On April 27th of this year the San Jose Sharks were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Finals after just six games. After a regular season that saw them win the President’s Trophy for having compiled the most points of any NHL team, after winning 53 of 82 regular season games, the Sharks season was over in the first round of the playoffs. It was only the fifth time since 1968 that the league’s top seed had been eliminated in the first round.
Fans in San Jose were justifiably outraged, as were members of the Sharks front office. Two days after their season had ended Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson had this to say to the media:
“The frustration is overwhelming. We owe an apology to our fans and our ownership. Everything will be evaluated. There’s nothing that’s off the table. This is going to be a tough, painful summer, and it should be. Every one of us should feel uncomfortable. There comes a time when this group needs to grow up and deal with what’s in front of them.”
Wilson did not go into specifics as to what he would do over the summer and mentioned that he would need time “to conduct the autopsy”. He did make it clear that while there was nothing “off the table” he had no intention of replacing head coach Todd McLellan.
With the head coach safe and with the GM apologizing and insinuating that his players were immature much of the focus fell onto the Sharks three marquee players – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov. Even head coach Todd McLellan chimed in with criticism of the big three:
“The team hasn’t succeeded with them driving the bus. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it, but I think the questions grow every year that you don’t succeed.”
In the Sharks case that means that the questions are growing to giant proportions. In the last four years the Sharks have won two Pacific Division titles, averaged 107 points per season and compiled a regular season record of 197-94-37. Over that same time they’ve had a Hart Trophy winner (league MVP), an Art Ross Trophy winner (league scoring champ), a Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner (most goals) and a President’s Trophy. But in the playoffs following those four years they have been eliminated in the second round three times and eliminated in the first round once. Their combined record in the playoffs the last four years is 20-21.
Had this first round exit happened to any other NHL team the reaction might not have been so angry. But, in San Jose it’s become a case where regular season success receives very little fanfare because many fans are now waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s gotten to the point where the President’s Trophy means virtually nothing to the fans because it was followed almost immediately by another early exit from the postseason.
So after all this it was expected that we would see big changes made to the Sharks roster this summer. Many people guessed that team captain Patrick Marleau would be traded in order to give the team a new captain, new leadership and some much-needed cap space in order to pursue other players. Others guessed that goalie Evgeni Nabokov would be dealt in favor of a more proven playoff goalie like Nikolai Khabibulin. One thing everyone agreed on, though, was that changes were needed and changes were coming.
It is now July 14th and as of this writing, no significant changes have been made. The Sharks have not made one single trade since being eliminated by the Ducks and are one of just three NHL teams (Detroit and Nashville are the others) that have yet to sign a single free agent that was not already on their roster.
The only changes that have happened in San Jose thus far are departures of back-ups and role players. Back-up goalie Brian Boucher signed with Philadelphia and third line grinder Travis Moen signed with Montreal. In addition to that fourth line winger Claude Lemieux retired and fellow fourth line forward Jeremy Roenick is debating retirement. Meanwhile three players have been re-signed by the Sharks – defensemen Kent Huskins and Rob Blake and forward Ryan Clowe. At the draft the Sharks had no first round draft pick and made no trades of consequence.
So where are the changes? Where is the shake-up? Has Wilson finished his autopsy and concluded that his roster still has some life in it?
If the Sharks are to go into next season having made only minor changes to their roster, no changes to their teams leadership and no changes to the coaching staff…why would anyone expect different results? We all know that this Sharks team is capable of dominating the regular season. We also know that this Sharks team is capable of folding like a wet taco in the playoffs. When the eighth seeded team in the Conference, a team that barely made it into the postseason to begin with, can bounce you out in the first round despite the fact that you have home ice advantage and sported a 32-5-4 record on home ice in the regular season I believe you need to do more than change the back-up goalie and get a new forward for your third and fourth lines.
The NHL entry draft has come and gone. The free agency period is concluding its second full week tomorrow and all impact players are long gone. The window of opportunity for Wilson to make dramatic and meaningful changes to his roster has all but closed.
While it is still possible for Wilson to make a trade to ship out a veteran or bring in a key player the market for such trades is drying up. Most teams have already made trades or signed free agents to fill in their rosters and no longer have the need, or the room under the cap, to take on a large salary. Even fewer teams are looking to shed talent right now so the Sharks could be hard pressed to find players worth trading for.
Making life even tougher for Wilson is the salary cap, but that’s a problem he brought on himself. As it stands right now the Sharks have already got 16 skaters and one goalie under contract for $55.5 million and only have $1.6 million left under the salary cap. Perhaps most baffling is the defensive corps where Wilson has mysteriously signed seven veterans to deals of $1.7 million per year or more. With only six defensive spots to fill the Sharks are assuring themselves of having one of the highest paid healthy scratches in the league every single night unless they make a trade but again, few teams have the cap space or the need to take on a high priced defenseman right now.
Doug Wilson is obviously a very smart man when it comes to running a hockey team and there’s no doubt that he has a plan for this franchise. However, if going into this season with the same cast of characters that failed on such an epic level last season is his plan then I cannot see how he expects to enjoy any more success the second time around. Maybe they get past the first round this year, maybe they even make it into the Conference Finals. But after four years of dominating in the regular season and flopping in the postseason, would that be enough? Would anything other than a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals be enough to call the Sharks season a success? And if this group was unable to beat the eighth seeded Ducks three months ago what makes anyone think that they would be capable of making a run to the Finals the following season?
As it stands now Doug Wilson has simply picked up where his players left off in late April. He is dropping the ball and letting down the fans, and ownership, of the Sharks. I simply see no reason to believe that this Sharks team will suddenly find the ability to win in the postseason and realize their potential. Unless Wilson is able to make some meaningful changes to the roster before opening night I believe that he will either apologize once again for an early playoff exit or he will be dusting off his resume and packing his office.