again taking the reins in terms of scoring for the defensive unit. His four points would put him ahead of teammate Logan Couture when the dust settled, but that’s a small consolation for the way the series played out.
Boyle looked slow and over his head in the remaining four contests, watching as he was on the ice for two more Kings goals than Sharks tallies. His eight shots for zero points capped off a rather pedestrian performance for the NHL veteran.
Regular season: Patrick Marleau finished third on the San Jose Sharks in scoring with 70 points in 82 games. That said, his 33 goals and 37 assists weren’t even close to his career-best season (86), set eight years ago. Marleau is one of the dependable leaders of the Sharks. He’s a guy who can be counted on to put points on the board, whether it is in the regular season or during bonus hockey in April and May.
Postseason: Marleau entered his 15th playoff run—all with the Sharks—with 96 career points, 57 of which were goals. So it came as no surprise when he leapt to the top of the scoring list when the series got started. With three goals for five points, including a game-winning tally, Marleau was well on his way to another commanding performance.
Instead, the 34-year-old forward added just two more assists through the final four contests, solidifying his team-high point total at just seven—the same number as his awful minus-seven goal differential—but contributing little else. His 180 on the scoresheet was a crushing blow to a Sharks team relying on Marleau’s dependability to save it.
Regular season: How about that season from Joe Pavelski? The 29-year-old forward had a career year with the San Jose Sharks—his eighth in the NHL—putting away 41 goals and 38 assists in 82 games. That’s 10 more goals and 13 more points than his previous high. He finished third in the league in goalscoring and also added five points for Team USA during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
With a history of playoff production—except for a donut in 2012—Pavelski was on pace for a potential Conn Smythe bid if his efforts could continue.
Postseason: That seemed the case early as Pavelski put up a goal and four assists in just the first three contests. After that, he was about as dry as Death Valley. He managed just one tally, on the power play, and was on the ice for seven more Los Angeles Kings goals than Sharks points.
With roughly 21 minutes of playing time per night, Pavelski owed fans of San Jose much more than he delivered. The series was his for the taking and, just like everyone else, Pavelski went missing when the games mattered most.
Regular season: Former Stanley Cup champion goaltender Antti Niemi finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 39-17-7 record, tying him with Pittsburgh Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury for the second-most wins in the league. A force early, Niemi finished with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.
That’s good enough to win when your team is hammering opponents into the ground on a nightly basis, and big things were expected for the elite keeper when the battle for the Cup began in April.
Postseason: The only thing that anyone will remember about Niemi’s playoffs is the collapse. It doesn’t matter that Niemi and the Sharks skated off to three wins and a 17-8 scoring advantage early. After a solid but porous start to the series, equal parts team failure and goaltending malfeasance resulted in quite the implosion for the 30-year-old Finn.
Niemi finished out three of the four straight losses with an approximate 5.55 goals-against average and an equally abysmal .849 save percentage, allowing a tough 11 goals on 73 shots. He was pulled in back-to-back games and even watched from the bench during Game 6, which speaks to his struggles between the pipes.
Regular season: San Jose Sharks setup man Joe Thornton had a fantastic 17th season in the NHL. He finished second on the team in points with 76—11 goals and 65 helpers—and often led by example, playing against the toughest opponents that any other club could offer up. He played a mean possession game and was rarely sheltered by head coach Todd McLellan.
Left off of the Team Canada roster for the Sochi Olympics, Thornton used the snub to fuel an incredible push to close out the season—he was held off the scoresheet in just 10 games—potting three goals and 17 assists in 23 contests.
Postseason: Expected to lead by example, Thornton’s failure to produce in the playoffs is perhaps the most upsetting part of the entire San Jose Sharks conflagration. Thornton managed just two goals and one helper in the first three games before being blanked by the Los Angeles Kings in the next four.
Teammate Raffi Torres concluded the shocking series with as many points, speaking to how little of an impact Thornton—captain of the Sharks—actually had on his team’s success. His meager seven shots through the final four contests and an unacceptable minus-six goal differential highlight the ineffectual play of the on-ice face of the Sharks.
Regular season: There’s just something about head coach Todd McLellan that spells regular-season success. His San Jose Sharks had yet another incredible campaign playing in front of the sixth-year bench manager, finishing 51-22-9 with 111 points through 82 games. Having seen the full effects of realignment, the Sharks tore up the Western Conference as usual, finishing in the top two in the Pacific Division for the fifth time since he took over the club in 2008.
McLellan’s team was a punishing, goalscoring juggernaut that deserved more attention than it got prior to the playoffs.
Postseason: This is an area where McLellan just hasn’t been able to get the job done. In six seasons behind the bench, McLellan’s Sharks have fallen in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times and the second round once. While the Sharks have also made the Western Conference Final two times, it’s now been three years since that accomplishment.
McLellan’s propensity for failing to find another gear in the postseason could be his undoing in San Jose, despite the fact that he’s won the division three times and made the playoffs every year he’s been a head coach. Having the reputation of a team that predictably bows out early—despite everyone else’s expectations—when the pressure peaks speaks to McLellan’s inability to motivate his club with the season on the line, regardless of a 3-0 series lead.