2015-16 NHL Playoff Predictions

As is tradition around here, it’s time to embarass myself by attempting to predict the NHL playoffs. So herewith is my official bracket.

Over time, if you exclude my tendency to pick the Sharks to win things out of loyalty, my success rate is between 60-70%, which isn’t bad, but a good reminder not to put real money down on these choices — I sure don’t.

Now some quick thoughts on why I picked the way I picked….

Over in the east, I really like both the Capitals and the Rangers, and I think Tampa has a team that can make it interesting as well. That said, no team in the East has impressed me for their professional attitude year as the Caps, which feel to me like they’ve put it all together. I expect that to carry them through the pressure of the playoffs and barring injury they should win the Cup this year. If anyone can beat them, I think it’s the Rangers and Lundqvist. Washington needs to watch out for Philly in the first round, but if they play to their potential, the Flyers won’t be able to stop them. Detroit, unfortunately, both barely squeaked into the playoffs and won’t stay around too long, not against Tampa. And I like the potential the Islanders are starting to show, but they’re not yet in the class of the top three teams on my list. Pittsburgh lives or dies on Fleury playing well, and right now, that’s a huge question mark.

In the West where I spend most of my viewing time, the brackets are going to be fascinating and full of lots of great play.

Minnesota is the only weak team in the Western first rounds, and that’s only in comparison with the other teams — they’re a good team, but I don’t see them getting past Dallas or making things too tough for the Stars. Chicago’s impressed me a lot but shows inconsistencies and depends heavily on Crawford in net; too heavily for my taste.  the Blues may well take Chicago out in the first round, this one to me is basically a coin flip, but since Laurie is a die-hard Hawks fan, I won’t pick against the team (I hate sleeping on the couch).

Anaheim should take Nashville, but it won’t be easy. This is another one that could go the other way and I won’t feel terrible at being wrong.

The Kings probably ought to be my pick coming out of the West and may well take it all, but Anaheim just looks scary good and firing on all cylinders. Anaheim/Los Angeles in the second round might be epic if it happens, a real no-prisoneers series.

San Jose? Well… I picked the Sharks to barely squeak into the playoffs, 7th seed if they were lucky. And they’ve been a lot better than I expected, and I think they can legitimately go into the second round here — but I think they could beat either LA or Anaheim but not both. To me clearly the three best teams in the West, and only one gets out of the second round. The Sharks might surprise me and go deeper, but I won’t be disappointed if they compete well but lose to the Kings. They have beaten my expectations by a wide margin this year already.

Assuming I’m correct and Anaheim comes out of the West and Washington the East, I think Anaheim is probably the better team, but the Capitals will be the more rested and healthy team, and that’s going to make a huge difference. And that’s why I’ll go for the Caps to take it all, even though I think the West is the stronger conference by far. In this case, getting out of the West is going to hinder the Western team actually winning the Cup.

Three or four of the first round series are effectively coin-flips, and a couple of them (SJ/LA and Wash/Philly) could be epic to watch. Any of five teams (Washington, NYR, Anaheim, SJ or LA) could be a legitimate cup winner, and three others (Tampa, Chicago, Nashville) qualify as Dark Horses to me that could win this without me being too surprised. There’s a lot of great talent in the league, and this year’s playoff is going to showcase it off well.

And so, let’s drop the puck, good luck to the Ducks, and I’m curious as hell to see what San Jose can accomplish…

The NHL and the Sharks at the All-Star Break

As I write this, the NHL All-Star Game is on the television, and Brett Burns is playing 3 on 3 hockey in Nashville.

I must admit — I’m liking the 3 on 3 format for the All Star break. It allows the players to show off their skill and removes that pressure that this isn’t “real” hockey, in that nobody is interested or willing to play defense or, like, hit someone. This is a great way to glorify the skill as an exhibition and let everyone just have some fun.

I think it’s awesome, and I hope the league sticks with it.

I’ve been pretty happy with the league and the hockey this year overall. I like four on four for overtime; heck, I like anything that minimizes finishing games with a shootout, although I accept the necessity of them.

One thing I have to remind myself is that for the NHL — and for all of the pro sports — there are media outlets who invariably find a way to spin things negative, and if you pay too much attention to them, you’d end up with the thought that things are pretty screwed up (hint: same is true of tech covered, especially Apple. Good news doesn’t generate pageviews, so everything must be a crisis).

But overall, while nothing as big and complex as the NHL is going to be perfect, it’s pretty darn good. The business and most of the teams are healthy, revenues are good, the game is good and fun to watch. Something to remember when you start reading the coverage about all of the things that aren’t yet perfect. My suggestion: stop reading the people who only complain about the sport and don’t find time to also admit the good parts. It’s easy to figure out who they are (hint: the bigger the media outlet, and the further north they’re based, the more likely….)

One big mistake the league made recently was how they handled the John Scott situation with the All-Star game. Scott chronicles it with grace on the Player’s Tribune. Here’s my take: if you give the fans the vote for who to send to the All Star game, then you accept the players they send. Back in the days when voting was manual (or mostly manual) and the league used paper ballots you could manage it (and we had a run in San Jose of trying to push Andrei Nazarov to the game with the “50,000 votes for Nazarov” folks that was amazingly similar to what we’re seeing with Scott this year, all in good fun — and which the NHL handled by consistently just pretending all of the votes we stuffed into their system didn’t exist — something you can’t do when the systme is now fully automated and online and the counting is automatic).

It looks like Bettman did the right thing and sat down with Scott privately to clear the air here. Good on him. Better that it was done that way and not via public statements that would have come across as attempting to spin things to the fans instead of Scott. But it shouldn’t have gotten to the point where folks were trying to force Scott out of the game — either you accept what the fans do, or you change how you choose All-Stars to prevent these situations. You can’t have it both ways. And by the way, I’ve always been one who wanted other ways for all-stars to be selected, since fan voting turns quickly into “local favorite voting”, rather than those who are best. All selection processes are biased in some way, but I’d suggest that all NHL coaches and GMs are asked to vote for selections within their conference — not allowed to vote for their own team — and that be used as the basis of selection.

The problem of course is you can’t sell sponsorship and advertising around that like you can a fan vote…

Sharks at the mid-season break

I’ve been watching watching a lot of grumbling — not without justification — about this team among the fans and media this season; the Sharks have been inconsistent at times, to put it mildly. That said, I projected this team to be a marginal playoff team (7-8 seed, first round exit at best), which is a big improvement over last season but still, I was expecting about a .500 team who had to fight to get into the playoff’s in a really tough western conference.

At the All-Star break, the Sharks are in the sixth spot in the west and 8 games over .500. By almost any metric I can judge them, they are meeting or beating my expectations for them — except home record, which early on was brutal, but even there, they’ve gotten it almost back to .500 (10-12) recently.

I think a lot of the complaints have been overblown. What I’ve seen is a team with many major changes that was working hard, but still learning how to play as a team. We have a new starting goalie and Martin Jones went through a period where the added workload of being the starter got to him a bit, but he’s adjusted and now he’s playing pretty well again. We lost Couture to two freak injuries for a significant period of time, and that caused the team to struggle as well, because the team doesn’t have the depth to cover a loss of talent like that.

What I liked even through the struggles was that I saw a team that was working hard, was working for each other, had a good attitude, and was clearly working together to find answers and playing with a good attitude.

This is why a season is 80 games and not 20; it’s a long season, and it’s how the team handles the long grind, not what happens in the first month. Right now this team looks very much like a playoff team, perhaps a 2nd round team, although I don’t think you can predict them going deeper than that, and I expect the 2nd half of the season will be a lot stronger than the first half, and this team ahead in the rebuild from where I expected it to be.

With one or two games as exceptions, even when this team loses, it’s fun to watch and it’s working hard and trying.

You know what? I’ll take that. I’ll give the season to date a full ‘B’





Camp Opens (finally)

As I write this training camp has finally opened and the Sharks are about to travel to Vancouver for a pre-season game as part of Kraft Hockeyville. Hockey is around the corner once again.

It’s been an off-season of big changes. Todd McClellan is out, Peter DeBoer is in, Antti Niemi is out, Martin Jones is in. Joe Thornton and Doug Wilson have officially buried the hatchet (but interestingly enough, nobody seems to be asking that of Patrick Marleau) I said over the summer I feel this team is capable of making the playoffs but it’s pretty clear it won’t be easy out here in the West.

The Sharks saw a significant and troubling drop in season ticket renewals to 85% where the team’s renewal rates have been more traditionally around 95% or higher. I think that drop is even more significant than it sounds because this is the 25th anniversary season and that’s the kind of year where I would expect people to be more likely to hang on for one more year just to experience the anniversary. One wonders what the renewal rate would have been if it wasn’t the anniversary.

The Sharks have a lot of work to do; they need to learn DeBoer’s system, they need to start winning back the trust and enthusiasm of the fans — they need to win. They need to get back into the playoffs. Doug Wilson feels the team is better today than it was last season, and I agree. But is it good enough?

Is Martin Jones really a #1 goalie? I think so, but he has to prove it. Will Patrick Marleau rebound from what can only be described as a terrible season last year? Will Tomas Hertl recover from his sophomore slump? (He seems to be doing the right things). Five of the defense are set but who fills out that crew? Will we see the return of Raffi Torres, and will he have an impact? If he starts out healthy, will he stay that way?

This team is full of question marks. I admit to being nervously hopeful.

At this point, I’m happy I can start talking about hockey again, instead of other things, such as, well, the next item. I’m ready to drop the puck. Are you?

Who is the next Captain of the San Jose Sharks?

So who’s going to be the next Captain of the San Jose Sharks? Peter Deboer says the team will have one. There’s been a lot of speculation among fans and some of the media that covers the team, but the team itself isn’t saying and I expect DeBoer has his preferences, but won’t know for sure until camp opens and perhaps we get right up to the start of the season.

That said, I think the obvious candidate is Joe Pavelski, and I’m not entirely sure why he wasn’t given the position last season by Todd McLellan. So you can put me in with the majority that assume it will be him. It likely will be and should be.

But what about the alternates? There are a number of options and which DeBoer chooses will give us an indication of his views on this team’s makeup.

Marc-Eduoard Vlasic is one of the players on my short list, as is Logan Couture. Given the team has switched back from “build for the next generation” mode to “we can win now”, does the team give an A to one of the older veterans? I think so, and my vote would go to Joe Thornton.

Could the team instead think about bringing in one of the younger kids into the captain’s circle? Maybe a Matt Nieto or Chris Tierney? I don’t think that’s as likely, but I wouldn’t rule out the thinking.

But my choice would be to go with Pavelski with the C, Joe Thornton with an A, and Vlasic and Couture alternative with the other one.

We’ll know soon what the new coaching staff which, of course, is what really matters.

Are the Sharks a Playoff Team?

Are the Sharks a Playoff Team in 2015-2016?

The dust has settled and we’re starting to gear up for training camp. The drafts is one, the free agency period complete, the key free agents signed, and so now we can take a step back and ask… Are the San Jose Sharks a playoff team in 2015-16?

I have to say I’m happy with the team as it stands today, and so I’ll go on record and declare that I think it’s a playoff team again next season. Will they win the Western Conference or the Pacific Division? Unlike some I’m not so sure. Will they go deep in the playoffs? Let’s ask that question again around the start of the season — it’s far too early to predict rationally and I think there’s a good chance there’ll be at least one more roster move by Doug Wilson before October.

I really like the addition of Martin Jones and allowing Annti Niemi move on. Niemmi would be at best as good as he was last season and possibly into the inevitable decline of an aging goalie, and last year, he was merely adequate, which wasn’t good enough in front of a not-deep-enough defense. Jones isn’t fully proven but I love the game he plays and I think he has a significant upside. There’s some risk here but I feel it was one of the best possible choices the Sharks could have made. Not insignificant: Jones’ age places him within the age of the new core group the Sharks are building around Couture and Pavelski, and that means we have the chance of building out a new team that will stay together for a number of years as the older veterans age out.

I also really like the Joel Ward signing; he brings a character and presence the team needs and some great depth and hustle on the third and fourth lines. He also removes the worries about whether Raffi Torres will be able to play and be effective — if Torres can, he’s now a bonus player and not a critical piece of the puzzle. Ward brings a work ethic and an understanding of what it takes to win I like having around the younger players and a sandpaper edge this team really needs. Great signing here.

I also like the addition of Paul Martin; the Sharks desperately needed to add defensive depth and they got it with Paul Martin. He’ll suck up a lot of minutes, add a minor power play presece and give you 25 points along the way.

Let’s not forget the coaching and management changes: Peter DeBoer is in as head coach, and he’s added Bob Boughner as a coach, and the Sharks have hired Johan Hedberg as coach and goaltending coach. These are all good, solid hires and I like the idea of having Hedberg pushing Jones in goal; I think it sets up for our goalies to really step up and play better. As much as I liked Todd McLellan, it’s become clear it was time to shake up the people in the mix, and I expect he’ll have success in Edmonton, but these changes make me think the Sharks have improved themselves as well.

The loss of Tarasov to the KHL is disappointing but not surprising. I don’t see it as a significant impact on the Sharks now and it’s unclear if Tarasov would ever turn into an impact player for San Jose. We’ll see if he chooses to return to North America later; the Sharks retain his rights.

As of right now, the top five defensemen look to be Martin, Brent Burns, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Brendon Dillon, with Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson in the depth chart chasing the 6th and 7th spots. Kevin Kurz argues that Mueller would be best served starting the season as a Barracuda and I agree, and this is a place where we might see another depth defenseman brought in to allow that.

Looking at forwards (and again cribbing a bit from Kurz), the roster looks something like this:

Top six: Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Karlsson and Hertl.

Second six: Joel Ward, Tommy Wingels, Ben Smith, Mike Brown, Matt Nieto, Chris Tierney

That leaves two roster spots to fill out. Barclay Goodrow and Nikolay Goldobin seem on the short list, but this is something that’ll sort itself out during training camp. The status of Raffi Torres is unknown but also has to be an option here if he’s healthy.

The point I take from this is that the roster, even if there are no changes from the obvious choices, seems to be in good shape and we could open the season tomorrow with this crew and I think we’d do okay.

And that’s why I think this team is a playoff team.

Can we start the season yet?

The Sharks Hire Peter DeBoer

The Sharks coaching sweepstakes are done, and Peter DeBoer is the winner. Or the loser — time will tell. David Pollack in his Working the Corners got a chance to dig in with some of the basic questions with the new coach.

DeBoer was most recently coach of the New Jersey Devils (2011 to 2014). Prior to that he coached the Florida Panthers in 2008-2011. He’s gone to the NHL playoff’s once in seven seasons and lost to the Kings in the Cup Final that year (2011-12), but seriously: Panthers and Devils. that answers my first question: he’s already a winner.

DeBoer was one of the final candidates for the Sharks coaching position last time it was open, ultimately having it go to McLellan. Doug Wilson made the comment that his being available again this time seemed karma, so it seems he was the candidate who had to lose the position from the start. The other strong candidate for the job was Dan Bylsma (formerly Pittsburgh, now Buffalo), with other names mentioned including Dave Lowry and Rob Zettler, both up and coming coaches and former Sharks players — in Zettler’s case, and ex-teammate of Wilson in the early Sharks days. I’m going to be curious to see if either Lowry or Zettler end up on DeBoer’s staff.

DeBoer is considered an up-tempo, strong defense, puck possession coach who is a strong communicator but also willing to kick a few butts if they don’t meet expectations. This seems a great match to the current Sharks talent.

My take: I like the hire. I would have liked Byslma as well. I had a feeling Wilson would go with an established coach over one without NHL experience, but it wouldn’t surprise me if either Lowry or Zettler get invited to join the staff.

If you read through enough material about the Sharks, you start to see that Wilson and McLellan were not on the same page about a number of things — the way McLellan handle the captaincy (or more correctly didn’t) was a big one, and when asked about this wilson made it explicit that the choice of captains was the decision of the coach alone — but he said it with a clear subtext of “If I don’t like the decision AND it doesn’t work out, you may end up in Edmonton”. There were clear disagreements over how to use Hertl with Wilson wanting him played more at Center than McLelland did. Once you put this all together, it’s clear why McLellan decided it was time to move on, and why Wilson didn’t try very hard to talk him out of it.

There was no talk of McLellan getting an extension, and if he’d gone into next season without it, the team might ahve considered him a lame duck, complicating his ability to manage the players — and if things went sideways, it’d be that much easier to fire him quickly. And given the disagreements on strategy that’ve come out, McLellan could see it likely that when the contract expired, he’d be moved on anyway – it was pretty clear Wilson wasn’t going to bring him back after next season at best. There are also some clear signs that McLellan and Joe Thorton had some disagreements, and I think it’s safe to assume Thorton wasn’t the only player that would be true of.

Sometimes it just makes sense for everyone to declare it’s time for changes and move on, and that’s what the sharks and McLellan did. I think these changes work best for everyone — McLellan has a good opportunity and fresh start in a revitalized Edmonton, the Sharks clearly needed a new leader to get rid of some of the history. I’m encouraged, but the devil is in the the details, and so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when camp opens.

I think one of the more interesting decisions to watch is how DeBoer sets up the captaincy structure. Last year’s structure won’t make it to opening day, I’ll bet. And I’ll bet on Pavelski getting the C, and two of Thornton, Vlasic and Couture getting A’s.

All in all, I think this hiring is a positive for the team and I think it gives me hope things will go better next season.

Thoughts on the next Shark head coach

So Babcock ended up in Toronto, which surprised me a bit at the time but in hindsight, not really. And McClellan ended up in Edmonton, which didn’t surprise me at all. Now that Babcock has settled into his new challenge, I expect the rest of the coaching positions to start filling fairly quickly.

Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy had a great summary of the winners and losers as the dust settles in Detroit — in reality, Detroit isn’t a loser here, since if you think about it, Babcock hasn’t gotten the team deep into the playoffs for a number of years and was clearly thinking he needed a fresh challenge. This trend of coaches deciding they need to move before teams fire them is an interesting one that I am curious to see if it continues (my guess: yes)

But what does this mean for the Sharks? The Sharks were never seriously in the Babcock sweepstakes and weren’t going to put up the kind of money for a coach that the Leafs did. There are plenty of candidates, and if you read the various sources, Peter DeBoer is a leading candidate, as is Dan Bylsma (my original idea as a good choice). Rob Zettler (ex-Shark, ex Vancouver Giant and current Syracuse Crunch coach) was another candidate that’s been talked about, but one other name has surfaced that intrigues me: Dave Lowry, another ex-Shark currently coaching the WHL Victoria team.

Lowry was a good player — like Zettler, not the most talented guy on the team, but always played smart and hard and the kind of player you could trust in the last minute of a key game to get the job done. Both of these guys were also strong locker room influences in setting attitudes and work ethics for other players to follow — the classic “lead by example” type of behavior. Both are proving to be solid coaches and good motivators at the lower levels and both look, to me, to be NHL coaches sometime in the future.

Will the Sharks go with an unproven coach? Or more correctly, unproven at the NHL level? I think it’s quite possible, especially if it’s a coach that Doug Wilson has a history with, and Wilson and Zettler shared the blueline together in the Cow Palace days. Lowry was a Shark after Wilson retired while Wilson was working for the NHLPA so his direct interactions are most likely through the PA.

I think any of these would make good and interesting coaches. I’m learning towards the Sharks ultimately going for one with some NHL coaching experience — Bylsma or DeBoer — but I wouldn’t bet money on it. And I think it’ll be done in the next couple of weeks. Whoever comes in has large shoes to fill.

Having said that, it’s become very clear that the Sharks needed a change. Some of the local media have tried to portray this move as an unannounced firing, and I don’t think that’s fair or true — but I do believe the reality is that McLellan with one year left on his deal had been told or knew that no contract extension was going to be offered. that’s a problem for a coach, because going into a season with your contract expiring you can be seen as a lame duck, and you can’t hold the “I’m not going anywhere” over the heads of a non-cooperative player. My read of the situation is that McLellan felt (or had been told) that he’d be let go once the contract expired, or let go if the season didn’t start well, and he chose instead to ask out of the deal rather than go into next season with that status.

And Doug Wilson certainly didn’t seem to try hard (at all, really) to convince him to stay. There’s been clear evidence that Wilson and McLellan disagreed on some player decisions — to name one, Wilson wanted Hertl played at center, while McLellan kept him primarily on wing. It’s also clear that not only did Wilson and Joe Thornton have their very public spat (now, officially, over, done and behind both of them) but McLellan and Thornton weren’t exactly dinner buddies, either.

McLellan could read the tea leaves, and rather than wait to be fired or let go, he decided to pull the plug and move on. I don’t blame him for that, and I think that’s a decision that works best for all involved. Coach gets an interesting new situation — and Edmonton has definitely done a lot to fix itself, fast — and Wilson can bring in someone more in sync with his views and philosophies. And with the players, there’s a new voice to listen to and follow, and it’s now quite obvious the old voice had worn out its welcome in San Jose.

This is the kind of situation where everyone wins in the change — there doesn’t have to be a loser. I wish McLellan nothing but the best (except when playing the Sharks), and I think this allows the Sharks to move forward with some fresh ideas — which I’ve been calling for all along. it’s just at the coaching level and not at the GM level, but I still think this can work.

Of course, we won’t know until we see how well the team plays and wins. But based on the list of names tied to the Sharks, I’m encouraged at the direction Doug Wilson is trying to aim the team.

Predicting the next coach for the Sharks

Okay, it’s probably less of a prediction and more of a guess.

Let’s just say from the beginning that San Jose won’t land Mike Babcock. My guess is that Babcock will stay in Detroit, and if he leaves Detroit, I expect the most likely destinations will be Toronto or Philly.

I’ve been watching the pundits talking about possible candidates. As usual, the Sharks play their cards close to their chest and don’t say (or leak) much. The first name that came to my mind was former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, but I haven’t seen much chatter indicating he’s being considered by the Sharks or anyone else.

Some of the names that are surfacing are interesting: Ken Hitchcock, currently with the Blues, seems to be in the same “considering my options” limbo as McLellan was; same with Dave Tippett in Phoenix. Um, Arizona. Peter DeBoer is also being whispered as a candidate.

The most interesting name that’s surfaced is former Shark Rob Zettler, who has been coaching the Syracuse Crunch for the last two years, and prior to that, the Vancouver Giants in the Western Hockey league. Zettler played with Wilson on those early, awful Sharks teams so they know each other well. He was considered a very good coach in the WHL and his two seasons in the AHL show about a .500 record, but a big improvement in his second season and a return to the playoffs.

One other name that came to mind the other day is Tony Granato, another former Sharks player and former coach in Colorado that’s been an assistant in Detroit. I wonder when or if he’ll get a second chance to be in charge behind the bench.

Any of these names would honestly be strong coaches for the Sharks. I find myself particularly drawn to Ken Hitchcock, but there’s a fond spot in my heart for Rob Zettler; we met him a couple of times during the Cow Palace years and he came across as an interesting and nice guy and I love rooting for folks like that.

So let me come out and say I hope the Sharks bring Zettler in and give him his first chance behind the bench. I think it’d be an interesting experiment — and let’s take that one step further and suggest he bring in Tony Granato and Mike Sullivan (both ex-Sharks and both ex-NHL-coaches now working in varying capacities — Sullivan in Boston and most recently assisting in Vancouver). I’d also love to see the Sharks bring Roy Sommer over to the NHL team as an associate coach, as he’s more than earned that promotion. With the Worcester Sharks becoming the San Jose Barracuda next year, maybe it’s time to bump Roy up stairs in some new capacity and bring in some of the Sharks that have been doing player development and give them control of the bench in the AHL.

On the other hand, if we end up with Hitchcock, I won’t be upset…

(for what it’s worth, it’s looking a lot like McLellan will end up in Edmonton, which a month ago I never would have guessed, but some very positive and interesting things are happening up there, and that’ll be a team to watch next season. The one thing that might derail that is Babcock leaving Detroit, and I have to wonder if the Red Wings would make a play for McLellan if that happens).

2015 Playoff Predictions

The Final Tally

About ten days ago I did some napkin scribbling and ended up predicting the following finish to the season for the teams fighting for the western playoffs:

  • Calgary: 97 points and third seed in the Pacific
  • Winnipeg: 96 points and 2nd Wildcard seed
  • Los Angeles: 94 points and missing the playoffs
  • San Jose: 91 points and missing the playoffs
  • Dallas: 89 points and missing the playoffs

The actual results:

  • Calgary: 97 points and third seed in the Pacific
  • Winnipeg: 99 points and 2nd Wildcard seed
  • Los Angeles: 95 points and out of the playoffs
  • San Jose: 89 points and out of the playoffs
  • Dallas: 92 points and out of the playoffs

Winnipeg played better than predicted but not good enough to catch the Blackhawks in the really tough Central — and well done to the Jets. Dallas outplayed my expectations as well and ended up passing the Sharks, which I didn’t expect. The Sharks lost a game to Edmonton they really shouldn’t have lost and that kept them under 90 points, but it also let Colorado sneak past with 90, so in the Wildcard race San Jose not only didn’t close the gap, they ended up behind three other teams. That’s going out with a whimper….

But overall, I’m really happy with the predictions and results. it’s a short sequence so the possible variation was quite small, but still, it’d be interesting to try this analysis at, say, 20 games left and see how well it works. Maybe next year.

But that’s later. For now, onward to the playoffs.

2015 Playoff Predictions

As is my tradition, here are my playoff predictions for the 2015 NHL playoffs. Also as is my tradition, let me note that anyone who makes wagers based on these predictions is an idiot, so don’t. I’ve been doing this since most seasons since 2002. Last year my prediction for the finals was Kings/Bruins (it was the Rangers) and for the Kings to win it all (they did). In 2013, Chicago vs. Pittsburgh (it was the Bruins), with Chicago winning. in 2012, I chose St. Louis and Pittsburgh (it was Kings/Devils, with Kings prevailing) which shows why you shouldn’t be betting on these predictions.

Still, we can have some fun looking at the series.

Overall, the playoffs look fascinating this year. With five Canadian team and the first playoffs to hit Winnipeg since that team returned, there are some great stories awaiting us. It’s a year when a number of the “usual suspects” are off golfing and some unexpected teams have made the second season. I would never have predicted that Los Angeles would miss the playoffs, but in retrospect, I’m not surprised. That’s a team that’s played a seriously long schedule for too many seasons and that team didn’t so much look bad as it did tired.

At the same time, I didn’t predict the Sharks to make the playoffs, but at the same time, watching the Sharks this year disappointed me, and in reality, one key goal in five or six games would have made the difference, and yet that team couldn’t. While the Kings looked tired this year, the Sharks looked — often confused, sometimes uninterested, and mostly just mystified that things were going badly and unable to figure out why. (Why is an entirely different blog post. stay tuned)

For the last few years, the Stanley Cup final has felt like “the Cup winner vs. whoever makes it out of the East”, but not this year. Both conferences have legitimate contenders this year.

This should be fun.

The Eastern Conference

  • New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Rangers in 5. I like the look of the Rangers. I don’t like what I see in Pittsburgh. To say they limped into the playoffs is an understatement. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the Penguins, but something certainly is, and I can’t see them winning out against the Rangers. (NYR in five)
  • Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders: I’m thrilled to see the Islanders make it back to the playoffs this year, but the Capitals under Barry Trotz have it firing on all cylinders, and they’re going to be hard to beat. The Islanders won’t. Washington in 5.
  • Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators: An all-canada round, meaning we’ll have canadian teams in the 2nd round. It’s nice to see the Canadian teams getting good again. This may be my favorite series of the first round, and should be a lot of fun. It’s also the hardest one to choose, since I like both teams. Ottawa has been able to beat Montreal consistently in the regular season, but I’m going to say Carey Price is going to make sure that doesn’t happen, and choose Montreal in 7.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning vs Detroit Red Wings: Steve Yzerman’s team vs his previous team. Unfortunately, the Red Wings look tired and their goaltending is suspect. Tampa should win this one out relatively easily. Tampa Bay in 5.

Ultimately I think the East is going to be either Washington or the Rangers, and of the two, I like the Capitals, but not by a lot. So my prediction for coming out of the East is the Rangers. A series where these two teams go head to head should be epic.

The Western Conference

  • Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets: Congratulations to the Jets for getting into the playoffs. That’s great to see. Unfortunately, they’re up against Anaheim. David, meet Goliath. I expect Goliath to win this time, though. Anaheim in 5. Winnipeg definitely seems to be on an upward trend so I expect they’ll be back in the playoffs next year and hopefully with a better seed.
  • Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames: Might be my favorite series with two of my favorite Canadian teams. It’s very nice that there will be two Canadian teams in the 2nd round (potentially three if Winnipeg pulls it off). I think Vancouver is the obvious choice here but for some reason I’m unconvinced. I’m going to go a bit off the board and call for Calgary in six.
  • St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild: I like the Blues. I think the Wild will make it interesting, but I don’t see them winning the series. I’ll take St. Louis in 6.
  • Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks: If Anaheim is the obvious pick to come out of the west, then Nashville and Chicago are the second and third choices. the question is what the winner will have left for the second round. I expect this to be fast, physical, hard hitting, well played and tough on both teams. I also think Nashville will prevail, but I don’t know if they’ll have enough energy left to be competitive in the second round when Chicago is done with them. If you watch only one series, watch this one. Nashville in 6.

I think the western team in the cup final will either be Anaheim or whoever wins Nashville/Chicago. Since those two are playing each other, that means Anaheim has an easier schedule in these playoffs, sort of by definition. So I expect the Ducks will make it to the finals this year (but I’m rooting for it to be Nashville). I wouldn’t rule out St. Louis, either.

The Cup Final

So my prediction for the Cup finals are the Washington Capitals and the Anaheim Ducks. I like both teams. The Capitals won both games head to head. it’s been a nice run of wins in the West, but I think either the Rangers or the Capitals could play in the West and I think this might be the year the cup goes back to the east coast. I’m going to pick as my ultimate winner the Washington Capitals in 6.

Games start Wednesday, and then we’ll get to watch this unfold. I must say, I’m looking forward to it.

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.