Justin Braun

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 11:  Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks is congratulated by teammate Joe Thornton #19 after he scored in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers on February 11, 2017 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.The Philadelphia Flyers defeated the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in overtime.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Sharks have reason to wait on Thornton, Marleau extensions

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Two of San Jose’s most important and longest-tenured players, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Given the Sharks are in the midst of their Stanley Cup window — with Thornton and Marleau playing significant roles — it seems odd neither has put pen to paper on an extension yet.

But the Mercury News has a theory on why:

Here’s where it gets interesting. Next season, the NHL is adding a new team, the Vegas Golden Knights. That franchise will participate in an expansion draft. It will happen in June, a few days before the annual entry draft.  Each existing NHL team can protect either seven or eight forwards from being selected by the Golden Knights. However, pending unrestricted free agents will not be eligible for the expansion draft.

In other words, it behooves Wilson and the Sharks not to sign Marleau and Thornton until after the expansion draft. That way, the two players would not count toward the seven or eight forwards on the Sharks’ protected list (the exact number depends on choices the Sharks make at other positions.)

San Jose’s in a fairly unique position for the expansion draft. It is one of four teams not required to protect anybody — Calgary, St. Louis and Washington are the others — and, with the addition of the aforementioned Thornton-Marleau scenario, GM Doug Wilson would have serious flexibility when it comes to exposing players.

Not that he’s willing to divulge any information.

“My position is that I have no comment on that,” Wilson told the Mercury News. “People can anticipate and speculate about what our approach might be.”

ESPN touched on this potential scenario last month, noting that Wilson has some big decisions to make regardless if he chooses the seven forwards-three-defensemen-one goalie protected list, or the eight-skaters-and-a-goalie setup:

If you go 7-3-1, it means you protect just three defensemen — Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and probably Justin Braun — which then leaves Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon, Mirco Mueller and David Schlemko among those exposed.

What if the Sharks decide to go the 8-1 protection format route in order to protect four defensemen? That means only four forwards could be protected: Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and then take your pick from either Mikkel Boedker, Joel Ward, Melker Karlsson or Chris Tierney. (Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc are exempt.)

The risk in letting Thornton and Marleau get to free agency, of course, is that someone makes an offer neither can refuse. But it could be a risk worth taking. It’s fair to assume any potential offer would have to be massive in scope, given Thorton’s and Marleau’s ties to the Bay Area — the latter has spent his entire 20-year career with the Sharks, while the former has been there for over a decade.

Right now, there’s not much information about what type of extensions San Jose is offering. ESPN reported Thornton is eyeing another three-year deal — his last was a three-year, $20.25 million contract — and things are almost entirely silent on the Marleau front.

San Jose Sharks’ defense looks very promising

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 03:  Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues and Brent Burns #88 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic #44 of the San Jose Sharks go for the puck at SAP Center on January 3, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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In the long term, there are some questions about the San Jose Sharks’ defense.

For one thing, Brent Burns is due what could be a raise almost as big as his Burt’s Bees beard.

What’s even more troubling is, like the Sharks’ forwards, the defense’s upper ranks might see Father Time nipping at their heels. Burns is 31, Paul Martin is 35 and three defensemen are 29 in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and newly signed blueliner David Schlemko.

This isn’t to say that the Sharks will age as rapidly as Melisandre, but that group prompts more questions about how long San Jose’s window might be hope.

Quite a promising present

So, maybe it won’t be a strength forever … but wow, this group sure looks promising on paper heading into next season.

Burns gets the most attention thanks to his booming shot, strong all-around skills and bizarre presence, yet Team Canada isn’t oblivious to Vlasic’s subtler brilliance. Paul Martin might be slipping a bit, but he’s still a useful player.

The signing of Schlemko really ties the room together, though.

The point isn’t that Schlemko is a star or better than the likes of Jay Bouwmeester. The very different nature of their roles makes a comparison a little risky.

Instead, it argues that Schlemko is the sort of supporting cast player who can push the Sharks closer to having a quality defenseman on the ice during every shift.

Beyond those four blueliners, the Sharks have some interesting options. Braun enjoyed some nice playoff moments. Brenden Dillon has his flaws, but perhaps he’d flourish if used in more protected situations.

With Mirco Mueller and Dylan DeMelo among those waiting in the wings, it’s not as though the Sharks are totally devoid of young talent on defense.

In an age where it almost feels like teams would give up vital organs for difference-makers on defense, San Jose’s group looks primed to rank among the elite. After struggling when the likes of Roman Polak were caught in bad situations, the Sharks have a great chance to trot out a remarkably balanced group in 2016-17.

Poll: Will the Sharks make it back to the Stanley Cup Final?

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 25:  Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presents the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to Joe Pavelski #8 and the San Jose Sharks after their 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 25, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Not many people expected San Jose to be in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16, but with expectations at an all-time low, they did it.

San Jose has put together some talented teams and before last season, they weren’t able to get over the hump. But now that they’ve gotten over the hump, expectations are back up.

How realistic are these expectations though?

On paper, the Sharks are still loaded. They didn’t lose much this off-season and managed to add speedster Mikkel Boedker in free agency.

Still, when you’re dealing with a number of veterans, you never know when their production will start to dip.

Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are all over 30. Marleau and Thornton are 36 and 37-years-old and they’re entering the final year of their contracts.

The Stanley Cup hangover is real. Although the Sharks didn’t win it, those veterans went four rounds and played in some grueling games along the way. Will they be in tip-top shape come October?

On a more positive note, those veterans are surrounded by some good young players. Logan Couture has developed into a go-to guy, Tomas Hertl proved to be a difference maker at times last year, Joonas Donskoi scored some big goals in the playoffs and prospects like Mirco Mueller, Nikolay Goldobin and Timo Meier are on their way.

The team also has some remarkable depth on defense, as Burns is joined by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and a few other key contributors.

Between the pipes, Martin Jones‘ first season as a starting goaltender went pretty well.

“A special group,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after losing in the Stanley Cup Final, per the team’s website . “But only one team can win. That doesn’t take anything away from what those guys accomplished. I don’t think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. I think it’s been misplaced for a decade.

“I would hope they answered some questions. Let’s be honest. Not many people had us making the playoffs. Not many people had us beating [the Los Angeles Kings in the first round]. On an on. I thought a lot of questions were answered by that group.”

It won’t be easy for them to make it back to the final. They’ll have some stiff competition in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville and any other team that might surprise.

So, can this “special group” do it all over again next season?

Time to vote!

Sharks sign ‘solid puck-moving defenseman’ Schlemko — four years, $8.4 million

David Schlemko
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The defending Western Conference champions beefed up their blueline on the opening day of free agency — San Jose has inked journeyman blueliner David Schlemko to a four-year, $8.4 million deal, one that carries a $2.1M average annual cap hit.

More, from the Sharks:

“David is a solid puck-moving defenseman with good speed who can play the game at both ends,” said [GM Doug] Wilson. “He is coming off of a very productive season in New Jersey and we think he will fit well with our group.”

Schlemko, 29, posted career-highs in goals (6), assists (13), points (19), power-play points (12), game-winning goals (3) and shots on goal (104) in a career-best 67 games played with New Jersey last season. He led all Devils blueliners in goals, ranked T-2nd in points and ranked 3rd on the team in blocked shots (88) and T-3rd in power-play points. In addition, Schlemko skated the eighth-most minutes per game of any Devils skater (18:38).

Schlemko will bolster a pretty solid Sharks blueline, one that already featured the likes of Brent Burns, Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brenden Dillon. It’s possible Schlemko comes in and fills Roman Polak‘s spot on the bottom pairing next to Dillon.

That coupling was exposed at time in the Stanley Cup Final, though Schlemko might not the proper fit for a replacement given he’s a lefty, and so is Dillon.

Can the Sharks create ‘a little frustration’ for the Penguins if they force a Game 7?

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 09: Joonas Donskoi #27 of the San Jose Sharks and Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battle for position during the third period in Game Five of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on June 9, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) No one needs to remind the San Jose Sharks about the difficulties of closing out a playoff series, how each missed opportunity can give confidence to the opponent and plant seeds of doubt in the leading team.

Two years after becoming the fourth NHL team ever to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games, San Jose is trying to pull off a historic comeback of its own in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Sharks looks to stave off elimination for a second straight contest and force a decisive seventh game in the final when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 on Sunday night.

“The longer it goes, you just feel that pressure, `You got to get it done, you got to get it done,”‘ defenseman Justin Braun said. “And when it doesn’t happen it creates a little frustration and you’re like, `We could have been done with this days ago and we’re still going.’ I think that gets in your head a little bit.”

That’s what happened to San Jose in the first round in 2014 against Los Angeles and what the Sharks hope the Penguins are feeling after failing to win the Cup on home ice in Game 5.

Despite being outplayed for much of the series, including the Game 5 win when Pittsburgh outshot San Jose 46-21, the Sharks know the pressure on the Penguins will only increase of they can win at home to force the winner-take-all seventh game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.

“I’ve been a part of teams, especially over there, that have lost being up 3-1,” said Sharks defenseman Paul Martin, who spent the previous five years with Pittsburgh. “I think it’s more of a mental thing realizing your opportunity to finish it off is getting smaller and each loss gives that other team that much more belief and momentum that they can get it done and pull it off.”

Related: Paul Martin knows Penguins can lose a big series lead (He’s been there)

No team has lost the Stanley Cup Final after going up 3-1 since Toronto rallied to beat Detroit in 1942 after losing the first three games of the series.

But the Penguins have had problems closing out their playoff series in recent years. Since winning their third Stanley Cup back in 2009, they have blown series leads three time in the previous six postseasons.

They lost to Montreal in 2010 after going 3-2 in the series and then squandered 3-1 edges in losses to Tampa Bay in 2011 and the New York Rangers in 2014.

Now they lost in their first chance to close out the Sharks.

“I thought our guys did a really good job of handling it the right way,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “It was unfortunate that we didn’t get the result we were looking for. But we’re playing a very good opponent and we know that. We know this is the most difficult win to get. Our players are well aware of the expectations and the heightened intensity that we need to have in order to get this next win.”

The Penguins have little they would want to change from their Game 5 loss, other than the start. After allowing two goals in the first three minutes, Pittsburgh dominated much of the rest of the contest.

The Penguins scored twice in a 22-second span to tie the game just a few minutes after their early deficit and controlled the play over the final 58 minutes.

Only a stellar performance by San Jose goalie Martin Jones and a somewhat soft goal that Matt Murray allowed to Melker Karlsson later in the first gave the Sharks the win.

“While we were pretty good, it wasn’t enough,” forward Matt Cullen said. “You can look at good fortune or bad breaks or whatever. It doesn’t matter ultimately. The bottom line is we get a second shot at this and we don’t want to miss it.”

Murray has done especially well this postseason after any subpar performances. The rookie netminder has not lost back-to-back games all postseason. He followed up a shaky performance in Game 3 by topping 23 of 24 shots on the road in a 3-1 win in Game 4.

Murray is 5-0 with a .935 save percentage in the starts following his first five playoff losses.

“Usually it takes players a few years to acquire that type of mental toughness where your confidence doesn’t get shaken or your performance doesn’t get influenced by some of the adversity that you go through throughout the course of a game or from game to game,” Sullivan said. “Matt has shown an ability to just stay focused and just stay in the moment and be ready to compete and make that next save.”