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How Quickly Can Sharks Build Contender?

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Credit: Boston University/Matt Woolverton

Can the San Jose Sharks win the Stanley Cup in Macklin Celebrini and Will Smith’s third NHL season?

It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Celebrini and Smith’s most frequent comparison as a duo, won their first championship.

Of course, I’m not putting that kind of pressure on the pair.

But using the 2009-10 Blackhawks, Toews and Kane’s first title, and the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby’s fourth year and first Cup, as models, here’s how quick the San Jose Sharks might be able to turn it around…if almost everything goes right.

Are Celebrini & Smith the Truth?

How fast can Celebrini and Smith become top-flight players?

For example, Toews and Kane were essentially point-per-game producers from the get-go.

In 2007-08, Toews and Kane’s rookie year, 2006 third-overall pick Toews put up 54 points in 64 games, while taking on heavy 5-on-5, power play, and penalty kill duties. 2007 first-overall pick Kane scored 72 points in 82 games, winning the Calder Trophy.

Chicago went from the fifth-worst team in 2006-07 with 71 points to just missing the playoffs with 88 points.

Two years later, when the Hawks won the Cup, Toews finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting and Kane was a First All-Star Team winger.

It’s a high bar, but if the San Jose Sharks want to turn it around quick, Celebrini and Smith will almost certainly need to become their best forwards almost immediately.

It’s okay if that doesn’t happen – 2013 first-overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, for example, took five seasons to become an elite center – but the faster, the better.

Air Support

Of course, Toews and Kane walked onto a more talented Hawks squad in 2007-08. Up front, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp, and Kris Versteeg would all become key members of Chicago’s 2010 title team.

On the San Jose Sharks, who will Celebrini and Smith’s support be?

For what it’s worth, in 2007-08, 2004 second-rounder Bolland and 2004 seventh-rounder Brouwer were still unknown quantities, as were, to a large degree, Ladd and Versteeg.

Ladd was a Carolina Hurricanes’ 2004 No. 4 pick that the Hawks acquired for young star Tuomo Ruutu, while Versteeg was a 2004 Boston Bruins’ fifth-rounder that they acquired for Brandon Bochenski.

2003 eighth-rounder Byfuglien broke out with 19 goals that season. Sharp, 26, was the veteran of this group, acquired by Chicago in 2005, along with Eric Meloche, for a 2006 third-rounder and Matt Ellison.

What striking? Most of these key support forwards came to Chicago via shrewd drafting or trades, with only Ladd, a top pick himself, acquired for first-round value in 2001 ninth-overall Ruutu.

Toews, Kane, Bolland, Sharp, Byfuglien, Versteeg, and Ladd would account for seven of Chicago’s top-nine forwards in their 2010 championship run.

The other two forwards? Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky.

Future Hall of Famer Hossa, of course, was a necessary ingredient to this championship, and their 2013 and 2015 triumphs. The Blackhawks signed the 30-year-old, still playing at a world-class level, to a 12-year, $63.3 million contract in the summer of 2009.

For the San Jose Sharks, point is, it’s not just about your potential No. 1 and 2 forwards, but if they’re getting championship-caliber help.

Could high-end help come from William Eklund, Fabian Zetterlund, Quentin Musty, Filip Bystedt, David Edstrom, Thomas Bordeleau, Danil Gushchin, Kasper Halttunen, Collin Graf, or somewhere else?

Eklund and Zetterlund are the only proven NHL players in this group of youngsters.

Can they add a still-in-his-prime elite forward a la Hossa at some point? Like last name rhymes with “recital” in the summer of 2025?

Who’s at D?

It will be hard for the San Jose Sharks to match the defensive backbone of the Blackhawks’ championships.

In 2010, 26-year-old Duncan Keith won his first Norris Trophy, two-way stalwart Brent Seabrook was just 24, and shutdown specialist Niklas Hjalmarsson was just 22.

At the moment, the Sharks only have one projected future top-four defenseman in their system, New Jersey Devils’ 2020 first-round pick Shakir Mukhamadullin.

For what it’s worth, only one of Chicago’s trio was a first-round pick, 14th-overall Seabrook in 2003. Keith was a 2002 second-rounder and Hjalmarsson was a 2005 fourth-rounder.

Rounding out Chicago’s top-four in 2010 was another expensive veteran UFA acquisition, puck-mover Brian Campbell, who was inked to an eight-year, $57.1 million contract in the summer of 2008.

If you want to equate Mukhamadullin to Seabrook, which is a bit of a stretch, there’s no Keith or Hjalmarsson to be found in the Sharks’ organization, at least at the moment. Of course, maybe a prospect like Mattias Havelid or Luca Cagnoni will surprise.

Here’s where the 2008-09 Cup-winning Penguins might provide some more hope: You don’t need an elite defensive corps to be a champion.

This was Crosby’s fourth season and Evgeni Malkin’s third, and both were 100-point scorers, sort of the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl of their day.

Besides fellow youngsters Jordan Staal, Maxime Talbot, and Tyler Kennedy, the rest of their playoff top-nine up front was comprised of veterans Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, and Ruslan Fedotenko.

And on defense? Underrated Sergei Gonchar, 34, was their No. 1 defenseman, chiefly a tremendous power play weapon. After Gonchar, defensive stalwarts Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, and Hal Gill rounded out their top-four.

Scuderi, 30, was a 1998 Pens’ fifth-rounder; Orpik, 28, was a 2000 first-rounder; and Gill, 33, was acquired at the 2008 Trade Deadline.

Kris Letang was on this squad but was just in his third season.

They weren’t Keith/Seabrook/Hjalmarsson in their prime, by any stretch.

Granted, that’s probably why it took the 2009 Penguins seven years until their next championship, while the Hawks ruled the first half of the decade.

But whether it’s Mukhamadullin, Mario Ferraro, their 2024 No. 14 pick, a trade, or elsewhere, the Sharks have a long way to go before they’ve solidified a championship-caliber defense.

Between the Pipes?

Like now, Stanley Cup-winning goaltending came from many places back then.

The 2009 Penguins and 2010 Blackhawks are studies in that.

Pittsburgh, of course, was backstopped by 2003 first-overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury.

Meanwhile, Chicago was led by a face familiar to San Jose Sharks fans, Antti Niemi, an undrafted free agent who was signed out of Finland in 2008. 26-year-old Niemi would outplay veteran Cristobal Huet in 2009-10 and start every playoff contest.

So could Mackenzie Blackwood or Vitek Vanecek lead the Sharks to a championship? Or crazy as it sounds, Georgi Romanov?

You can’t rule any NHL-level goalie out, if the team is good enough around him.

As important as the position of goaltending is, it’s also easier to figure out than forward and defense.

So if the San Jose Sharks were to turn things around quickly, these dominos will have to fall, roughly in this order: First, Macklin Celebrini and Will Smith have to live up to the hype. Then, can you provide them enough support up front and on the back-end? That’s likely an elite player or two or more, along with superb depth players.

That’s a tall order, but if you’ve got No. 1 (Celebrini) and No. 2 (Smith) figured out, you can start dreaming big.

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