State of the Sharks, the “Oh my God We’re All Gonna Die” edition…

(but first, a quick digression. Because of my Yellowstone trip and going off the grid for most of that week, I never posted my prediction for the final round of the playoffs. I did, however, predict the Kings to come out of the west and I did predict that whoever came out of the West to win the cup, which in fact happened. In the earlier rounds, I was 9-3 and the only significant miss was Boston doing better than it did, and picking Boston for the Cup. Ooops. I did pick the Kings out of the West, and I was 2-0 in the conference finals and had the ultimate winner in the final round, meaning that my picks this yuear in the playoffs were 12-3. My best playoff prediction series in a long time)

It has been an interesting off season for the Sharks. When the season ended I did a “Now what” piece on them suggesting what I’d do. A number of things I got right (Wilson and McLellan back, for instance), a few I didn’t (re-signing Brown, but when you think in terms of being a black ace and locker room influence, it makes sense. His attitude is the one they are trying to build into the entire team, so in retrospect, I was wrong and Wilson’s right here).

They killed Drew! You Bastards!

A big team-but-not-player change got announced this week, in that the Sharks announced that Drew Remenda wasn’t returning. They haven’t announced the official broadcasting lineups, but I’m guessing Jamie Baker moves into the TV role full-time, and Bret Hedican can join Dan Rusanowsky to do color if he wants to go full-time. Baker’s turned into a really good color-type broadcaster and is more than ready for a TV role, and Hedican’s also improved a lot, and I think he’d do fine as a game color guy. We’ll see how this falls out, but with or without Drew, this is a really good and interesting broadcasting team.

But why did they take Drew out back behind the barn? There’s a lot of speculation about this, but if you’ve been paying attention if shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Honestly, I’ve been expecting this for a few years. Drew insisted (because of family) to split his time with some radio work and his home in Saskatoon, and that complicated things for the Sharks. I think this is mostly about setting up a broadcast team that is committed to the team full-time, and local.

That said, I’ve been a bit less of a fan of Drew the last few years (and before people start throwing stuff at me, if I were to give out letter grades, it would be a shift from A- to B-. He’s still a damned good broadcaster and interesting to listen to). There were times when I felt it was less about the team and more about Drew. There were times when I felt he was getting more strident and less interesting, in that “I’m Don Cherry and I’m right so shut up and agree with me” way. I found him a bit louder and a bit less interesting over the last couple of years. And… I’m sure Drew has rubbed a number of people the wrong way and said things people within the team wish he’d kept to himself. I’d argue that most of the time, Drew was right, too, but I could see him wearing out his welcome — not just because of his criticisms, but because of the hassles and complications his time-split with Saskatoon caused the team. At some point, I understand why they would consider fixing that problem.

One thing this isn’t is a case of a team replacing a critic with some cheerleading homers, because if you’ve listened to Baker and Hedican much, you realize neither of them is exactly shy of speaking their opinion on this team. But both of them do it with less sandpaper than Drew did at times.

I’ll miss Drew. He and Randy Hahn had good chemistry and broadcast a very interesting game. I would have brought Remenda back, given what I know. Please don’t mistake “I’m not surprised they did this” with “I am happy they did this”; I’d rather have Drew broadcasting. But I also think a broadcast with Randy and Jamie on TV, Dan and Bret on Radio, and Brodie doing the beat-guy thing is still a pretty darn good broadcast. It’s a strong, deep team, and they’ve done a good job of mentor and developing their talent from within here.

The ‘move the team’ boogeyman has arrived

Another fun off-season not-really-a-crisis has arrived when Mark Purdy did a column about the Shark’s lousy television deal, and Purdy brings up the idea of the Sharks moving because of it.

He’s correct about how bad the TV deal is. It’s interesting to speculate on the fact that this deal was done in the final year of Greg Jamison’s tenure, and that pretty much the entire business team involved with signing it has been dropped from the team. I wonder how related those two items are, and whether the new ownership came to realize just what a bad deal Jamison locked them into. Bad enough, evidently, that it seems Gary Bettman is exploring ways to convince Comcast to rejigger the deal — and one wonders what kind of quid pro quo they’ll have to give Comcast to consider it. Something to watch.

But as part of that, Purdy did the “oh my god the team might move!” dance, to which I respond: this is something fans should pay zero attention to.

Here’s the thing. The Sharks have four seasons left on their lease in the San Jose Arena. Barring a new agreement, after that, they’re free agents and are free to move to a new building. Lease extensions can be a time consuming and complicated deal to work out, so this is about the time I’d expect the Sharks to start negotiations with the city. It’s actually a very good time, since we’re about to see Chuck Reid leave office and a new mayor will be taking over in a few months. Now would be a good time for the Sharks to quietly encourage the local press to pass a message along to the candidates that this is an issue they’ll need to deal with, and if it becomes an election issue for November, even better. Some rabble rousing and saber rattling makes sense to get the attention of the politicians here.

This deal isn’t one Reid would have taken on, knowing he was leaving office, and given that part of the negotiation is going to be how much money San Jose will fund in capital improvements, any deal during the worst of the budget nightmare in the city would have been political suicide for both sides. Capital improvement funding has always been a point of — discussion — between the Sharks and the city going back almost to the day the arena opened (note, for example, my interview with Jamison in 2003 when he and the city were arguing over who would pay for the scoreboard upgrade to HD video; the city ultimately did).

Now would be the right time to start these talks, and I’d guess a new deal would be likely announced in two years, giving both sides enough time to keep it from becoming a real crisis. But the capital fund is going to be a political football and I expect this won’t be an easy (and possibly not a friendly) deal, so expect more of this kind of talk over the next few years.

The reality, though, is that I can’t see the Sharks go anywhere. They can’t leave the Bay Area because there is frankly no NHL-capable building available for them to move to except possibly Kansas City, and I can’t imaging that happening. They aren’t going to move to whatever building the Warriors build in San Francisco, because they don’t want to be the secondary tenant — being the landlord is where the money is. And assuming the Warriors do move to San Francisco, it leaves the Oakland Arena empty of a major tenant, but honestly, that building really sucks for hockey; it always has, it always will, and it’d be like moving back to the Cow Palace in all its glory. Not gonna happen.

So the reality of the “Sharks moving” rumors is to get the mayoral candidates attention and start the process of negotiating a new lease, which is going to take a while, is going to be somewhat acrimonious, and threats and bluster are part of the negotiating tactics on both sides. So is trying to mobilize the fans to put pressure on the city to keep the team, which is part of getting a better deal for the team. So when this stuff comes up, the best thing you can do as a fan is pay zero attention to it, because ultimately it doesn’t matter and the new lease will get done. So unless it’s three years from now and we still have no lease and it’s getting really serious and nasty between the two sides, just assume that any time this ends up in the press, it’s part of the negotiating strategy for one side or the other. Because it likely is.

And hopefully that’s the last I’ll say about it until the new deal is announced. (The TV problem is more serious, but can’t make the team move, because that’s governed by the lease. I’ll be curious as hell to see what Bettman can do about this…)

But… About the Players

But it’s gotten really interesting, and lots of the pieces of the puzzle are still undecided. Somewhere along the way the language Wilson has used has shifted from “we need to make some changes to push this team forward” to talking about this being a full rebuild. I find that fascinating. It’s confused a number of writers who don’t understand why the Sharks are taking the rebuild route (here’s a good piece by James Mirtle, for instance). Mirtle’s view is this:

If anything, the Sharks are a team that’s better positioned to succeed now than ever.

He’s both right and wrong, and there are two big reasons why now is a good time to time in a rebuild. Reason one is the Los Angeles Kings, and reason two is the Anaheim Ducks. When I first heard Wilson talk about this being a rebuild, I felt like Mirtle, but when I took a step back and thought about it, here’s what I realized: it’s not enough for the Sharks to change out a couple of pieces and try to get a little better; they have to get enough better to take on both the Kings and the Ducks and beat them and still have enough left to be competitive in the conference final. Can they do that?

I think the Sharks took a long hard look at the team and the task ahead, and came to the conclusion no. The window has closed on this current team — the Marleau/Thornton/Boyle era, good as it was, simply never quite got good enough, and no amount of tweaking is going to push it over that final hump. Not with an aging and potentially unreliable Niemi added to the mix.

And the fact is, if they did rearrange the deck chairs again and then not pull it off, they risk outright fan revolt. Right now, the fans are really grumpy, but we’re now at that point where if they swap four or five players but keep the core in place — and don’t get to the conference finals — it’s an outright failure again. And with LA and Anaheim in the way, the chances of that are low. It’s a high risk play with major downside if they come up short again in terms of really turning off the fans. The fact is, this team played really well for a long time, came really close, always came up a little bit short, and ended this last season with a faceplant. That, to me, sounds like a good time to announce a rebuild cycle.

What does a rebuild cycle do for San Jose? Lots of things that may or may not be related to actually improving the team:

  • The biggest thing: it resets fan expectations. The Sharks have come out and said “one step back to take two forward”, and even made mutterings about not making the playoffs. In other words, they’re telling the fans they’re going to suck (or suck more) for a bit. This buys them some time to put the pieces in place and takes the pressure off of doing it next season.
  • Which is good, because LA and Anaheim are in the way and not going to get out of the way easily. But in two years? They’re still going to be good, but there’s a decent chance that as those teams age they’ll become a bit less dominating and a little easier to beat. Or maybe not. But if I had to bet on the Sharks winning the conference final next year or in three years, I’ll bet on three years because i think the competition in the western conference will be less insanely tough. (this does not take into account other teams ramping it up, too, and I don’t expect Vancouver to suck for long, and Colorado is a team building to be a scary one — but it’s NEVER going to be easy to make it to the Cup final. But right now, looking at the talent in the west, I don’t see how a patch job is going to get it done).
  • As Mirtle notes, the team is loaded with good young talent; I actually called for a leadership change and want to give the captancy to Joe Pavelski next season. But what’s better for the long term development of the younger kids? Throw them in the first next year with a high risk of failing expectations, or taking some pressure off and giving this new core some time to build into a killer team? The Sharks seem to be picking the latter, and I agree with them.
  • Change in leadership and culture. I called for Pavelski to take over the captaincy next season. I speculated on whether or not Marleau and Thornton would want to be on a team where that happened and take on lesser roles. The rumor mill here in San jose has made it clear that the Sharks want both to move on, no movement clauses notwithstanding. Marleau si rumored to be willing for the right situation, but Joe Thornton has raised a bit virtual middle finger to the team and made it clear he has no intention of going anywhere. It’ll be interesting to see if this develops into a full conflict or if they figure it out, but it’s clear what the team wants, which is a fresh start. (god help the next player that wants a no movement clause from Doug wilson. He’s been very conservative in handing those out, and now, two of the few he did are biting his butt. That won’t make the next one easier). I sympathize with Thornton — after all, he negotiated and earned that clause in his deal — but honestly, the big problem with the team the last couple of years has to be seen as leadership, because the only thing missing was a killer instinct — and that comes from leadership, and that leadership was Joe. Can the Sharks rebuild culture around a team with Joe on it? I dunno. But we need to change it.
  • Don’t forget the Sharks have a goaltending challenge. They dno’t know how good or reliable Niemi will be. They don’t know if Staylock really can be a #1 goalie. They’ve given Staylock a new two year deal, which is saying “now is your time to prove it”, and I expect going into next season the starting role is Staylock’s to lose, and who plays how many games will be a function of which goalie earns the starts. I’ll bet on Staylock, by the way, to play 50+ games next year, but until he shows it, it’s hard to see next year and conference finals as a high probability.
  • Don’t forget that this also sends a message of “this is not acceptable” to the players. Getting ripped like this has to piss them off. Given how they lost out in the playoffs this year, getting ripped and being pissed are more than acceptable — and don’t think Wilson isn’t up to pushing a few buttons to bring the team in angry and grumpy next season. To some degree “we have to rebuild” is an insult to the players coming back next season. Wilson is probably hoping of a bit of “I”ll show you” from them. We sure need it.

So in my mind, announcing the rebuild cycle is a smart hockey move. If the Sharks figure it out next season and do well, that’s great. If not, they’ve set expectations down a bit to take some of the pressure off the players. that seems like smart hockey. I do think the Sharks are capable of figuring it out and stepping forward, not back — but I think it’s a prudent thing at this point to undersell and overdeliver and not the other way around, because unfortunately, the sharks have been under-delivering for a few years now.

There are still a lot of shoes to drop in the off-season for the Sharks. I expect them to be somewhat busy at the draft, perhaps that’s when Marleau is moved. The Thornton situation is less clear, given he’s pushed back and doesn’t seem to want to cooperate on being moved. I’m curious if this will turn into a big rift, and if so, whether it’ll impact the team’s play if he stays (I expect, at some point, Thornton reads the tea leaves and accepts a trade; he did leave himself an out). And then free agency?

Hang on, it’s going to be a fun ride to october. Well, fun for those of us who watch. It won’t be for anyone in the Sharks organization, except maybe Staylock, who has his deal and knows he’s been given the shot at being the starter…. Now all he has to do is be ready, play and win…