And so it ends, again. The San Jose Sharks have exhausted themselves only to end up doing the sad-face handshakes, and face another summer of wondering if it will ever end a different way.
The Sharks have now gone nine consecutive seasons with a playoff appearance that ends prematurely, the 11th longest drought in league history and the longest such streak of any NHL team that has never reached a Stanley Cup final. The successive Western Conference finals appearances are now two years’ distant, and there is the temporary sense that their window has closed a bit more.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks' season ends with Game 7 loss in L.A.]
But that depends on how you define the window. This San Jose team played with less of the studied cool of previous teams and with more of a desperate edge, and the Ryane Clowe and Raffi Torres deals on Deadline Day provided a hint that Doug Wilson is seeing it that way as well.
There will not be the blockbuster Joe Thornton deal some people will demand, despite his oddly inert game Tuesday. Nor will Patrick Marleau be moved, and Logan Couture, Antti Niemi and Joe Pavelski are also safe as houses.
But there will be more tweaking in the offseason. You may very well see Dan Boyle, who spent a fair amount of time on the third defense pair in 5-on-5 situations down the stretch, get moved. Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart are valiant but old, and the new core of the unit will be Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Matt Irwin and Justin Braun.
Up front, Thornton and Couture will almost certainly be joined by 2012 first pick Tomas Hertl, and Pavelski, Brent Burns remain in their places, as does Raffi Torres. After all, the Sharks paid an extra $100,000 on his behalf this spring, and though he was never Wilson’s cup of tea in the past, he clearly is now.
But is that enough to get them out of what their now well-jaded fan base would cheerlessly describe as a rut? Are they whirling around a cul-de-sac, or is there a straightaway in their future?
First, let’s consider the longest such droughts in the league’s history:
CHICAGO: 28 years (1970-97): This actually is fairly daunting, because they reached the Finals in 1971 and 1973, and then not again until 2010, when they broke a 49-year streak by actually winning the damned thing.
SAINT LOUIS 25 years (1980-2004), with no Finals appearances. As close as any team could come to being the Portland Trail Blazers of the NHL.
BOSTON: 24 years (1973-96): This looks fairly daunting, but the longest the Bruins went between Cup finals is only nine years. They had a number of Cup-worthy teams, but couldn’t clear the field until 2011, a 40-year wait.
PHILADELPHIA: 14 years (1976-89) and 11 years (1995-2006), but those gaps were papered over with five Finals appearances. No wins, though, since the Broad Street Bullies were broken up.
WASHINGTON: 14 years (1983-96), with their only Cup Final two years later in 1998. Pretty Shark-y, truth be told.
CALGARY: 13 years (1976-88), though the 14th year was the charm, as they won the one Cup that has dogged them ever since. The first five of those 13 years were spent in Atlanta, if that’s your idea of a good time.
BUFFALO: 11 years (1975-1985), with a Finals appearance in 1975.
OTTAWA: 11 years (1997-2008), with one Finals appearance in 2007.
NEW YORK RANGERS: 10 years (1978-87), with one Finals appearance.
We bring this up to show two things: One, nine years is an awfully long stretch without even a Finals appearance. Two, nine years is a pretty long stretch of playoff hockey.
But the latter is no longer so warming, and the former is beginning to annoy. This was a better and more determined group than the team that produced that open-faced cheese sandwich of a season in 2011-12.
Better, though, only works if at some point it becomes best, and these Sharks are still not good enough to see best. The Kings were slightly better in most areas – not a lot, and not all the time, but just enough often enough – and that the series ended in a one-goal game in Game 7 doesn’t change that central truth.
So another summer comes while it is still spring, and the Sharks retreat to reconsider themselves. Is the improvement of 2013 a harbinger, or a false positive? Is the window still wide enough? Are the new faces going to push it wider while Thornton and Marleau are still productive? How will this new geometry work?
That cannot be known. But the skeptics remain undaunted, and uncontroverted, despite the fact that the Sharks went out more nobly than they did a year ago. Good is now nearly a decade old, better comes and goes, but best is still what other teams get to say. Thirteen teams have won the Cup in San Jose’s existence, and another eight have played for it. It is not unreasonable to re-raise the question, “Is San Jose going to earn its turn, ever?”