The San Jose Sharks, already widely considered the chokingest team in hockey history, bolstered their reputation on Wednesday night. Now they've got a big decision: soldier on with the same pieces, or blow the whole thing up. Hopefully they keep in mind the fact that no one ever got better by blowing up a great team.
After falling to the Kings in seven and becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead, everything's in play. For one thing, you are all but guaranteed to see Todd McLellan kicked to the curb in favor of a coach who can capital-W "Win" where he could not. After all, this was a team that, on his watch over the past six years, has topped 100 points four times, yet advanced out of the first round just thrice. In two Conference Final appearances, they've won just a single game.
So maybe McLellan is the issue. Maybe he can't pull whatever thing it is that makes them so dominant in the regular season — offense in spades, solid defense, slightly above-average goaltending — and improve upon that when the competition gets stiffer. When you want to be viewed as an elite coach, that's usually how it's done, right? If you routinely don't make it all the way to the top of the mountain, and you have a great roster, that's on you.
We've seen so many coaches like this get canned over the years. Ron Wilson, Pat Quinn, Alain Vigneault, and Bruce Boudreau all spring to mind from the last decade or so as guys who routinely knocked on the door but in the end were always denied entry. They get shuffled out as the team pursues greater glory with the same players. But since Ron Wilson was moved out of San Jose, McLellan's gotten pretty much the same results with the same group. Since Quinn was asked not to come back in Toronto, the Leafs have made the playoffs just once. Vigneault's only been out of Vancouver for about 10 months and they're about to hire their second coach since. Boudreau has gone on to relative success with Anaheim over the last two years (two time stats-defying division titles), while the Caps have stumbled along under disastrous experiments Dale Hunter and Adam Oates.
We don't have a lot of evidence that any of the coaches out there right now (Peter Laviolette, Barry Trotz, etc.) are better than McLellan. While it might be interesting to see Trotz preach his defense-heavy systems on a team with actual offensive talent — which he never had in Nashville — how do you say that the guy who just got fired from the Predators is the one to get you over the playoff hump? Maybe if Dan Bylsma gets fired, which is bizarrely a possibility, you hire him. But a healthy percentage of the league seems likely to be in the market for a new coach at this point. The Sharks would want a veteran, one who's "been there" before. Every team is going to be looking for one of those supposedly elite coaches.
Even if they keep McLellan (they won't) there's still the issue of personnel. The Sharks have been hailed as conquering heroes from October to early April, and derided as no-heart leaderless loser bums in late April and May. This latest indignity, it's generally agreed, is another sign of that, and not of, say, their bad luck in having to play one of the three or four best teams in the league in the first round.
The perception here, jolted to life again by the four-game collapse, is that the Sharks are massive failures in the playoffs and always will be. But look who they've always had to play: juggernauts. The Kings are at least going to the Western Conference Final (Anaheim poses no threat in the second round), last year was much the same, the Blues of two years ago were great, the Canucks from 2011 were perhaps one of the three-best teams of the last six or seven years, the 2010 Blackhawks went on to win the Cup with ease, and on and on and on.
Choking really isn't the problem here. The luck of the draw is.
Once you accept the Sharks are not losing to inferior competition, you have to look at potential personnel moves through the same prism as the coming coach search: Who are they going to get that's better than the current guys? How do you improve, for example, upon Joe Thornton? Or Patrick Marleau? Or Brent Burns or Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture? Who's better on the back end than Marc-Edouard Vlasic? Is Antti Niemi, whose save percentage at even strength since 2010 is .927 (ninth in the league among goaltenders with 6,000-plus minutes), really the big problem here?
This issue is complicated by the fact that most of the Sharks' core and big-money guys are locked up for years to come. Both Thornton and Marleau signed extensions this year, so they and Burns are locked up through 2017. Sell them now, and you're selling awful low. The return doesn't get you anywhere near what they produce, at least not in the near-term. Vlasic's on the books until 2018, and Pavelski and Couture aren't going anywhere until a year after that.
Use a compliance buyout on Martin Havlat and get back $5 million in cap space, sure. Let Dan Boyle, who'll be 38 in July, head off to free agency. Those are logical moves that can be made without blowing everything up, and will free up nearly $12 million in cap commitments that can be used on a big signing or some complementary blueliners. But to hope Alex Stalock is the answer in net, or that you can find another first-ballot Hall of Famer like Thornton just anywhere, is folly.
The issue with all this, though, is that Doug Wilson, GM since 2003, might not be long for his job either. If you're the guy who built the team that can't stop making dirt in its undies every time the postseason rolls around, then at some point you're going to have to be held accountable. No matter how many regular seasons go exceptionally well for the team you put together. The new guy the team brings in, theoretically, has no emotional attachment to the players in the organization now, and therefore is free to be ruthless in dealing with them. He can build the team according his own immaculate vision, and all it will take to "rebuild on the fly," if you want to call it that, is a few major moves to free up cap space. But to what end?Again, the Sharks won't come close to getting fair value for the pieces they'd be dumping.
So let's just assume that the Sharks are a win-now team. You don't go from 111 points (111!) to ripping the whole thing down and starting almost from scratch. The Capitals tried that a few years back, foolishly rejiggering everything but core players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, and wound up worse than ever. So what good does a new, potentially better GM do you in the short-term? Little to none. The fruits of any transactions you make in a sell-off of the scale that many are calling for in San Jose are probably years down the road, in the form of draft picks and prospects. You should really only bring in a new GM if you are truly planning to demolish everything.
So if you don't fire the can't-get-it-done coach, and you don't get rid of any of the small-in-the-clutch players, and you don't replace the GM who put the whole mess together, you're really only left with one option: Ride it out for another year or two and see where it gets you. It's as unsexy a solution as it is prudent.
A lot of people have cited the 2011 Bruins as an example of why you don't trade the core; they won the Stanley Cup a year after being reverse-swept by Philadelphia. And those Flyers were much worse than this year's Kings. They didn't panic, they kept things together, and it all worked out. That's a bit of a red herring, though. The Bruins had the best defensive center in the league, the best defenseman of his generation, and the best goaltender in the world (albeit on their bench for that Flyers series). Bouncing back was easy under those conditions, and the Sharks' road will be tougher because they don't have those pieces, and because they play in the Western Conference. The three (or maybe four, depending on your feelings about the Blues at the start of next season) Western giants are all roughly equivalent at this point. The Kings and Blackhawks and Sharks have little to nothing separating them in terms of on-ice quality, and they and the current iteration of the Bruins are clearly the class of the league. Luck and normal, non-curse hockey reasons caused this latest San Jose crash. They went 1 for 19 on the power play over the last four games of the series. A better bounce here or there, and it could just as easily have been L.A. booking tee times this weekend. And no one would have cited the Kings for a lack of killer instinct.
All of this, by the way, is still more evidence that people value the results of something like seven-to-20 games in the postseason more than they do the 82 in the regular season. Over the past three seasons, the Sharks ranked third, ninth, and seventh in fenwick close, meaning that on a schedule which required them to play against the best teams in the league (i.e. mostly those in the West), they routinely drove possession. It's almost like they have a really great team, and if they keep plugging away at it, and have a few things go their way that haven't in the past, they might just make it all the way to a Cup Final. Maybe they even win it.
One thing is for sure: All these people who are discontented with the Sharks' performances over the last decade can't point to what, precisely, is wrong with the team. They say it's not quantifiable, whatever it is. But it needs to be fixed. How you fix it, exactly, is unclear. But something has to be done.
Great. But you don't fix anything by downgrading. Think about that for a second. Anyone suggesting the Sharks make any major, realistic changes is suggesting that the formula for winning a Stanley Cup is to get worse.
To be fair, blowing things up would certainly clear up that choking problem. Mediocre or even pretty good teams don't come within a game of beating the Kings. They get steamrolled in five.