San Jose Sharks: 3 Goats for the Sharks' Western Conference Finals Loss
In the history of San Jose Shark disappointments, the end to this season may very well the franchise’s most bitter loss to date.
After all the growth and accomplishments this team underwent overcoming every obstacle, in the end a game-tying goal following a blown icing call in the final seconds of Game 5 doomed them. Kevin Bieksa’s fluky goal to put an end to the double-overtime slugfest that was Game 5 was just salt in the proverbial wound.
What went wrong? In a season filled with so much hope and promise that had fans believing that this was finally the year, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Lack of execution, sloppy defensive focus, fourth-line defensive lapses and inconsistent effort are the true culprits. The Detroit Red Wings exploited these issues, forcing a Game 7 and exacting a pound of flesh that the Sharks could not recover from in the conference finals.
Fatigue and lack of composure led directly to the 0-2 hole in the Western Conference finals against the best team in the NHL during the regular season. Not exactly a formula for success against a deep team like Vancouver, leading to the Sharks’ second finals ousting in as many years.
While this certainly isn’t the outcome many fans wanted or expected, there's also no reason for the Sharks to hang their heads.
However, there are a few select individuals that played big roles in San Jose’s downfall. Let’s take a look at who they are.
His tenure with San Jose has been remarkably successful since joining the team in 1998 as a member of the scouting department. His ascension to the position of GM has led to the franchise’s most successful era, ranking among the NHL’s very best in many different categories.
Since 2003, the Sharks are second only to the Detroit Red Wings in regular season victories, playoff appearances and road victories.
Despite that success, however, he made a calculated gamble by letting longtime goaltender Evgeni (John) Nabokov walk in the offseason. In his quest for the Stanley Cup, the formula was now cheaper goaltending and a renewed focus on defense.
Nabby may have his detractors, but his body of work for the Sharks was undeniably consistent as well as excellent. He’s third on the active shutout list and third in shutouts since 2000, and his .624 winning percentage over his last three years as a Shark led the entire league.
Unfortunately Wilson failed to follow up on the second and perhaps most important part of this equation in the defense. After signing both Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi despite having youth and prospects ready to take on a backup role, Wilson neglected the blue line, and the Sharks ultimately paid for it.
Rob Blake was not replaced, and Wilson’s unwillingness to bolster this area of need backfired, as the Sharks defense fizzled with fatigue in the playoffs. Going 7-2 in their first nine games, the Sharks went 2-6 in the next eight playoff games before bowing out in Game 5.
Vancouver outscored the Sharks 14-6 in the third period of the finals, and the Sharks have been outscored all postseason long in the final frame.
Blake’s retirement left a huge void, and Doug Wilson expected Jason Demers to be able to step up and fill those minutes. While Demers took on the responsibility and rebounded after some spotty play early, the lack of attention to the Sharks blue line led to their demise.
He’s a great GM and clearly the man to take us to the promised land, but as such the blame for the loss lies directly at his feet.
After being a huge part of the team’s success during the regular season and the early going of the playoffs, San Jose’ secondary scoring dried up in the West finals.
The group of Logan Couture, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski combined for 289 points and more than 50% of the Sharks offense.
But against the Vancouver Canucks, these Sharks combined for just 10 points while Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau combined for 14 alone. They couldn't capitalize even when Vancouver lost their leading defenseman in Christian Ehrhoff and paired Keith Ballard and the young Christopher Tanev on their third pairing.
The third line of Kyle Wellwood-Pavelski-Torrey Mitchell floundered in the finals. Wellwood’s disappearance was especially glaring.
He’s generated chances, shown his puck-handling abilities and been able lead a steady entry into the attacking zone for the Sharks since arriving via waivers. Against Vancouver Kyle all but disappeared after talking a bunch of trash to his old team and claiming they lacked the mental toughness to win.
Instead of backing up his comments, Wellwood took every opportunity to avoid contact and often took the easy way out when faced with a loose puck battle.
Dany Heatley is a world-class player and an elite sniper capable of being the difference in any given game. He’s fifth in scoring since 2002-03, ahead of Jarome Iginla and third in the league in goals scored behind Ilya Kovalchuk since 2005-06.
Heatley is also San Jose’s most accomplished playoff performer, with a career average still close to a point a game.
I’ve defended Heater for most of the season, especially during his second-half outage, where he seemed to be struggling with some confidence issues. But he was flat-out horrible this year for the San Jose Sharks and invisible most nights in the second half of the season.
His effort and defensive play are commendable in Game 5, but should it be for the Sharks' highest-paid player? Better yet, why did it take him until Game 5 to put up this kind of effort when he’s been relegated to the third line previously?
Over the final two games, the Sharks outshot the Canucks 94-47, so the chances were there for Heatley, who registered just one assist in the finals. He finished with just nine points over 18 games and had just five goals in his last 35.
The honeymoon is clearly over for Heater, and although he’s just 31, as the highest-paid player he just hasn’t proved his worth for the Sharks so far, especially with Marleau and Thornton taking hometown discounts to stay in teal.
Worst of all? It’s hard to imagine him going anywhere with the no-movement clauses in his rather hefty contract. There aren’t many teams that would have the space to take on his cap hit, and those that do would very likely be vetoed by Heatley.
The Sharks need him to be the player he’s capable of being if they have any hope of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup over their heads next spring.