San Jose Sharks: Is It Time for Panic or Patience?
There are plenty of positives to take away from the San Jose Sharks' 2011-12 season.
Logan Couture avoided a sophomore slump in a big way. Joe Pavelski had a career year. Joe Thornton was dominant once again. The team was the Western Conference's best during the first half of the season, and they made the playoffs for the 15th time in 21 seasons.
There are franchises and fanbases that can only dream about having three 30-goal scorers or getting to watch Joe Thornton create goals 59 times. Making the playoffs is a fantasy for some teams, let alone doing it year in and year out.
The Sharks franchise and fanbase, of course, are not among these "dreamers." People in and around this organization have come to expect more from this team, and rightfully so.
After all, expecting more is the only way to achieve more.
For the Sharks, achieving more and meeting expectations means nothing less than bringing San Jose its first Stanley Cup. So for all of the positives that could be taken away from the 2011-12 Sharks season, only negative feelings are truly present inside anyone who cares about this team.
Disappointment. Dissatisfaction. Anxiety. Anger.
The Sharks finished with the fewest wins, points and playoff wins since the lockout, and one can be assured that there will be backlash. The summer of 2012 will be one of change in San Jose.
What remains to be seen is just how drastic the changes are. Before Sharks' fans and front-office personnel crucify various scapegoats and demand that the team be "blown up," it's important to take a deep breadth, a step back and re-evaluate the situation.
Because for every Sharks fan that is jealous of this year's eventual Stanley Cup winner, there is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan jealous of the Sharks.
Panic: Three Straight Playoff Losses to Faster Teams
The San Jose Sharks have made the playoffs 15 times in 21 seasons, and won the Stanley Cup zero times.
Quick, how many playoff series' have the Sharks lost?
The answer, for all the Kent Huskins' out there, is 15. That means 15 times to look at the Sharks' roster and say, "this is why they lost."
However, the most recent—and therefore most relevant—playoff losses reveal more or less one thing: The Sharks are slow.
They didn't fully realize it after being swept in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks, as the team had made tremendous strides and seemed to be headed in the right direction.
After the 2011 loss to Vancouver, the picture became clearer. The Canucks depth forwards and blueliners had, quite simply, skated the Sharks off the ice.
So GM Doug Wilson made a change—or at least tried to. He said goodbye to lumbering defenseman like Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin. He got rid of plodding forwards like Dany Heatley and Kyle Wellwood. He brought in Martin Havlat and Brent Burns.
He also brought in Michal Handzus, Brad Winchester and Colin White, while losing Devin Setoguchi, Ben Eager and Ian White. He added T.J. Galiardi, Daniel Winnik and Dominic Moore at the deadline, but had to move Jamie McGinn to do so.
The Sharks attempt to get faster ended up as a wash. The team again met a team with speed up front and on the back end, and again were swiftly skated off the ice in five games.
A simple look at the Sharks roster shows a lack of speed so deep that another tweak here and there will simply not fix it. Michal Handzus. Douglas Murray. Joe Thornton. Joe Pavelski. Ryane Clowe. Logan Couture.
Many people blame Patrick Marleau for San Jose's first-round loss, but Marleau scored five goals against Chicago in 2010 and four against Vancouver in 2011. His speed stands out among a top-six that is otherwise dreadfully slow.
It's not just the aging players who are slowing this team down. It's Pavelski. It's Couture.
For the Sharks to compete for a Stanley Cup next year, or even in five years, how can they not blow this team up?
Patience: Three Straight Seasons of Bad Breaks
The Sharks were not "hosed" in any of the last three seasons. They didn't do enough to win the Cup, so they didn't deserve it.
However, they certainly have been dealt some awful hands.
In 2010, the Blackhawks beat the Canucks in Round 2. This set the Sharks up against a team that beat them three out of four times in the regular season.
In 2011, the Canucks were an OT goal away from losing to Chicago in the first round. This would have knocked out the one team San Jose couldn't beat, as the Canucks had beaten them three out of four times during the regular season.
In 2012, the Sharks luck really got bad. By beating the Los Angeles Kings in overtime during the final game of the season, they drew the one team that they simply could not beat—the St. Louis Blues. The Blues beat them all four times they met during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles drew an injured Canucks team that they matched up well against, and sent them home in five games.
Once again, the Sharks were anything but cheated. Winning the Cup, in principle, means being able to beat anybody and everybody, not "everybody except for those guys."
But a look at the last two Cup winners says otherwise. The Blackhawks were gifted the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. Philly were no slouches, but they were a .500 team—a No. 7 seed with a third-string goaltender and little success five-on-five.
The Bruins drew the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, a team that, in reality, was somewhere between the Conference Finalist they were that year and the cellar dweller they were in 2012.
Once again, these are not disclaimers. Every year these things happen, and of course the Cup winner is the team that survives it all. But managing a franchise means making excuses if they're worth making.
If Chicago knocked out the Canucks last season, the Sharks would have likely gone to the Cup Finals, where they would have likely beat Boston. If the Kings beat the Sharks in OT in game 82, San Jose would have drawn the Daniel-less Canucks. The Kings could have beaten the Blues (they match up well), and they Sharks would have had a great chance to beat everyone else.
Blowing the team up means attempting to build a roster that can beat anybody—a worthwhile cause. It also means setting the team back a couple seasons. Keeping the team together could be seen as complacency, but it could also be seen as a calculated risk that next year, it may be the Sharks who get lucky with their matchups.
Panic: Team Is Getting Old
The Sharks won the President's Trophy in 2008-09 with 117 points. They finished atop the Western Conference again in 2009-10, with 113 points. In 2010-11, they fell to second with 105 points. This season, they finished in seventh with 96 points. After two straight trips to the Conference Finals, they made a swift first-round exit.
The team is not getting better every year. On the contrary—they're getting worse.
The only way to get significantly better without making big moves is for a young team to develop. However, the Sharks are not a young team.
The best forward and defenseman on the Sharks—Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle—are getting older and showing it. Thornton's point totals since joining the Sharks are as follows: 125, 114, 96, 86, 89, 70 and 77. Boyle's totals have followed a similar trend: 57, 58, 50, 48, with a loss of goals accounting for most of the difference.
Both Thornton (age 32) and Boyle (age 35) are dominant two-way forces who excel in the playoffs and will continue to do so. But they won't help the Sharks any more than they currently do. Similarly, the Sharks can't expect improvements from Patrick Marleau (32), Martin Havlat (31), Michal Handzus (35) and Douglas Murray (32).
Even players who are often perceived as "future stars" such as Joe Pavelski (27), Antti Niemi (28) and Ryane Clowe (29) are not going to develop much more at this point.
For the Sharks to become a Cup-winning team—which they are not—they need to get better. The only ways to get better are to be young—which they are not—or to make significant moves.
Because San Jose is not young, they cannot make significant moves by trading good young players for great veterans. Therefore, the only way for this team to get better is to break up its core.
Patience: These Things Happen
One of the most common causes for concern among Sharks' fans is that the team's "window of opportunity" is closing.
The Sharks are often compared to the Dallas Mavericks—an NBA franchise that dominated the regular season for years and always "choked" in the playoffs.
After six straight 50-plus win regular seasons, the Mavericks had a great chance at winning the NBA title in 2006. They were up 2-0 over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, but choked the series away.
The next season, the Mavs went 67-15, but lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round (sidebar: the Warriors were the only team in the league they couldn't beat during the regular season). Dallas' win totals dropped off considerably after that, and the team only won one playoff series over the next four seasons.
With an aging star in Dirk Nowitzki, who was not the MVP he once was, and other core players getting old like Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Erick Dampier and Jason Terry, the Mavericks were very tempted to "panic." Nowitzki's contract was up, fans were getting restless and GM Donnie Nelson was feeling the heat.
It would have been easy to please the public, look like they were trying and let Nowitzki go, fire Nelson and clean house. Instead, they made a couple adjustments here and there, just as they did every offseason.
Finally, it worked.
During the 2011 Playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies knocked out the top-seeded Spurs, a team that owned Dallas. The Mavericks faced a less-hungry Lakers team in Round 2, avoiding a taxing series. The Thunder, who beat the Grizzlies in seven games, had nothing left for Dallas by the Conference Finals. They were also much less experienced. The Mavericks made the Finals, and would not be denied this time.
After years of choking, bad matchups and any other explanation for coming up short, the old Mavericks stayed good enough until the stars aligned for them. The 2010-11 Mavs were not as good a team as the 2006-07 Mavs, but they were good enough to win a championship.
So while the Sharks do indeed deserve to be compared to Dallas in the sense that they continuously win in the regular season and not in the playoffs, the Mavericks proved that patience can pay off.
The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports. It is also the most coveted.
Perhaps, those two statements are interrelated.
Hockey fans want their teams to win the Cup. Badly. When their teams fall short, it hurts. They get anxious. The anxiety of the public becomes the anxiety of the organization. After all, professional sports are a business, and pleasing the customer is the key to good business (I think).
This only makes a General Manager's job harder. Not only do they have to creatively build a team under the salary cap that's good enough to win the Cup, they have to do so while also pleasing fans.
Of course, the only way to make a good trade in a competitive league is to make a risky one—every team has a GM as concerned with their team and their job status as every other GM. No GM can improve their team in a foolproof way.
Therefore, the best GMs are the one's who strike a balance between panic and patience. Doug Wilson is one of those GMs.
Wilson has never been afraid to make a bold move. Some of his trades have greatly improved the team (Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle), while others have set the franchise back (Brian Campbell, Bill Guerin). He's willing to move big-time players like Milan Michalek, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley.
However, none of Wilson's moves have been made out of pure panic—they have all been calculated risks with clear intent.
Yes, the Sharks had an underwhelming season. But things could be different next year. Brent Burns could be better. Martin Havlat could stay healthy. This year's offseason signings could be better than last year's.
Things could also be worse. Patrick Marleau could continue to struggle. Dan Boyle could decline. More players could get injured.
The fact is that Wilson must, like always, take some calculated risks this offseason. At the same time, he must not make any moves out of panic—even if panicking would make fans more patient.