PITTSBURGH – It looked like the end of the road for the Sharks’ core group after the 2014 playoff catastrophe to the Kings.
General manager Doug Wilson couldn’t get enough of the cameras and microphones in the subsequent summer months, coining such memorable phrases as “we now become a tomorrow team,” or the Sharks may have to take “one step backwards before taking two steps forward.” Or, that several players told him after the season they felt like “coworkers, not teammates.”
The writing was on the wall that a big move was coming, and that one or several key pieces was on their way out the door, no-trade clauses be damned.
It never happened, though, and now here they all are – Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and the others that were on that 2014 team that lost in historic fashion, competing for their first Stanley Cup.
Whether it was by design or not, it doesn’t matter anymore.
“You never want to have to go through something like that to get to where you are now, but that’s what we’ve done,” Pavelski said. “You don’t stop. We just stayed with it. We’ve had that chance to stay together and, whether it was going to happen or not, we stuck together and stayed with it. The team this year has really come together and played well.”
Wilson spoke publicly for the first time during the playoffs on Sunday, as mandated by the league. Whereas his comments from two years ago were thought to be primarily directed towards Thornton and Marleau, especially, he offered effusive praise of the two best players in Sharks franchise history that will finally get to compete in the NHL’s final round.
“I think the appreciation and respect for some of our core players…maybe wasn’t there with what they really accomplished,” Wilson said. “When you dig down and take a look at what these guys have done – yes, it’s Joe and Patty – Olympic Gold Medals, World Juniors, World Cups. These guys, the numbers are phenomenal. They’ve always been great players.
“Surrounding them with some other people, some young guys evolving up with their game, adjusting our system, getting some people – we’re the sum of all our parts, and I’m really happy for the players to get some of the acknowledgement of what they’ve accomplished in the past.”
Finding the right pieces to support those high-end players has been Wilson’s biggest challenge. Working in conjunction with coach Pete DeBoer, though, the Sharks have been able to identify those secondary pieces – from summer additions like Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones, to trade deadline acquisitions like Nick Spaling and Roman Polak – that are vital to any deep playoff run.
According to Wilson, that depth showed up in particular in Game 5 of the Kings series. Leading the series three-games-to-one and trying to close out Los Angeles, the Sharks had a 3-0 second period lead that they hastily surrendered before the end of the middle frame.
Rather than panic, though, the Sharks reeled off three straight third period goals to take the game and the series.
“The belief system between Pete and the our coaching staff and our players – Game 5, take a look at the third period, [L.A. came] back and tied us up,” Wilson said. “[DeBoer] stuck with the four lines, stuck with everybody, believed in them.
“What Pete’s done this year, and this coaching staff, has been phenomenal. That dressing room should be very proud of it.”
Through everything, Thornton said he was always optimistic that the team would be able to do what it’s doing now, provided it added the right ingredients.
“I always believed that next year was going to be the year,” he said. “Even last year not making the playoffs I honestly thought, ‘We’re a couple of pieces away,’ and here we are.”
Pavelski said: “You just have to keep putting your foot in the door and [you’ll] keep having opportunities. It took us a lot longer to break through than we would have thought, but there’s a lot of work still to be done now.”