2014-2015 Sharks in Review

With a whimper and a sigh

And so the Sharks end the 2014-2015 season as it played most of it with a game that was partly a solid effort, and partly one of “why am I here?”, leading to a 4-1 loss to the Kings. And now the offseason begins, full of more questions and worries than hope.

I did not pick the Sharks for the playoffs this season, and yet, I find myself disappointed this team played down to my expectations. My head told me this, my heart hoped for that. I got this.

To me this problems of this season can be boiled down to four key things:

  1. Defensive Depth: The Sharks let two veteran defensemen go as part of the “rebuild younger” plan of Doug Wilson: Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart. While they also moved Brent Burns back to defense and he responded with an overall better season than last year, the end result was a net drop of 4-+ points of offense from the blueline. Shot’s allowed per game was about 27, 3-4 higher than most of the playoff-bound team, and Niemi’s save percentage was about on par with an average NHL goalie, his Goals Allowed was inflated by this higher shot count. You can’t have a poor defense if your goaltending is average, and that’s a big aspect of what happened this year. Younger players — especially Jason Demers — were put in positions they weren’t ready to handle, to the point Demers completely imploded and was ultimately traded to Dallas, where he found his balance and had a pretty solid season. The blue line tried, but the Sharks went too young, too soon, and the team paid a nasty price for that.
  2. Goaltending. Antti Niemi just plain old didn’t get it done. His Goals Against of 2.59 puts him almost a third of a goal a game below the goalies I would consider to be acceptable (Eddie Lack: 2.45 or Ryan Miller 2.47) or good (Marc-Andry Fleury: 2.36 or Roberto Luongo: 2.35). His Save Percentage is stronger: 9.14 is on par with Jaroslav Halak and Ben Bishop and not far behind Jonathan Quick at .918. Niemi saw 27 shots a game on average, the best teams have that at 24 or under: if you’re letting in 1 shot in 11, three shots a game means a goal every third game — or the amount that makes Niemi a sub-standard goalie vs. a good one. Team defense struggled in front of Niemi, but Niemi didn’t make enough saves.
  3. Patrick Marleau just had a terrible, very not-Patrick-Marleau year. 19 goals is his lowest full-season number since 2007-2008, which is also the last year he was a significant minus player (-19 then, -17 this season). That season was the last season of coach Ron Wilson, when lots of things went wrong for lots of players. Everyone’s +- on the team suffered this year, but Marleau’s numbers are off a cliff. 15 fewer points, 50 fewer shots, his shooting percentage went from 11.6% to 8% so fewer shots went in when he did shoot. His ice time and shifts/game only dropped a bit (1 minute ice time and one fewer shift per game), so he was out there, he was simply not getting as much done. All of his point reduction is in goals as well: he actually scored one more assist than last season. Most on Patrick and the team in a bit, but the bottom line is that his numbers dropped significantly more than anyone else’s on the team.
  4. Consistency and Structure: It became a running joke in our household where I would lobby for the NHL to shift to 40 minute games, because far too often San Jose would play a really solid first and a decent second period only to hand over the game with poor play and turnovers in the third. Often teams who play badly late in games are poorly conditioned but that didn’t seem to be the problem in San Jose. Instead, this was a team that was fragile and handled bad bounces poorly. Something went against them and this team got into scramble mode, or became very unsure of itself and watched rather than reacted, and other teams stuffed that down their throats night after night. it was hard to see a consistent 60 minute performance, and that was because this team didn’t trust itself to play within the system and structure and started freelancing. When that happens, bad things typically follow. And with the Sharks, that’s what happened.

If you compare 2014-2015 to 2013-2014, twelve of the fifteen top scorers on the Sharks are the same. The team dropped Dan Boyle (12-24-36 -8) and Jason Demers (5-29-34 +14) off of defense and Martin Havlat (12-10-22 +14) out of the forwards and added in Melker Karlson (13-11-24 -3), Chris Tierney (6-15-21 +3) and Barclay Goodrow (4-8-12 -1). To make up for the loss on Defense they moved Brett Burns to defense and he responded with a good season (17-43-60, or 12 more points than last season) , but the bottom line is that in the top 15 scorers, we swapped out 102 points for 53 points, and even factoring in Brett Burns in some way we’re still 40 points short and almost all of those are points from the defense.

Jason Demers, by the way, was 0-3-3 in 20 games before the trade, down from 5-29-34 the year before. If he hadn’t been traded, he’d be on that list above as a major disappointment. Once he was sent to Dallas, his game recovered — 5-17-22 and +3 is on par with his 2013 season with the Sharks, so you have to look at this as the core problem being the Sharks putting him in a situation he wasn’t able to succeed in, and then after the trade, the Stars letting him rebuild his confidence in a role he was more comfortable with. The Sharks asked too much from him at this stage in his career and he and the blueline imploded and the team never really recovered.

So — what when wrong?

If I could only name one problem (and the Sharks this year definitely have more than a single problem bubbling in the soup) I would define that problem as a catastrophic failure of defensive depth.

Last year the Defensive corps included Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Jason Demers, Matt Irwin, Justin Braun and Scott Hannan.

Boyle and Stuart didn’t return, Burns returned from forward, and we went into the season with the top four expected to be Burns, Vlasic, Demers and Braun, Irwin, with Mirco Mueller as 6th and Scott Hannan as 7th.

Doug Wilson’s goal was to go younger, and he did, but the players weren’t ready for it. Demers’ game suffered so badly he was traded (or as I’d define it “we broke him and can’t fix him and can’t afford to wait”) and suddenly we’re playing Brendon Dillon and Matt Tennyson and Taylor Fedun and patching together a Defensive corps out of spare parts.

Guess what? It didn’t work. And so the defense struggled in front of Niemi, and Niemi was good (sometimes inconsistently good, but he wasn’t bad, he was JUST okay, and OKAY wasn’t good enough with the blueline in front of him) and the forwards weren’t enough to patch up the faults of the defense. When the defense struggles it gets more conservative, so while Burns saw his point total go up, overall defensive scoring plumetted, and that reduced the number of offensive chances for the forwards, so the forwards were depending more on trying to cycle to create offense and less on rebounds and tips, and…

So the core reason this team fell apart was that Doug Wilson decided the Sharks had to go younger and let go two key veteran defensemen: Boyle and Stuart. He replaced them with Brett Burns and a bunch of kids, and the kids weren’t ready, so the defensive corp struggled, and in the case of Jason Demers, completely imploded. I would argue he made the decision to delete Boyle and Stuart from the roster without a plan to replace them, built a plan around the kids because that was what available, and hoped they were ready for it. They weren’t. That Demers couldn’t step up to the added responsibility is a disappointment, but his recovery and play once he settled into a role in Dallas indicates it was how San Jose was using him that was the problem, not the player, and he was pushed into that role because, frankly, San Jose had no other options.

This one is purely on Doug Wilson’s head. Letting go both Stuart and Boyle in favor of youth without having players ready to take up their responsibilities is a huge mistake. That Demers were not ready to step up indicates either a major mis-evaluation of the state of the player, or that the player was put into a role the Sharks knew he weren’t ready for because they had no options. Either way, this isn’t a player problem or a coaching problem, it’s a management problem.

And given Boyle’s play this year (65 games, 20 points, +18) and Brad Stuart’s play in Colorado (65 games, 14 points, -3) I can’t understand a scenario where Doug Wilson didn’t bring back one of them other than a stubborn intent to purge veterans from the team. Which he seemed to do without a solid plan to win without them. We could have really used Boyle this year, and instead we forced Scott Hannan to play 16 minutes a night in 58 games — and he was an even player for us. Hannan should be a 10-12 minute, 35-45 game player at this point, and that he was pressed a lot harder than that this year is an indication how tough it was for the defense this year.

More problems

That might be my key problem, but it clearly wasn’t the only one. There’s this little problem of team leadership, the removal of the captaincy from Joe Thornton, and the absolute disaster this turned into.  After the playoff collapse the previous season Doug Wilson lost it, called into question team leadership, declared the team a disaster and that the roster needed to be turned over and rebuilt around youth and that this was no longer a contending or playoff team.

But there was a problem. Well, problems. One problem was that Doug Wilson had just given both Patrick Marleau and Joe Thorton new contracts with no movement clauses, so he couldn’t trade them without their permission. Neither Marleau nor Thornton were interested in waiving their clauses — it came out later that Thornton evidently told the team that if they really believed he shouldn’t be on the roster they should buy him out and make him a free agent. My respect for Thornton has always been high, but this raised it a bit higher). So there was a way-too-public fight, a lot of unhappiness between the players and the team, and ultimately Wilson admitted that he couldn’t deal them away so he welcomed them back onto the roster and everyone moved forward, happy as a clam.

Well, do you believe that? No, nobody does. But Wilson seemed to have not thought that either player would refuse to waive their clauses, much less both, and had no plan for dealing with this. Wilson ended up dealing with it by stripping Thornton of the captaincy, which I’m sure made relations between the player and team management even more pleasant.

I will give Thornton this: whatever his relationship with Doug wilson and team management, it never showed on the ice. He held up his end, his numbers were classic Joe Thornton numbers, and he not only pulled his weight, he did what he could to pull the team forward with him. If there’s one person who comes out of this cluster looking good it’s Thornton.

Not so much with Marleau, who was clearly hurt and upset by what went on in the summer, and it showed in his game. Early on he looked sometimes lost, sometimes listless, and while his game effort improved as the season went along, he never got on track. I have to wonder how much of that was this situation and how much is his age; while Thornton is showing he has some years left in him, was this year the start of the downhill slide for Marleau? It’s possible, and if so, that’s another indictment of Wilson for misjudging that when offering him this new contract. Time will tell. Thorton this year more than earned his, and the Sharks owners when they finally stepped in publicly into this dispute made it clear Thorton was going nowhere and retiring as a Shark (and good for them for that). Note that nowhere has that been said about Patrick Marleau (nor, after this season, would I suggest it)

Coach Todd McLellan ended up entering the season without a captain and left it that way for the entire season, instead opting to rotate the A across a few players: Thornton, Pavelski, Burns and and Vlasic. When those were announced, Couture made a public statement of disappointment he wasn’t chosen, then shut up and played hockey, but it was another indication that this season’s locker room wasn’t exactly smiles and poker.

I’ve recently wondered if not assigning a Captain was McLellan’s way of protesting what Wilson did to Thornton. There have been some quiet indications this season that coach and GM haven’t always been seeing eye to eye, and I have to wonder how much of leaving team leadership ambiguous was to minimize how this made Thornton look and how much that nobody really stepped up and made it clear they ought to be Captain. Some of THAT, I think, is that Thornton is strongly respected in the locker room and so the obvious candidates also didn’t want to step into the mess.

Obvious candidates? There’s been a lot of talk about Pavelski as the next captain. That would be a good choice, but the more I watch Vlasic in action, especially in the non-game aspects of being a captain like pre- and post-game interactions with the press, the more he impresses me. Either would be a good candidate, but from what I’ve seen, I’d be leaning towards Vlasic if it was my choice.

Instead, we were left with no clear leader and a muddled leadership, and a team that spent much of the year playing like they had never found that trust level with each other, so when a bad bounce or turnover happened, the team tended to leave the system and start freelancing, and bad things usually follow that.

I’ve also heard some quiet indications the locker room is unhappy and in some ways split, with part of the room strongly loyal to Thornton and, especially with the younger players, others ready to follow Pavelski or Vlasic. There’s no indication Thornton or anyone tried to disrupt the locker room or the team, but let’s be clear: Joe Thornton is seriously pissed at how things have gone down in the last year, and so is Patrick Marleau. Thornton’s response has been to prove the team wrong; Marleau’s is his more typical crawl into a shell. And there is a “am I next?” vibe to the older players that has impacted the tone of the locker room.

And all of this goes directly back to Doug Wilson, who handled this emotionally and unprofessionally, and when he tried to push the issue on the no movement clauses and failed to get them waived, had no plan to fix the damage he’d caused.

I have been a long, loud and loyal supporter of Doug Wilson over the years, going back to his playing days in the Cow Palace. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him a few time, one of my few signed jerseys is his, and when he and Kevin Constantine were trying to create their coaching clinic Laurie and I ran the web site for the company, until the Sharks made carrying that forward impossible (and Constantine left the area for the last time). So I’m a big fan of his.

And I am throwing him under a large, noisy bus here, and I think he’s earned every tread mark.

So what changes?

Changes are coming. This team isn’t far from being competitive, but it’s got some serious problems that need to be addressed. The first is who will be in charge of fixing it.

When Wilson opened his mouth late in the season about stripping Thornton of the captaincy — that time where Thornton told him to shut up, and owner Hasso Plattner had to step in and mediate — Wilson completely lost my support. Taking a shot at Thorton there was unprofessional and unacceptable, and the timing was terrible because the team was actually starting to play better again, and after that, it just sort of fell back into the goo and muddled it’s way out to the off-season. If the Sharks had carried forward the momentum they’d built in the few weeks before that, they’d likely have made the playoffs. After, there was zero chance.

I hope I’ve made it clear I feel the key failures here are mistakes made by Doug Wilson, the GM. I’ve said for much of the season that I felt if it was time to make a change that change should start with the GM, not the coach. After the season ticket holder meeting debacle, I was convinced we need that change, and so I’m calling for the team to replace the GM. I don’t necessarily think that Wilson should be fired, but one option would be to move  him into a role in charge of the hockey side of the business and hire in a GM to report to him.

This is the model Edmonton has used, and while I can’t exactly point to that as a pillar of success for the idea, I think it’s a reasonable option to consider. Wilson brings a lot of positives to the organization, and they would continue to be a strong addition to the team even if I believe it’s time for a new GM with different ideas, a fresh set of ideas and a fresh approach.

Then again, ownership might find that Wilson has so poisoned his relationship with his players he has to go. If they do — that works for me, too. I’ve more and more moved towards that idea the last few weeks myself.

But either way, I do not believe Wilson can or should return as GM. It’s time for a change.

The Coaching Staff

I’ve seen nothing to indicate the players are tired of playing for McLellan and his staff; in fact, they seem to like him and his system, even if the results weren’t always there this year — it’s hard to play good hockey when your #7 defenseman is playing the #3 or #4 role. So if I have any say in the matter, McLellan comes back with his staff intact.

Larry Robinson is leaving to take on a player development job and leaving the Sharks organization, so  the Sharks need a new bench coach to manage the defense — and I wonder if Bryan Marchment is ready to step into a role like that. Of course, Bill McCreary will come out of retirement to give him a two minute penalty to start the game, just like old times, if they can figure out how to put a coach in the penalty box.

The other change I want to see is a new, full time Goaltending coach. Without criticizing what Wayne Thomas has done, he has other responsibilities and I think we need to bring in someone else here — and since Jeff Reese is available, that seems like an interesting one to pursue. Or maybe Nabokov might consider it, although it seems like he’s still interested in being retired.

But overall, I like the coaching and nobody could have solved the defensive problems we had with the lack of experienced defensemen this year. I’ keep the coaches and staff. I also see no problems with the support staff: trainers, medical, scouting, etc. This is a good, solid organization across all of the disciplines.

Team changes

We need changes on the team as well. There have beens some nice additions, especially  Melker Karlsson, who looks like a real keeper.

But the team defense needs help. And we need goaltending. And it’s an often ignored component, but this team really missed Raffi Torres and his ability to run around and get the other team a bit crazy with the third line. That kind of sandpaper player can be crucial in building momentum and team energy, and his continuing struggles with his injuries kept him off the ice and the Sharks simply didn’t have a player who filled that role well. Finding or developing that kind of player is a less visible but important part of pushing this team back into playoff contender status.

If I were in charge, I wouldn’t bring Niemi back, and there seem to be some indications the Sharks feel that way as well. Niemi today is a decent, middle-of-the-pack goaltender with no upside, and I expect his game to slip in future seasons. He’s serviceable, but he won’t solve our problems.

Staylock may be a #1 goalie but he didn’t prove he was, either. Troy Grosenick looks to be the best player in the development system but seems fragile and he needs to prove he can stay healthy. So I believe the Sharks need to bring in a goalie. Let Niemi go, and find a replacement. They don’t need to be a world-beater, but someone who’s solid and stable and can work with and push Staylock as the two fight for the #1 spot. I’d suggest someone like Eddie Lack or Jhonas Enroth as the kind of player I’m thinking of.

We need to add at least one impact defenseman. If they follow through with the idea to move Burns back to forward, they need two. I think the younger players have a lot of potential, but look at how badly Demers broke this year — we need to slow down and not force the development like we did the last couple of years. So my shopping list includes a #1-#2, 20+ minute 75 game defenseman, plus one that can play in the 3-4 role. If we don’t get both, we need to keep Burns on defense. I’m talking about players like the Kings Adrej Sekera, or Johnny Oduya from the Hawks, and for that 3-4 guy someone like (I kid you not) Christian Erhoff, who’s going to be available. We could do worse.

Forwards? I like the idea of moving Burns back to forward, but only if we can bolster the defense properly. If not, leave him where he is. Beyond that, I think what we have is fine, although…

The Marleau question

While the Sharks have come out and made it clear that Joe Thornton will retire as a shark, you haven’t heard those same statements about Patrick Marleau, and I don’t expect you will. That doesn’t mean Marleau won’t be a Shark in October — but I do believe the Sharks will quietly and tactfully inquire, and given how painful this season was (and there are indications Marleau took the whole thing pretty badly and when it didn’t blow over as the season went on, it continued to bother him) Marleau may well reconsider waiving his no-movement clause. Or the Sharks may offer to buy him out. Either way, I’d say the chances of Marleau playing for San Jose next year is probably 50-50.

Which is too bad, but it’s unclear if this relationship can be healed. I don’t know — and time will tell. If Marleau wants to gut it out and stay, he’ll have my support, but we’ll need a better set of results from him next season. The reality is that his production drop could be argued was the difference between this team making and missing the playoffs, and I could well have written this review around the idea that it was his poor season that cost the team, not the weak defense. But I don’t believe that, and neither should you.

But maybe it’s time for him to consider a fresh start. I do think he’s got a few years left in him, or perhaps I hope so, because he’s a good person who’s done a lot for the team and community over the years. I don’t want this season to be the way we remember him.

We’ll have to wait to see what the Sharks and Marleau choose to do here.

Team Leadership

I think the team needs to make a commitment on leadership. Going into next season without a captain will make it harder to heal the rifts between the Thornton faction and the younger players that are looking at new leadership. Having a single leader will at least make it clear what the team direction is. right now, the lack of that clear direction is now an indictment on the situation and it needs to be resolved.

My suggestion: Vlasic for captain, with Pavelski and Thornton as alternates. Those three are clearly three of the key leaders in the room and the ones that are most visible as the public leaders, and I think it’s time to recognize that. I’m tempted to suggest giving Thornton the C back, but I worry that would create new problems, and unless both sides commit to a next contract, I’m not sure I want to build leadership about a player we don’t know will be here beyond a season or two. But I definitely want that player helping build the new leadership team and supporting it, and recognizing that contribution.

Next season

I don’t think the Sharks are far from a playoff team — by my estimation, six games that could have changed results based on a key goal would have meant making the playoffs. The Sharks actually had the same number wins as the Kings and only three wins less than 2nd wildcard Winnipeg.  It’s not that far off, but it’s also not easy.

That said, making the playoffs doesn’t mean you’re a contender to go deep or compete for the Cup, but it’s a big step forward, and right now, if the Sharks make a couple of key changes (new goalie, new defenseman) and the younger players develop as I expect, I think missing the playoffs will be a one season thing.

Beyond that, I think the core of this team is really good and interesting — although I have real questions about our goaltending and goaltending prospects. I think Wilson’s idea that the team needed to rebuild and go young was the right one, but that his plan was flawed and too aggressive, and driven more by frustration at the playoff collapse than by the readiness of the organization to implement it. He pushed too hard, too fast, on the rebuild and did it for the wrong reasons, and the team — and fans — paid for it this year.

But that doesn’t invalidate the idea, just the implementation. This team will recover from it and will come back strong and competitive again, and I expect at least a first round of playoffs next year.

We’ll need to watch the off-season and see what the Sharks and other teams (especially the Kings, which have some serious free agency and cap issues) do, but I’m hopeful we’ll be past this soon and it’ll quickly fade into the kind of memory soon forgotten, like that wonderful year we had Al Sims as head coach. Remember that? No? Lucky you…

This, too, shall pass.