Core Values: Sharks may soon pass torch to Logan Couture

Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton remain the Sharks' heart, but for how long? (USATSI)
Patrick Marleu and Joe Thornton remain the Sharks' heart, but for how long? (USATSI)

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In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

It's nearly three months after the fact, but the sting of the San Jose Sharks' first-round collapse and series loss to the rival Los Angeles Kings is still there. Emotions seemingly ran high within the organization after that series with head coach Todd McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson likely wondering if they would stay employed. They did, but this offseason has been anything but rosy for the club.

Initial talks of a possible forthcoming rebuild proved to be unfounded after Wilson backtracked on comments that suggested otherwise, but that was followed up with no discernable improvements made to the NHL roster over the summer.

Gone are veterans Dan Boyle and Martin Havlat, but even with multiple departures, the club has maintained one of the strongest core groups in the league. Though the center of that core -- Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton -- is reaching the latter years of their careers, they remain a formidable duo with younger players like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to keep the Sharks moving forward in the long term.

It's good that San Jose didn't blow the whole thing up, but the questions about their ability to take the next step as an organization and figure out whatever it is that is sinking them in the playoffs will persist. This is an organization that has underachieved in the postseason, but it remains one of the league's best groups top-to-bottom and it all starts with the guys who have been the foundation for years now.

Core Values: San Jose Sharks

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Joe Thornton (35, 3 years), LW Patrick Marleau (34, 3 years), C Logan Couture (25, 5 years), C/W Joe Pavelski (30, 5 years), D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (27, 4 years), D/W Brent Burns (29, 3 years), C/LW Tomas Hertl (20, 2 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $36,351,667 (52 percent of salary cap consumed by seven players

Average age: 28.5

Total point production in 2013-14: 150 goals, 225 assists, 375 points (56 percent of team's total point production)

San Jose Sharks Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

 

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent. Side note: Tomas Hertl did not appear in the necessary 41 games to be included on the chart.

About the Core

Joe Thornton: Because of San Jose's playoff shortcomings, Thornton has been unduly shortchanged as one of the game's very best players of the last 15 years. Since his first full season in the NHL in 1998-99, no player has more points and there's only one player within 200 assists of him (Henrik Sedin is 199 away). He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Cup or no Cup. Thornton would obviously prefer to have a title to his name and even though his best chances have been squandered in recent years, the Sharks still have the pieces to compete. Since arriving in San Jose in 2005-06 -- the same season he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP -- Thornton has 740 points in 675 games. At 34 years old last season he had 76 points and his 65 assists marked his best total in five years. There's plenty left in the tank for Big Joe, but the pressure has never been higher. The Sharks are better off with Thornton than without him, even if his name may crop up in trade talks from time to time. There just isn't anyone out there quite like him and as long as he can still play, he can still bring the Stanley Cup to San Jose yet. How he was acquired: Traded from the Boston Bruins for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau on Nov. 30, 2005

Patrick Marleau: Like Thornton, Marleau has long been underappreciated as one of the game's elite offensive talents. His 437 goals since entering the NHL in 1997-98 are fifth best over that span. The players ahead of him -- Jarome Iginla, Teemu Selanne, Marian Hossa and Jaromir Jagr. Like I said, elite. Again, it has been the playoff shortcomings that have dragged down Marleau's legacy despite the fact that Marleau himself has hardly been the issue save for one bad year. With 60 postseason goals, Marleau has averaged .40 goals per game over his playoffs career. Not bad at all. The Sharks are the only organization he has ever known after the club selected him second overall in 1997, behind Boston's selection of Thornton. He has rewarded them with a lot of good years and still has three years to do more if the club doesn't try to go through whatever sort of rebuild it hinted at earlier in the summer. Maybe the Sharks do need to make some organizational changes, but Marleau has never really seemed like the problem. Even at 34, he had 33 goals and 70 points. He's as effective as ever and will still help this team. How he was acquired: 1997 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall

Logan Couture is the key piece of the Sharks' present and future. (USATSI)
Logan Couture is the key piece of the Sharks' present and future. (USATSI)

Logan Couture: The future of the Sharks' core rests firmly on the shoulders of this 25-year-old center. Since joining the team for 25 games in 2009-10, Couture has been reliable at both ends of the ice and extremely productive. The team has given him a lot of the hardest work in terms of zone starts and quality of competition and he has taken it all in stride. Couture has averaged .74 points per game in four-plus seasons with the club. He already has two seasons of 31 or more goals and probably would have done the same last season had he not gotten hurt and missed 17 games. With 220 points in 297 games, including 112 goals, Couture is making sure the Sharks have as formidable a one-two punch at center as any team in the league. His current contract takes him to his age 29 season, meaning the Sharks are likely to be getting the most bang for their buck as he enters his prime years. Couture may be only scratching the surface of his capabilities at this point. When Thornton and Marleau move on, this will be his team if it isn't already. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, first round, ninth overall

Joe Pavelski: With a stunning 41-goal, 79-point campaign, Pavelski shattered his previous career highs and gives the Sharks another supreme scoring threat going forward. Little Joe's numbers got a bit of help from playing the wing with Big Joe for a portion of the season, but Pavelski offers San Jose an incredibly versatile forward. Even if he doesn't match his production from last season, and he probably won't after an abnormally high 18.2 shooting percentage, he still brings a ton of value. Pavelski has 415 points in 561 games, all with the Sharks. His 41-goal campaign was his second over 30 in his career and he very well could hit 30 or better again next season. Being able to play him at center or wing gives the Sharks a lot of lineup flexibility, but with Brent Burns going back to defense and Pavelski coming off a hot scoring year, perhaps he heads back to the wing. Either way, to have a player like Pavelski gives the Sharks a lot of options and they should remain one of the league's top offensive groups next season. With five years left on his deal, Pavelski will join Couture as one of the future leaders of this team. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, seventh round, 205th overall

Marc-Edouard Vlasic: The 2013-14 season was a bit of a coming-out party for Vlasic. His inclusion on the Canadian Olympic team was a big moment in getting the rest of the hockey world to realize that Vlasic is one of the better overall defenders in the NHL. His combination of keen defensive instincts, mobility and puck-moving capabilities allow him to put up strong possession numbers despite getting a lot of difficult assignments and being looked to as a shut-down type player. With Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart gone, Vlasic should see quite a bit more ice time and in a variety of situations. The 27-year-old had 24 points last year, but his stunning 7.1 relative Corsi for percentage helps paint a picture of his real value. Despite getting a lot of defense-first assignments, one of the best possession teams in the league was better when Vlasic was on the ice by a fairly wide margin. Vlasic took a big step forward to stake his claim as the team's No. 1 defenseman. The fact that he's under contract for four more years at a really reasonable $4.25 million cap hit only increases his value. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 35th overall

Brent Burns: It sounds as though the Burns forward experiment is over, but that actually might be a good thing for the Sharks as it will mean Burns is going to see the ice quite a bit more frequently. Boyle's departure requires Burns to be what he has been for a lot of his career -- a high-end offensive defenseman. He did put up 22 goals and 48 points as a forward last season, which is why it must be hard to move him back to the point, but Burns brings a lot to the team from the blue line as well. In his final season with the Minnesota Wild, Burns posted 46 points, just two short of his career best posted last season, from the back end and averaged more than 25 minutes a night. Though his defense can be suspect at times, Burns isn't really a liability. Besides, the Sharks have some really talented defenders in Vlasic and Justin Braun. The offensive potential Burns brings even as a defenseman should help bolster the  loaded forward crop, while giving McLellan a little more roster flexibility. How he was acquired: Traded from the Minnesota Wild with a second-round pick for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round draft pick on June 24, 2011

Tomas Hertl: This may be a premature addition to the core, seeing as Hertl played just 37 regular-season games last season as a rookie. That said, those 37 games were electric. Hertl put up 25 points, including 15 goals. It seemed as though things were coming easy to him in his first NHL season. Hertl even added Internet sensation to his strong rookie showing thanks to a between-the-legs goal that will be on highlight reels forever. Assuming there's no sophomore slump, Hertl should be able to be a top-six contributor to the team and he'll be doing so on the extremely cheap entry-level deal he's playing under. That's a huge value for the Sharks. Additionally, Hertl shows that when the old guard is done in San Jose, there's plenty of youth to step up to fill that void. He'll remain an exciting player to watch. How he was acquired: 2012 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 17th overall

Who's next in line

Matt Nieto is part of Sharks' youth movement at forward. (USATSI)
Matt Nieto is part of Sharks' youth movement at forward. (USATSI)

The Sharks' core is pretty well set, but if there are to be additions, one of the most likely could be Justin Braun, who had an absolutely stellar season as one of the team's shutdown blueliners. He saw nearly 21 minutes a night last season and performed admirably going against top lines. The defense-first defenseman also had 17 points and posted positive possession numbers despite some really difficult assignments.

The same goes for Jason Demers, who recently signed a new two-year deal. He has proven to be a formidable puck mover and one who takes advantages of the matchups he faces. Demers and Braun really provide some great depth of talent on the Sharks blue line.

Though they may not end up being true core players, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto appear to be a pair of guys who are part of that second tier of forwards that could bring big contributions to the team either by way of production or filling depth roles.

The club also will be looking to some of its more recent draftees to enter the fray, including prized defensive prospect Mirco Mueller, who could even push for a spot this season. The Swiss rearguard is an intriguing prospect with big frame and some solid puck-moving abilities.

Sharks fans also have reason to be excited about 2014 27th overall pick Nikolai Goldobin. The skilled Russian posted 94 points in the OHL last season, including 38 goals. He may not be terribly far away from taking his talents to the next level, but patience may be the best path for bringing this high-end talent along.

Overview

The Sharks have a solid base, and that's why eyebrows were raising off of foreheads when the rebuilding term got thrown around. There's no doubt that the playoff disappointments are weighing heavily on everyone in the organization, including the players. It still makes little sense to blow things up. 

So how does this team change? Some of it might just have to be a changing of fortunes. The Sharks got a few bad breaks after winning the first three games of that series and they also happened to be facing a team that would go on to win three straight road Game 7s en route to the Stanley Cup. It's not like they got ousted by a bad club.

The fact that the Sharks have a central group of players that pretty much any team would be happy with is a good thing. They have a mix of young and old and a variety of contract costs as well. A good portion of the team's money is going right where it should be.

The concern heading into next season, however, is the fact that there were opportunities for the Sharks to get better this summer and they let both free agency and any possible trades (save for jettisoning Brad Stuart) pass them by. Their free-agent signings were mostly low-lineup fighters like John Scott. That's not going to help them very much.

There are a few things the Sharks are going to need. For one, they need goaltender Antti Niemi to regain his form after a subpar performance last season. He's playing in a contract year next season, so there's a lot of incentive to find whatever it was he had during the lockout season when he posted a .924 save percentage and earned a nod as a Vezina finalist. If he can raise that save percentage from the .913 he had last season and bring some consistency, the Sharks will be better in 2014-15.

The team also needs the core to keep producing at a high clip. They accounted for 56 percent of the team's production last season. That's a big piece of the pie, even with Couture and Burns being hurt for part of the season. Getting that group firing really drives this team and there's no reason to believe they can't do it again next season.

Doug Wilson should also be looking for trade options over the course of the season, possibly players with Stanley Cup titles in their past, but also who can contribute aside from providing experience. Anything to help try to change this team's fortunes would be good and it's not going to come without a little bit of player movement. It's easier said than done, especially if the club wants to keep the core intact.

No matter what happens, trades or no trades, the Sharks have a team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. They've had one for years now. The window is closing, though, so 2014-15 is a gigantic year for the organization, just like the past several have been without the end result needed.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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