Once a former Western Conference powerhouse, the San Jose Sharks have slipped from the playoff picture for the first time in eleven years. This result seems appropriate for a club that was thoroughly humiliated by the LA Kings in the first round of last season’s playoffs, losing four consecutive playoff games and blowing a three games to nil series lead in the process. It was painful, but despite this crushing defeat, few seemed ready to count the Sharks out of the playoffs this year. Their failures have now come full circle, and the Sharks have come to a big fork in the road. How can they stay relevant in a Western Conference so stocked with talent? How can they avoid the basement-dwelling doom that has claimed the Coyotes, Hurricanes, and Oilers?
MOVE SWIFTLY FOR ONCE
After the embarrassment of the reverse-sweep at the hands of the Kings, Doug Wilson carried a heartfelt message to the media:
“We have already started the process of what decisions we’re going to make. There are options. Status quo is not one of them. The process has started. It’s not too complicated, fairly easy to figure out. Our coaching staff is part of that and my recommendation is that our coaching staff be part of this going forward.”
One full season later, the Sharks are going to miss the playoffs for the first time in a very long time, Joe Thorton, Patrick Marleau, Antti Niemi, and Todd McLellan are all still employed, and the only actual change made was deciding the team would no longer have a captain. The organization moves slowly, it never makes any sudden changes, and avoids conflict at all costs. They are timid and indecisive, and refuse to address problems until they’re painful obvious to everyone. One of the most common buzzwords in the NHL is “culture” — and there are few cultures in the league worse than the one hanging over San Jose. If the front office doesn’t move quickly to stop the bleeding, the Sharks could languish in the basement of the hyper-competitive Western Conference for years.
PURGE THE TOXIC LOCKER ROOM
“I think Doug just needs to shut his mouth” hissed Thorton, after Sharks GM Doug Wilson candidly revealed to season ticket holders that Jumbo Joe was stripped of the captaincy because the pressure and stress of the position got to him. Joe Thorton — revered as a NHL veteran and respected for his supposed leadership — took to the press to criticize his general manager, and said in public what a bigger man would have said in private. Instead of handling this conflict professionally, he drug out the dirty laundry for everyone to see. Are these the qualities you want passed down to youngsters like Pavelski and Logan Couture? In the Sharks organization, insubordination is no big deal if you’ve got a no trade clause, and you can say what you like about the people above you. The Sharks won’t rebound until Thorton is out of town. Make him a healthy scratch for an entire season if need be — it’s better than poisoning your locker room.
MAKE A COACHING CHANGE
Todd McLellan has coached the Sharks for seven years, and early in his tenure, San Jose enjoyed a handful of deep playoff runs and two Conference final berths. He’s just fifty wins shy of 500 NHL wins in his career. He’s not a bad coach, and in many ways, the Sharks have horribly underachieved despite his best efforts. The truth in this league is that every coach has a shelf life, and McLellan should have been fired after allowing the Kings to crawl back from a 3-0 series deficit. He was thoroughly outcoached by Sutter, and as good of a coach as I think McLellan is — there is no chance the Sharks lose that series if Mike Babcock is behind the bench.
NO FREE ROSTER SPOTS
What do Ben Smith, Mirco Mueller, Adam Burrish, John Scott, Matt Tennyson, Brenndan Dillon, and Scott Hannan all have in common? They’ve all played more than twenty games for the Sharks this season and have never broken double-digits in points, and all (except for Smith) have a negative or zero -/+. It doesn’t take much to earn a spot on the starting roster, and why should we be surprised? Thorton and Marleau continue to receive ice time despite showing their age — especially when contrasted with the youthful vigor of Burns, Pavelski, and Couture. Why should the kids backcheck when they’re surrounded by lukewarm NHLers on all sides? Until the Sharks actually change the composition of this hockey club, they’ll continue to suffer from an identity crisis. Are they a young team filled with talent up front that will skate everyone to death, or are they “work smarter, not harder” group of seasoned veterans looking to capitalize on experience?
San Jose is on the brink in the worst way. If the status quo remains the same, they will continue to lose ground to great developing teams, and will soon find themselves at the bottom of the standings. The Sharks could quickly return to respectability, but they need to make effective and sudden changes and soon. Time is not on their side, and without holding those responsible for the on-ice failures accountable, they’ll continue their precarious slide to the bottom. The Sharks could easily rebuild on the fly, add assets by trading veterans, and send a message that the team desperately needs — failure isn’t acceptable, and we won’t allow you to fail in this uniform.