What Next For Sharks?

Straight defeats at the hands of 29th placed Arizona and Dallas this past weekend ensured San Jose’s slim hopes of making the post season were well and truly buried.

For the first time since 2003 the Sharks missed the cut, amid simmering tensions and internal wrangling; and now the California franchise faces some of its toughest choices in recent memory.

Is this a team in need of a few tweaks? Or a complete reset both on the ice and off it?

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Going nuclear on a team that made ten straight post season appearances, including a Presidents Trophy in 2009, may be somewhat extreme – but that isn’t to say a significant change wouldn’t be welcome.

San Jose did an excellent job phasing in Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic whilst maintaining their place among the Western Conference’s best teams. It was almost like re-tooling on the fly, bringing in the club’s ‘next generation’ while staying on pace with the league’s best teams at the same time.

It looked impressive from the outside, and felt like the Sharks had seamlessly moved from ‘Patrick and Joe’s team’ to ‘Logan and Joe’s team’ without missing a beat. Stalwarts Marleau and Thornton would become wile veterans, providing key secondary scoring to compliment the Couture/Pavelski spearhead.

On the ice the transition has seemed less smooth – or at least, was made to feel less smooth – as continuous question marks over who exactly was leading the team dogged the club.

Patrick Marleau wore the C from 2003 to 2009, then lost it but gained an A, which he then lost only to later get it back.

Joe Thornton was made Captain in 2010, following Rob Blake’s retirement. The former Boston centre then very publicly lost the job last summer, but still ended up an Alternate Captain for this season.

This somewhat messy situation came about as part of the teams seemingly never ending desire to turn over a new leaf.

After San Jose surrendered a 3-0 series lead against Los Angeles in the first round of the 2014 play-offs, the clubs top brass decided to enter pre-season training camp without a Captain or any alternates in a bid to find ‘the guy’ to act as the Sharks beating heart (no Roenick-based pun intended).

Sharks blog Fear The Fin noted the organisation’s very public desire to change the ‘culture’ of the team when Thornton was demoted:

Determinations of a new leadership group will be made at some point, but not necessarily before the season starts. Technically, Thornton could regain his captaincy when those decisions are made but that seems unlikely.

This isn’t completely unexpected as McLellan dropped hints two months ago at the draft in Philadelphia that it was possible the Sharks would enter the season without a captain or any alternates. He reiterated again last week that the “rebuild” Doug Wilson referred to at the start of the offseason was about resetting “the hierarchy and culture in the organization.” Entering the season as the only team in the NHL without a captain or any alternates should accomplish that.

I don’t pretend to know anything about the dynamics in the Sharks’ locker room but pretending that taking Thornton’s “C” away changes how the leadership structure operates seems silly. Thornton and Marleau have been in San Jose longer than every other Shark on the roster; they were the established leaders of the team, both on and off the ice, when Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture and every single one of the other candidates to replace Thornton as captain broke into the league. Slapping a felt “C” on Couture’s chest isn’t going to suddenly make everyone listen to him instead of Thornton unless the real reason John Scott and Mike Brown are here is to punch their team mates into submission until they do.

The final paragraph is the most significant. Veteran players of Thornton and Marleau’s stature tend to hold sway regardless of what letter may or may not be on their shirt. Shuffling those letters around doesn’t change that, though the very public spat between Thornton and Shark’s GM Doug Wilson a little under a month ago might.

Opining that your General Manager needs to “needs to shut his mouth” suggests more than a little frustration on Thornton’s part following Wilson’s answer as to why the 35-year old lost the captaincy:

“He cares about the game so much. The reason we took the ‘C’ off him … Joe carries the weight of the team on his shoulders, and he’s got such a big heart that when stress comes on him, he lashes out at people,” Wilson said, “and it kind of impacts them.

“The pressure and stress, I felt, was getting to Joe,” the general manager said. “And I sat him down and said we need other players to step up and share this. He got it. He didn’t like it, but he got it and he understood it.”

Source: The Mercury News

How much of Wilson vs Thornton was ‘heat of the moment’, as opposed to a deep rooted problem within the club, could be debated – but the clash almost felt like a microcosm of the clubs problems.

Is it a roster problem in San Jose? Or a management one?

Even removing the collapse versus LA last year, San Jose have failed to make regular season dominance translate in to play-off success. Conference Final appearances in 2010 and 2011 counted for little when they were so easily swept aside by the Blackhawks and Canucks respectively.

Taking aim at the players for these ‘failures’ is the easy answer – they are the ones doing the business on the ice after all (or not as the case may be); but it’s also a roster that has undergone limited changes.

Brent Burns was a great addition, Thomas Hertl is developing in to a good player; but adding John Scott isn’t up there with ‘Patrick Roy to the Avs’ in terms of making a good team in to a championship team.

Wilson may simply have remained too loyal to his core, believing that they can get it done and the mantra that you ‘have to lose to know how to win’ should prevail – with each play-off defeat part of a wider learning process for a club on a longer path to glory.

But at some point that faith can become counter intuitive – leading a team further down an already fruitless road.

There is no doubt firing a GM whose team has never previously missed the play-offs during his watch is risky – but eventually even the most respectable of records needs to show improvement; where making the play-offs is no longer enough and winning is the only tonic.

And when such periods in a team’s life cycle are reached, everyone comes under scrutiny – enter Todd McLellan.

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The former Red Wings assistant forms the third side of this triangle of woe – the Head Coach of an ‘under achieving side’. But once again, the picture is less than crystal clear.

47-year old McLellan holds a 310-161-66 record as the Sharks bench boss. He guided them to the Presidents Trophy in his first year at the helm and became the second-fastest coach in NHL history to reach 300 wins on February 13th.

One of the most highly rated coaches in the NHL, the Saskatchewan native would almost certainly find a new job before the summer is over if San Jose did give him the boot.

Any coaching change needs to involve someone who can make your club better assuming control. Are San Jose able to find someone better? Other than Dan Bylsma, few names spring to mind as potential upgrades to McLellan – and Bylsma’s credentials for the job hinge largely on helping take an already strong Pittsburgh side that extra mile.

The situation in San Jose is far different – and if McLellan, who has 1-year remaining on his current contract, and Wilson can use their relatively solid track records to fend off the usurper’s knives, that means change needs to come on the ice.

The Sharks could be relatively brutal with their roster and remain a solid outfit, if they have the appetite to really overhaul the line up that is.

It seems safe to assume Pavelski and Couture, both signed until 2019, will remain part of the teams plans, as will Tomas Hertl. Defensively; Vlasic, Brent Burns (arguably the Sharks best player over the past two seasons), 20-year old Mirco Mueller and the recently extended Justin Braun also seem unlikely to be moved, despite this seasons downturn, leaving a respectable group around which a quick rebuild can be focussed.

Add in a good pick at this years draft (potentially top 10 – though they do have a 3% chance of landing the 1st overall pick…), and San Jose don’t quite need the root and stem rebuild some other clubs need to become a play-off team again.

The most obvious way to make both a significant change to this roster, and garner a useful return, is to look at moving the likes of Thornton and Marleau.

Coming off the back of his worst campaign since 2000, Thornton is still considered one of the best play makers in the game. With 2-years left at $6.75m a piece, he is sure to attract interest should he be willing to waive his no movement clause.

Likewise Marleau has 2-years left at $6.5m each, and has netted 30+ goals in seven season – a record not to be sniffed at despite his advancing years – and along with Thornton represents a veteran talent that could boost a contender’s chances of glory, whilst having enough value to net the Sharks a good return.

Such a move would also go a long way to truly changing the clubs culture. Again, adding and removing letters on sweaters doesn’t guarantee change – trading people does. For better or, sometimes, worse.

Undoubtedly moving Thornton or Marleau would be (again) a risk, but that’s where San Jose finds itself. Moving bit part players like Raffi Torres or Scott Hannan won’t affect the change this organisation seems to need.

Where it had a window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, San Jose is now at a cross roads. Sticking with what they have, including re-signing players like Antti Niemi, may bear some fruit again – on paper you’d still favour San Jose to be a play-off team – but when a Stanley Cup is your aim, and you’re four years removed from even making the Conference Final, is standing pat truly an option?

Wilson has served the franchise well, McLellan would not look out of place behind any bench in the NHL, and this is a talented roster. But somewhere along the line things have broken down for San Jose – leaving them on the outside looking in this year.

If ever there was an opportunity to make a change, this is it. And it’s hard not to feel like it’s needed.

And a real change of direction can only truly be directed from the top – which puts Doug Wilson squarely in the cross hairs.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on April 7, 2015, in 2015 NHL Draft, Hockey, San Jose Sharks and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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