The Sharks are not a Playoff Team

Yesterday the Sharks held their outdoor game at Levi stadium about five miles from here. Laurie and I decided not to try for tickets and instead watched from the comfort of the couch. David Pollack of the Merc has good overall coverage of the event.

The Sharks were the Sharks — although you never know this season which Sharks will show up: the pissed off, play hard sharks or the confused-looking and playing badly Sharks. The good news is that last night the good Sharks showed up. The bad news is they showed very clearly they aren’t close to being as good as the Kings. Given that the Sharks have been right on the playoff bubble and chasing the Kings in the standings, this game was presented as a key one in the playoff run.

They were right, and this game pretty much proves what I was saying on twitter last week: this team isn’t a playoff team and even if it squeaks into the playoffs, it’ll be a quick exit.

I’m not going to complain about that. This Sharks team had a great run and succeeded in every way — except that last ultimate goal. That window has closed and this team is now in transition to the next generation that’ll make the next run at winning the Stanley Cup. At some point a team has to take a step back and reload.

I know, at this point we’ll hear some fans saying some variant of “the Red Wings just reload in place” and they’re correct,  although it should be noted that it’s now been seven years since they’ve won a Cup — and the flip side is the St. Louis Blues who made the playoffs 22 years running and never got out of the first round. The Sharks have actually done better than the Red Wings in overall playoff performance SINCE that last Red Wing Cup.

The fact is, if you look beyond the Red Wings, you don’t see other teams who can successfully reload in place and keep winning. There are teams that are consistently good and in the playoffs (like the Sharks) but don’t seem to have that last mile answer; most teams have to tear it down, rebuild and try again. I think the Sharks have tried to reload in place and done and did as well as anyone has with that tactic — but ultimately it didn’t work.

So Sharks fans should plan to spend their playoff ticket money on something else, because I think this team has shown itself as not being playoff ready, and even if it does somehow squeak in, it won’t be for long. I think squeaking in would reinforce the idea this team is better than it is any maybe hurt the rebuild movement as well, so I’m hoping the team falls short.

The Trade Deadline Moving Van is backing up to the Shark Tank

Beep! Beep! Beep!

That is the sound of the Trade Deadline Moving Van backing up to the player’s entrance of the Shark Tank.

It’s been a great run, but the window has closed. This is a position the Sharks haven’t been in much but with the trade deadline looming, it’s time for the Sharks to be sellers. Let’s assume up front that both Marleau and Thornton won’t wave their clauses and aren’t going anywhere, because that’s likely with both.

So who won’t be with the team in two weeks?

Right now I think the player most likely to be moved is Scott Hannan. The Hawks are rumored to be looking for a depth defenseman and interested in him. It’d be nice to give Hannan a chance to play with them towards the end of his career. I don’t see the return on this as great — fourth round pick? But Hannan going to someone seems to be the most likely trade out there.

Second on my list: Antti Niemi. While Niemi’s “use by” date has clearly passed — he’s in the bottom 20% of the league in both save percentage and goals against — he can be useful to some teams. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent and the Sharks have (as far as anyone knows) made no attempts to talk contract with him, which seems to indicate they aren’t planning on bringing him back next year — a move I’d strongly agree with. I don’t see many teams in the league that would want to trade for Niemi to sign him, but he’d be very useful for a team that wants to bulk up their backup goalie spot for the playoffs and playoff run.

I think a great example of what I’m thinking is the Kings: they’re not playing Jones much and they’re riding Quick hard. Niemi might be able to give Quick a couple of rest games and would be insurance in case Quick got hurt — and yes the Kings would clearly have no interest in signing Niemi in the offseason. A pure rental as insurance late in the season and against a playoff injury to their starter. Of course, I think the chance of the Sharks trading with the Kings is effectively zero, but that’s the likely kind of situation where a team might find value (but not huge value) in trading for Niemi. Maybe the Rangers with Lundqvist’s injury?

I give Hannan 80% chance of moving, and I’ve been thinking 50-50 on Niemi, but after last night’s game, let’s make it 60-40% in favor of his moving on.

Other players that might move? none of the young core, none of the prospects; Laurie and I came up with 3-4 other of the older and depth type players (Scott, for instance) who might have a team show interest. This is about clearing cap and clearing older players to make room for youth while acquiring some mid-level draft picks where the Sharks have done a very good job of finding talent other teams miss.

If the Sharks do deal Niemi, then what? Staylock, bluntly has disappointed me (and the Sharks) greatly. Niemi has made winning the starter job this year easy, and Staylock hasn’t. Why? I don’t know but I expected a lot more from him. This makes me think the Sharks are going to be looking for goaltending help in the offseason, because it’s unclear they have a #1 goaltender that’s (a) better than Niemi and (b) ready for prime time. To the idea it’s better to then sign Niemi, well, no. Because Niemi is only going to decline in quality from here on, and that would limit their flexibility. I’d rather struggle with a kid that’s not quite ready than be stuck with a veteran who never will be again.

“Just Give Pavelski the C already” — or maybe not.

I’m hearing it more and more on Twitter: Just give Pavelski the “C” already. I sympathize and he’d be my choice, although I have to admit, I’m more and more impressed with how Vlasic is managing the team as well, and if you look at who is the standard post-game interview, especially after bad losses, it’s very often Vlasic. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that Pavelski is the only, or even the best, candidate for this team.

There are a lot of reasons not to award the captaincy this season, but the biggest one is that it’s not why this team is broken and naming a captain won’t fix it — but will put more pressure and the risk of more blame on whoever gets named. That seems a bad bet to me, and I hope the Sharks don’t try it. I’ve wondered a lot about why they chose this particular setup, especially when it became clear that it wasn’t a 20 game tryout.

Part of the reason why the Sharks have left things this way is, I think, that nobody on the team has really stepped up and shown themselves as captain. The leadership really is a group project. That includes Pavelski who’s done a yeoman’s job on the ice, but I don’t see the public aspects of the Captain’s role as fitting him right now (Vlasic seems more comfortable there; another reason to consider him for this).

Another aspect: Joe Thornton. As long as Thornton is on the team, he’s going to have a strong influence on it. A good argument can be made (and Dan Robson has done a good job of making it) that this is still Thorton’s team, C or no C. Leaving things in this “group project” mode limits the friction with  political and interpersonal aspects of this team in transition — and don’t be fooled, as much as both Thornton and Marleau have put on good faces and have tried to keep a positive locker room attitude and worked their butts off on the ice, there are still hard feelings here that won’t be resolved. This is one way to not rub their faces in it and not risk creating a locker room collapse.

Finally, I think the best reason to not award the C: it gives this team and the leadership group a chance to grow and mature a bit more and keep them out of the media spotlight a bit. Instead, what McClellan has done is taken that pressure onto himself as a way to protect the players from some of the pressure, especially as this year has been a struggle. It’s an interesting gambit and I think it’s part of why the “Fire McClellan” drumbeat has been beating on and off this year, but can you really believe this team would be playing better if one player had the C and had to stand in front of the media after every game to explain the way a Captain does? This way, that pressure is spread across multiple players — and the coach takes some of it up as well.

If you ask me, McClellan took a risk here, and ended up putting the team in the best place to play the best hockey by minimizing pressure on the key players. I think if he’d given the C out to someone, it would have made the team worse. That said, I don’t think this is the kind of situation we want long term, but for this season as the team transitions and the younger players mature, it makes sense.

The “Fire McClellan” drumbeat

On and off this season there has been discussion among both fans and press about whether the team should fire McClellan. My view: this is a rebuild, and the struggles this year should be expected (and in fact, were — look at Doug Wilson’s early comments, until he was evidently told to raise his expectations by his bosses).

The struggles this year aren’t a coaching problem. It’s not that the players have gotten tired of the coaching or tuned them out. It’s that this team — isn’t that good and is in transition. That was complicated by the No Movement clauses in both Thornton’s and Marleau’s comments and the fight over trying to convince them to waive them, and the fact that both are still here and in the locker room.

Those no-trade clauses were, by the way, negotiated by Doug Wilson, as was (I think) every player and staff decision on the current Sharks team. Doug Wilson has been in the GM seat since 2003. This has been a time where the Sharks have done amazingly well, but have never made it to the playoff finals or won the Cup.

Given that I don’t believe the problems are coaching related, I see no purpose at replacing what most experts consider to be a strong and talented coaching staff (many pundits think that McClellan would have a choice of jobs hours after being relieved of duty and I agree) I think we need to consider whether it’s time to make a change in the GM chair instead.

I say that as a massive Doug Wilson fan who thinks he’s done a lot of good for this team, but if the failure here is that we didn’t win a Stanley Cup — and the Sharks did pretty much everything EXCEPT that — I can’t think that swapping in another coach and staff changes that. So either we stay the course with McClellan and Wilson, or we make some other change than a coaching change (well, the third option: fire McClellan as a scapegoat and hope it buys the team a couple of years for the rebuild that’s happening anyway, but I hate that option).

Here’s my suggestion: promote Wilson to president of hockey operations and hire in a new GM to report to him (allow me one second to whisper “Kelly Kisio” as someone who did 15 years as GM with the Calgary Hitmen, has a history with the team, and who I think would be a fascinating candidate. not that it’ll ever happen).

I do think it’s time for a change in the GM role with the Sharks — staying the course won’t change the course at this point — but I also think Wilson is the kind of resource you want with your team and influencing it’s direction. So I’m not interested in firing Doug, but letting him take on the entire hockey organization, and bring in someone with some fresh eyes and a fresh set of ideas about building a team to work with him as the new GM.

I would, by the way, be perfectly happy with keeping the status quo with both Wilson as GM and McClellan and his team on the coaching staff. The one thing I don’t want to see is McClellan fired with an expectation that will fix anything. It won’t.