Two days after being knocked out of the playoffs with a Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks started the all-too-familiar process of packing up for the summer before the Stanley Cup finals have even begun.
The mood at Sharks Ice on Thursday was a little different than years past during a stretch of nine straight playoff appearances without a championship.
Along with the disappointment of another year without a Stanley Cup, there was optimism that came from a strong close to the regular season, a first-round sweep of Vancouver and a razor-tight seven-game loss to the defending champion Kings that gives the organization hope for the immediate future.
"We didn't accomplish our goal. That's a disappointment," coach Todd McLellan said. "But on the journey to that goal, I thought we became a grittier, faster, more supportive team. We played toward our identity and grew our team in that fashion. ... We think that we have a foundation set to move forward with the retooling or refresh, whatever we want to call it, of our organization."
'We didn't accomplish our goal. That's a disappointment. But on the journey to that goal, I thought we became a grittier, faster, more supportive team. We played toward our identity and grew our team in that fashion.' —Sharks head coach Todd McLellan
General manager Doug Wilson started that process when he dealt veterans Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe for draft picks just before the trade deadline. The team responded to those deals by playing their best hockey of the season.
They went from a team on the outside of the playoff picture with one month to go in the regular season to one that was just a bounce or two away from knocking off goalie Jonathan Quick and the Kings before being eliminated with a 2-1 loss in Los Angeles.
"We were that close," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "We were that close to moving on. That's frustrating. That being said I think we've come a long way from where we were a couple of months ago. I've been here five years now and we have something really good going. The summer is going to change a few things, which always happens. It's frustration but also proud of the way we competed. We were that close."
The Sharks have the second-longest current streak of playoff appearances in the NHL, having made it every year since 2004. But they have been unable to get over the hump despite a talented roster with veteran stars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Boyle and emerging ones like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.
"There's something special about this group," Wilson said. "To go through the reset we did and have some key veteran players leave out of here is an indication of the good younger players that we have underneath, and the belief they have in their coach and how we need to play. It's kind of where we are."
The Sharks go into the off-season with many of the key components to the team under contract for at least next season. The most prominent potential unrestricted free agents are forwards Raffi Torres and Scott Gomez and defenceman Scott Hannan.
Torres provided an immediate jolt to the team when he was acquired from Phoenix before the trade deadline. After excelling against Vancouver, Torres played one game against the Kings before being suspended for the rest of the series for what the league called an illegal hit to the head of Jarret Stoll.
"I still feel like it was a clean hit," Torres said. "I didn't do anything that I don't think I'll do again. Obviously, it's tough when he's kind of in a vulnerable position, but I feel like I did my best to stay within the guidelines."
Torres has been suspended four times, including a 21-game ban for an illegal hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa in last year's playoffs for Phoenix.
But the Sharks say they still want Torres back. Torres said he wants to stay in San Jose, pointing to the general manager's public complaints about the latest suspension that resulted in a $100,000 US fine for the organization as evidence of the support he felt in San Jose.
"It's not going to be hard to make a decision to stay here," Torres said. "They know I want to."
The Sharks also need to decide whether to use one of the two compliance buyouts they are allowed under the new collective bargaining agreement. The most likely candidate would be forward Marty Havlat, who played only two games in the playoffs because of a pulled groin.
Havlat has been mostly a disappointment in two seasons with the Sharks and is owed $10 million over the next two years. The Sharks could choose to buy him out for two-thirds of that amount to create more salary cap room to lock up potential 2014 free agents Couture and Pavelski to long-term deals this summer.