PITTSBURGH − Even though they had never been to the Stanley Cup final until Monday night, the San Jose Sharks have been a solid NHL franchise for a long time. They’ve made 19 trips to the playoffs in their 25 seasons and racked up at least 98 points 10 times.
But it didn’t start out that way.
The Sharks were born in 1991 and their first two seasons were horrendous, with records of 17-58-5 and 11-71-2. The 71 losses still stand as an NHL record, as does their 17 straight that year. Their goal differential in the two seasons? A tidy minus-336.
From the Coming Full Circle Department emerges this nugget: Current San Jose general manager Doug Wilson was the captain of those two clubs. And Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was a rookie on that ’91-92 San Jose team and played 81 of the 84 games the next year. That’s a lot of losing.
“Obviously it was my first NHL experience playing. Those are always fond memories for a player, their first experience in the league,” Sullivan said here Monday prior to Game One in Consol Energy Center. “I have a fair amount of memorabilia from that team. Banners, pucks, my first goal puck, a signed autographed framed picture, team photo.”
Those two San Jose teams actually played in San Francisco while the SAP Center was under construction. The home rink was the Cow Palace, a livestock barn most known as the former home of the NBA Warriors and the site of a famous 1972 crash by daredevil Evel Knievel on the tail end of a motorcycle jump. The building was famous for horse smells – and for a long staircase teams had to go up and down to reach the ice.
“What I remember most about the Cow Palace is if you had the fortunate privilege to have the last shift of the period and then you had to walk up those stairs, it was like the Green Mile,” Sullivan said. “I think they had to put chairs down at the bottom to give that last shift a chance to rest before they had to climb up the stairs to the locker room. Certainly I had great memories of that team. It was a great bunch of guys, and my first experience in the league.”
Most known for their teal sweaters, cartoonish logo – and massive merchandise sales – the Sharks improved from 24 points to 82 in 1993-94 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, upsetting Detroit in the first round and losing to Toronto in the second round as both series went seven games.
The majority of the time since then, San Jose has been on the cusp of a breakthrough but was stymied by losses in the Western Conference final in 2004, 2010 and 2011. The window appeared closed for good when the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead in the 2014 playoffs against Los Angeles, and then missed the postseason entirely last season for the first time since 2003.
“You look back and it was the first time we missed the playoffs in years and we’re not going to take that very lightly,” Wilson said. “This team since ’03 has made four conference finals and played 24 playoff rounds, so our players had some great accomplishments in this game, but we hadn’t accomplished what we wanted to do. We did feel that we had a very good team, and that’s why we stayed on the course.”
Indeed, there was no teardown and rebuild in San Jose.
Wilson traded for goaltender Martin Jones, signed Joel Ward and Paul Martin as free agents (the latter coming from Pittsburgh) and didn’t trade off his star players. There was a changing of the guard with Joe Thornton being stripped of his captaincy but personal goals were sacrificed for the team as Todd McLellan was fired as coach and Peter DeBoer was hired.
“Everything was kind of a piece of the puzzle,” Wilson said. “We never wanted to say that we were not going to try to compete again this year.”
“I always believed that next year was going to be the year. I really did,” Thornton said. “I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year I honestly thought we’re a couple pieces away and here we are. We have to put the hard work in during the summer time and believe you can do it and here we are.”
DeBoer has described the Sharks as angry when he took the job. He liked that. He took the Devils to the Cup final in 2012 in his first season, and they were also a team that missed the playoffs the year before. He knew what it was like to play with a hungry team at his disposal.
“They easily could have multiple Cup wins. Why they don’t, I don’t know,” DeBoer said. “Sometimes it’s luck, injuries at the wrong time or whatever. I think it’s just a testament to how hard it is to win and they’ve finally put themselves in a spot where they’ve got a legitimate shot.”
“They’ve always had some tough breaks in the playoffs but it’s better to have been in those situations as far as having good enough teams to get there,” Martin said. “It would be different if they were not even making the playoffs and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They’ve had enough players to reach this point and have this opportunity. You get guys who bring something different to form that puzzle. Doug Wilson did a great job figuring those pieces.”
Sullivan, who went on to play more than 700 NHL games in a career that saw him play for four teams, got fired from his first run as an NHL coach in Boston in 2006. He waited more than nine years to get another chance and has instantly capitalized to get the Penguins back to the final for the first time since 2009.
“To play against the Sharks, it just seems like an eternity ago that I was playing for them. Doug Wilson was our captain and so I’m sure he feels the same way,” Sullivan said. “Is it ironic that it’s against San Jose? Probably. But I’m not a picky guy, I would play against anybody for this opportunity.”