The San Jose Sharks are an unusual franchise – one that inspires both envy and pity. They’re blessed to have found themselves in the playoffs for 10 straight seasons and for 15 of the last 16, yet snakebitten when it comes to actually competing in the postseason. They’ve been to just three Conference Finals and have not reached a single Stanley Cup Final, let alone won one. When the Sharks went up 3-0 in their first-round series against the rival Los Angeles Kings last April, only to drop all four remaining games, including Game 7 at home, it was just another brutal, albeit familiar, punch to the gut.
General Manager Doug Wilson took a couple months to chew on the deflating result. Four days after the Kings claimed their second Cup in three years, Wilson decided the Sharks were now “a tomorrow team.” He initiated a rebuilding process that had not visited Northern California for a long time. Because of how slowly the program is progressing, there’s a nagging question of whether the process has even reached San Jose at all.
Wilson talks a lot about being committed to a rebuild but maybe not the right kind. Shortly after saying San Jose needed to start over, Wilson asked, “Now, the tomorrow team, is it one year or two years [away]?” What if the answer is neither? Rebuilds can take time; to use an extreme example, the Edmonton Oilers have been rebuilding for the last nine years since they lost the Stanley Cup Final, and aren’t any closer today to returning to the postseason than they were the minute the process began. Wilson’s mindset that the Sharks can fix themselves by taking a breather for a year or two isn’t showing a commitment to rebuilding. It’s hoping a band-aid will fix a broken leg.
And Wilson’s actions are speaking louder than his proclamations. For someone claiming to embrace change, Wilson stood remarkably still last offseason. He traded the rights of longtime Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle to the New York Islanders for a fifth-round draft pick, a move that was tough to make only in terms of sentimentality. In reality, Boyle was 38 years old and about to enter free agency with little likelihood to re-sign with San Jose. Wilson traded defenseman Brad Stuart to the Colorado Avalanche for two draft picks, including a 2016 second-rounder. Stuart, 34, averaged the fifth-most time on the ice per game among Sharks defenders out of seven. Boyle and Stuart were the lowest hanging fruit in the rebuild agenda, but Wilson never reached any higher in the tree than that. They also signed enforcer John Scott (who has four points in 36 games this year) to compliment the fresh two-year contract given to the enforcer already on the team: Mike Brown (who has zero points in eight games). Two enforcers. Yikes.
Then Wilson decided to turn his offseason performance up a notch by removing Joe Thornton from his duties as team captain, a position Thornton had held since 2010. Wilson believed the locker room had become a toxic environment, saying some players felt their fellow Sharks were “co-workers instead of teammates.” He took his frustration out on Thornton. When asked later as a member of the Avalanche about the comments made by Wilson, Stuart provided an interesting account:
“I was a little confused by some of the comments that I had heard,” he said. “I didn’t feel like there was a rift in the room or anything. If there was, I was blind to it.”
It was confusing to see Wilson make such bold statements over and over again. But Wilson still wasn’t finished, and neither was his public spat with Thornton, which would carry over into the 2014-15 season. This year’s Sharks team has struggled to find consistency: they went on a 9-1-0 stretch in December to move to 19-11-4, but as of April 2 they remain stuck at eight games over hockey .500, never pushing that number higher than 10. Aside from a brutal 3-8-2 skid that saw them go 0-6-2 at home in February, they’ve stayed away from losing streaks. But they’ve also been unable to piece together consecutive wins, hence the .500-level results they’ve seen for over three months. That frustrating back-and-forth between the win-loss column must have been too much for Wilson, who decided to reveal to a group of season-ticket holders on March 12 why exactly he found the need to take the captaincy from Thornton.
“Pressure and stress, I felt, was getting to Joe [Thornton],” Wilson said. To which Thornton responded, “I think Doug [Wilson] just needs to shut his mouth.”
Just another needless comment from Wilson, and one that leads to a worthwhile discussion of where Thornton realistically fits into the Sharks’ future. Wilson says he wants Thornton around if the day comes where the Sharks are hoisting the Cup, but is that possible during Thornton’s playing career? Thornton is still productive: he’ll finish close to 70 points and his Corsi-for is still outstanding at 63.5 percent. But he’s 35 years old and in the decline phase of his career. After seven straight years averaging more than a point per game, he’s been below that threshold for the last five seasons, including 0.85 per game in 2014-15. Thornton will never have more trade value than he does right now, and with this very public squabble with Wilson clearly irritating him, this is a move that makes no sense not to make.
Outside of Thornton, the Sharks’ cornerstone assets are center Logan Couture, winger Patrick Marleau, center Joe Pavelski and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Marleau is in the same boat as Thornton, since he’s long been a vital piece of the organization, but is now 35. He may offer more value to the Sharks by being flipped for a draft pick or prospect than being onboard for a playoff chase in the future, but Wilson is reluctant to trade him because of his history with the organization. Pavelski is 30 and in his prime, but if the rebuild takes longer than Wilson optimistically anticipates, that may no longer be the case. The same goes for Brent Burns, 29, the hockey equivalent of a utility player who switches between playing forward and defense depending on what the Sharks need at the moment. Couture is just 25, very talented and steadily improving as he takes on a larger role. He should be the player the Sharks build around. Vlasic, 27, is a good defenseman who is excellent on the defensive side but doesn’t bring much offense to the table. He will be the centerpiece of the team’s defenses in the near future, but may not be the type of elite number one defenseman that many Stanley Cup teams boast.
Obviously these aren’t enough pieces to expect a Cup without some help. Wilson is banking on the youth that have been infused throughout the lineup during the last two seasons to develop into tomorrow’s stars. But many of the young players in their sophomore seasons this year failed to make significant improvements on their rookie performances. Tomas Hertl, a 21-year-old center, is the poster boy for the Sharks’ prospects, but his per-game numbers fell off dramatically this season. Whereas he averaged 0.68 points in 37 games in 2013-14, that number fell all the way down to 0.39 this season in 80 games, giving him just six more points than last year in more than 40 extra games. His Corsi-for is still at a high 56.9 percent, so he’s certainly no lost cause, but the sophomore slump is always alarming no matter how many times we see it in this league.
Center Tommy Wingels is somehow already 26 and only in his second full season. His numbers are almost identical to what they were last year with 15 goals and 35 points. Winger Matt Nieto, 22, also had nearly identical point totals over his first two years (26 this season), even with playing over one more minute per game on average. Center Melker Karlsson has been solid in his first 48 NHL games, with 24 points and 54.8 percent Corsi-for, but after seeing how year two played out for the previous three players listed, there’s reason to be skeptical about what next season will look like for Karlsson. Center Chris Tierney, 20, and defenseman Mirco Mueller, 19, are top prospects in the organization that have seen limited NHL time this year. Mueller’s caliber of play has been up and down, but not everyone’s Aaron Ekblad. Both Tierney and Mueller should see many more minutes in 2015-16.
But that’s not a complete representation of the Sharks’ prospect picture. Hockeysfuture.com says San Jose has the 24th-best prospect system in the league. Help could be on the way for the Sharks, but it would have to be almost entirely from the prospects that have already made their NHL debuts. The progress that some of those prospects made, or didn’t make, this year is a troublesome sign for the future of the Sharks. Thornton and Marleau probably should have been traded to add depth to the farm system. A rebuild is nothing without talent coming through the pipeline, especially if aging players are kept around to take away minutes from the youngsters. Teams have to be willing to make some painful trades when starting over. Wilson may say he’s willing to rebuild, but keeping Thornton and Marleau around makes it obvious he’s not committed to the idea.
Underlying Wilson’s noncommittal rebuild seems to be an unrealistic yearning to become the Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks have the second-longest active playoff streak–which will soon come to an end–but the Red Wings have been to the postseason for more than double that span: 23 straight years. Meanwhile, the Sharks have existed for 23 years. Detroit has won four Stanley Cups over that time period. The Red Wings have achieved this sustained success by perfecting the rebuild-on-the-fly.
When Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov were approaching the end of their legendary tenures in Motown, they won one last title in 2002 before handing over the reigns to an in-his-prime Nicklas Lidstrom and some up-and-coming prospects such as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg won another title in 2008 before Lidstrom retired a few years afterward. Now as Datsyuk and Zetterberg make their way through their thirties, a new crop of talent, with players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, appears ready to take over and extend the Wings’ streak. Detroit has utilized exceptional scouting and player development to maintain a winning record by establishing a robust prospect pipeline. And even with 23 straight postseasons giving it less favorable draft selection slots, Detroit still has the fourth-best farm system in the league today, according to hockeysfuture.com.
The rebuild-on-the-fly requires a perfectly staggered system that allows new talent to cycle in as veterans check out. San Jose’s age is beginning to show, and there isn’t enough young talent coming in to replace aging players like Thornton and Marleau. When this type of situation unfolds, trading the veterans and tanking a season or two while stocking up is the only realistic option to come back stronger down the road. Hertl, Mueller and the other young guns would get a ton of playing time to develop and Couture would get experience as a team leader. But Doug Wilson has refused to acknowledge that his team simply cannot be the Red Wings at this moment. The Sharks are not properly equipped for that approach. Maybe Wilson’s right – maybe the Sharks are the team of tomorrow. But if he continues to believe the team can turn around in just a year or two, tomorrow might turn out to be very far away.