Though the manner in which San Jose was eliminated from the 2008 playoffs was hardly reminiscent of past failures, the end result has been the same in each year since the lockout: The Sharks end their season red hot, but find themselves permanently homeward bound after Game 6 of the conference semifinals.
Since the Sharks went to the conference finals with a young core of up-and-coming players in 2004, fans have been fed the same lines about experience leading to improvement from within.
For four years, that has not happened. This season, however, with its failures, probably taught San Jose's young talent more, since they went down fighting against unfathomable odds rather than folding gracelessly without much struggle.
Regardless, there are certain things that will simply have to change if a) the Sharks hope to remain competitive and, b) if the Sharks hope to finally take the next step.
Clearly, it is first on a list of priorities to discuss with Brian Campbell the possibility of staying a Shark long-term. He'll command $6 million per year on the low end, and a desperate team would likely pay him upward of $7 million, so much of whether or not Brian Campbell remains San Jose property will likely be up to him.
The Sharks will also see their payroll rise drastically without even adding through free agency, as several high-profile players such as Thornton, Marleau, Michalek and Carle are already signed to pricier contracts that kick in next year, not to mention the fact that the vastly improved Christian Ehrhoff, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe are all up for new deals come July.
Since San Jose will need to do some internal shuffling just to remain at or under budget, they may as well use the opportunity to give this squad the shakeup it surely needs.
Certain players may bring essential elements to the table, while others may have unlimited potential, but the Sharks are no longer in a position to overpay. This means the axe will come down on role players whose salary exceeds their ability, and youngsters whose salary may match their potential, but is grossly inflated based on their actual contributions.
Mike Grier, Kyle McLaren and Marcel Goc fit in to the first category, while Matt Carle and Milan Michalek represent the second. Kyle McLaren will likely see his tenure in San Jose end on deadline day, when GM Doug Wilson has the opportunity to move Mac to a rebuilding team for a mid-round pick.
Marcel Goc is up for a new deal, one that would likely require the Sharks to give him a raise, so Wilson may just let him walk. Mike Grier will almost assuredly remain a Shark for the final year of his deal, due to his no-movement clause, and, frankly, the Sharks could do worse than overpay Mike Grier for one more season.
Michalek, despite being San Jose's number two scorer for the majority of the year, simply hasn't been consistently good enough to deserve the generous raise he received. The fact that he's San Jose's only legitimate top-six left wing gives him an advantage in the organization, but if he can be moved for a comparable player, it might be something the Sharks look into.
If Brian Campbell is re-signed, Matt Carle becomes the most expendable player on the roster, and, at $3.5 million a year, is grossly overpaid. Campbell is young enough that the Sharks aren't compromising a huge part of their future by parting ways with Carle, who, if packaged with a lower level forward prospect, could bring back a top-four defenseman with a bit more physicality and defensive awareness, or a top-six forward.
If Ehrhoff, Pavelski or Clowe has a big offer sheet thrown at them, look for the Sharks to match and move the player on their own terms if it leaves them cash strapped. Unless, of course, any team is foolish enough to give up multiple first-round draft picks and offers either of the three $4 million-plus, which is highly unlikely.
If the Sharks do successfully trim down the extra fat on their payroll and decide to add help from an outside source, there is no lack of talent in this year's crop of free agents. Martin Straka, Andrew Brunette, and Brian Rolston are all veteran players who can still perform at a high level and fill San Jose's need on the left, while Mike Commodore and Jason Smith are physical, vocal leaders with plenty of winning experience and the ability to solidify a young, talented, but inexperienced and somewhat soft blue line.
It is also essential that the Sharks put together a more threatening, talented third line to provide secondary scoring and an edge over opponents with less depth. Patrick Rissmiller and Mike Grier, while solid penalty killers and decent bottom-six forwards, simply don't have the talent or ability to shut down the top lines in the NHL or provide any consistent scoring punch.
Torrey Mitchell is a good starting point, but speedy, defensively responsible players with a bit more talent and ability like New Jersey's Jay Pandolfo (an unrestricted free agent in July) are essential pieces of the Stanley Cup-winning puzzle.
Players like Jonathan Cheechoo, though streaky, simply won't bring back more to the Sharks than they're currently worth in San Jose. Patrick Marleau answered quite a few questions with the most consistent postseason performance of his career, and should have a big weight taken off his shoulders in the likely event that there is a change behind the bench.
It is widely believed that Ron Wilson will not have his contract renewed, and that is no surprise given how close he came to unemployment after 2007's implosion against Detroit. Doug Wilson, who, despite his conservative approach that drives plenty of fans crazy, has a solid philosophy and is more respected and well-liked by his players than any other general manager in the league, will finally get to hire his own coach, and the impact should be positive.
A coach that preaches and practices accountability is a must for this young team. Patrick Marleau is a quiet leader, and that is fine. Joe Thornton isn't the most vocal player in the world, either, and that is also fine. But it is imperative that the Sharks are led by an extremely driven, respected and honest individual behind the bench.
Ron Wilson doesn't strike many as the most straightforward, accountable individual. Accountability breeds credibility, and a credible coach can demand the utmost of his players.
Not a single critic, expert or fan will argue that the Sharks don't possess the talent or ability to win the Stanley Cup; they just simply haven't utilized the tools at their disposal. Whether or not it is fair to lay all of the responsibility on San Jose's bench boss is highly debatable, but there is little doubt that it is time for a change.
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