It’s been almost three months since the San Jose Sharks were eliminated from the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs in spectacular fashion. Holding a 3-0 first-round series lead against the rival Los Angeles Kings, the Sharks were outscored 18-5 as they dropped the final four games to lose the series.
That hurts as much to type as it does to read for Sharks fans, as it’s become common knowledge to the point that it feels like explaining hockey is played with a puck.
As if the pain of that defeat wasn‘t enough, the Kings marched to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons while the Sharks were again faced with questions about underachieving in the postseason.
The Sharks were at a crossroads in the days and weeks following their elimination on April 30.
Should they tip their caps to one of the best teams in recent years and look to improve an already loaded roster for another run at the champs in 2014-15 or begin a systematic process of scapegoating veterans in an effort to transform the face of a team that has been a regular-season dynamo but a playoff flop for nearly a decade?
There are teams in the NHL that choose to linger between ninth and 12th in the conference for years, refusing to rebuild, so how and why would the Sharks, who finished with 111 points last season, opt to go down that path? They wouldn‘t, right?
Despite playing the final three games of the series without Marc-Edouard Vlasic (he was concussed early in Game 5), a Canadian Olympian and one of the league’s best defensemen, and with Logan Couture playing Game 7 with a broken hand he suffered in a fight at the end of Game 6, the Sharks took the tank-is-half-empty approach and decided to sell fans on the notion of a rebuild.
Doug Wilson: “When you enter into this type of phase, no options are off the table. You explore everything.” #SJSharks
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) May 15, 2014
Wilson: “Every one of our young players will be given a chance to take whatever role they want … they can take it, in all positions.”
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) May 15, 2014
Yet here we are in mid-July, and it looks as though a “rebuild” of any kind won’t be taking place. The Sharks are in this gray area between making a push for a championship after falling oh so short against the eventual champions and tearing down a team that has been a bounce (hello, Vancouver stanchion) or two from winning a Cup in seasons past.
It wasn‘t that long ago that general manager Doug Wilson was so against the use of the word “rebuild” that he took pre-emptive measures to make sure the media understood that was not the plan in San Jose.
During the 2013 season, things weren‘t going all that great for the Sharks. They were 13-11-6 (6-11-6 after a 7-0 start), which led to the trading of Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe for draft picks.
The Murray deal is what began the “reset and refresh” process—Wilson’s preferred, PR-friendly description of the act of trading veterans for picks—and during that conference call with the media, he was emphatic that this was not the beginning of a rebuild.
Doug Wilson on rebuilding: “We don’t use the world ‘rebuild’ because that classically means six, seven years.” Prefers “reset” or “refresh.”
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) March 25, 2013
It’s very important to understand what the Sharks have been doing—or trying to do, really—in 2014 by seeing what they did in 2013. Wilson knows the connotation and the perception that comes with a GM using the word rebuild—it signals a tectonic shift in an organization’s direction, and, using Wilson’s own words, can mean six or seven years to turn things around.
That’s why it’s hard to believe Wilson didn‘t know exactly what he was doing in the wake of the 2014 collapse against the Kings when he used the word “rebuild” to describe the Sharks’ offseason blueprint.
Here’s what Wilson had to say during a conference call with reporters on June 17, as relayed by Eric Gilmore of NHL.com:
It’s the rebuild, and ‘the rebuild’ is a term that we haven’t used a lot recently or probably in a long time. Historically, every team in the league that has had success has probably gone through that phase. We did start it a year ago. We used that terminology, ‘reset-refresh.’ It really was a form of rebuild. We know that we haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish.
We feel that we’ve got a good core of young players, almost all of them homegrown, drafted by us or have come up through the system that we feel comfortable to lead the way on that. But that’s what we have to do, and you can’t commit to it and not do it. We were not going to trade a [Tomas] Hertl or a Mirco [Mueller] or a [Matt] Nieto or a first-round pick or second-round picks in this season because we wanted to commit to it. That’s the phase we’re in. There’s no avoiding it. That’s what we need to do.
While never addressing Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau’s status specifically, here’s what Wilson said about trading players with no-movement clauses, something both players have in their contracts, which were signed in January:
I’ve had players with specific clauses before, … My conversations with those two guys will stay between me and them, but I also have other [veterans]. … It’s all the veteran guys. If a guy’s 31 or 32 or 33, and we’re going to rebuild, does it fit for them? It might not. … The rebuild is going to take place regardless. We’re committed to it and whatever things we need to do to get to that point. I’ll just say people will be treated the way they have been historically: with respect and honesty.
It’s hard to believe Wilson was talking about anyone but Thornton and Marleau, as Dan Boyle was already informed that he wouldn‘t be re-signed and the process to buy out Marty Havlat had begun. It’s not impossible to find other “veterans” to which Wilson may have been referring, but dealing Raffi Torres or Adam Burish hardly constitutes a rebuild.
Those quotes came two weeks after this doozy from Wilson to Tim Kawakami of The San Jose Mercury News: “I want players that want to play here, not just live here.”
Let’s all be grown-ups here and assume Wilson was talking about trading Thornton and Marleau. He waited a month after losing to the Kings before dropping the bomb about wanting players who want to play in San Jose, then another two weeks before openly discussing a rebuild when in the past he was loathe to do so.
So what changed? How could a GM who invested three years and about $21 million in both Thornton and Marleau in January suddenly decide in June that these guys needed to be trade chips in a potential rebuild? Did Wilson choose to change course on a three-year decision based on four games? That seems to fly in the face of a person who has been making smart, measured decisions in San Jose since 2003.
A logical conclusion is ownership, led by majority owner Hasso Plattner, put Wilson to a test, but it’s hard to say what test it was, exactly. Was Wilson told it’s him or Thornton/Marleau? Was Wilson told it’s Thornton/Marleau or coach Todd McLellan?
If that’s the case, it’s easy to see why Wilson would look to deal his star veterans, especially if it was between them and a coach who is one of the best in the business and could be an asset with the organization for the next decade while the shelf lives of Thornton and Marleau are much shorter, no matter how productive they are now.
But with no-movement clauses and players who enjoy living in Northern California, Wilson’s only play for trading them was to make where they live less desirable. Go to the media and talk about rebuilding. Go to the media and hint that some players enjoy living there more than playing there. If Wilson shames them publicly and presents a bleak near-future for players near the end of their careers who want to win titles, that would make them more amenable to a deal.
It didn‘t work, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever would work. Thornton has endured more media criticism than just about every (non-Russian) player during his career, and Marleau has lasted in San Jose despite having been stripped of the “C” during the summer of 2009; if that didn‘t make Marleau feel unwanted and ask for a deal, why would the same move work if done to Thornton?
I can understand when people say there are different types of rebuild, … We’re not going to finish last to try and draft people first or second. This is not something this franchise can do, because we already have some good players in key positions. You’re not going to see us with 50 points next year — we’re too good a team for that.
I expect this team to do well, but it doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s what they think, and they know what they need to fix in that room. And I give them credit, they’re doing it. They are talking to each other, they are taking ownership in some things.
I said, yes, we’ll take a step backward and we’ll take a big step forward when everybody steps to the forefront. That will take place in September.
This is really the best situation for ownership, Wilson, McLellan, fans and players alike. Wilson can go to ownership or McLellan and say, “Look, you saw what I did. I tried to make deals. But they weren‘t willing to waive their no-movement clauses no matter what I did. I couldn’t accept 40 cents on the dollar for our two best forwards anyway. We’ve got a really good team here, so let’s go out and make the best of this.”
And personally, I wouldn‘t put it past Wilson that he was OK with this being the end game all along. Keep the core intact, use that eight-week window of looking to rebuild as a way of avoiding overspending on free agents, and take a team with some blossoming young players and incorporate them with the aging stars he’d like to slowly phase out of the leadership group or heck, the team altogether.
That’s the not the worst offseason plan, but while the rebuild drama was consuming San Jose, the other Cup contenders in the West were making themselves better in an effort to compete with the champion Kings.
The Blackhawks added Brad Richards to upgrade their No. 2 center spot; the Ducks did the same by acquiring Ryan Kesler and took a cheap gamble on Dany Heatley; the Blues paid big bucks for Paul Stastny; the Wild signed Thomas Vanek; and the Stars traded for Jason Spezza and signed Ales Hemsky.
The “rebuilding” Sharks signed 29-year-old Mike Brown, 31-year-old John Scott and 35-year-old Scott Hannan, all unrestricted free agents.
Although the Sharks essentially stood pat throughout the alleged rebuilding process, they still have a formidable squad entering 2014-15 that includes goaltenders Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock.
Burns replaces Boyle on defense, but he severely weakens what could be considered the best top-nine group of forwards in the league last year. Dropping Joe Pavelski to a third-line center role would do wonders for the Sharks’ depth, but McLellan has refused to do that on a consistent basis. The fourth line is average but could be much better if it didn‘t have the likes of Brown, Scott and Burish dragging it down.
Considering McLellan lost faith in Niemi to the point of benching him in favor of Stalock for Game 6 vs. Los Angeles, some sort of change there may have benefited the group.
That’s why these eight weeks of nothingness that didn‘t result in Thornton or Marleau being dealt could be the biggest culprit if the Sharks fall short again next postseason. Holes can be plugged at the deadline, but how much more formidable would the Sharks be if they were the franchise from which defenseman Christian Ehrhoff chose to accept a one-year, $4 million deal and Burns was left up front?
With Hertl, Nieto and perhaps Mirco Mueller playing regularly, there’s reason to hope the Sharks will be a better team entering the 2015 postseason than they were entering the 2014 postseason. But should the Sharks be bounced at any point by one of the aforementioned teams that didn‘t partake in a futile rebuild, blame the organization’s two-month dawdling and scapegoating escapade, not Thornton and Marleau.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL news on BleacherReport.com