San Jose Sharks' future looks awfully familiar, but is that bad?
Despite loud promises of impending change, tomorrow is starting to look an awful lot like yesterday in San Jose. That's not sitting too well with the Sharks' fired-up fans, but once they get past their anger and frustration they just might realize that stability isn't the worst thing.
Granted, the team isn't getting the rebuild the fans were promised by GM Doug Wilson in the aftermath of the team's opening round meltdown against the Kings.
The culture that many saw as a problem remains virtually unchanged.
The big free-agent signing of the summer has been John “Penalty Box or Press Box” Scott.
San Jose chose not to re-sign Drew Remenda, one of the best analysts in the game.
And yes, the team has crossed the moral line for a small but vocal group of fans who are offended by the idea of adding cheerleaders to the game presentation.
But that doesn't justify the outpouring of impatient “hot” takes like “the hockey isn't going to be great in San Jose next year” from the team's diehards. Sure, the cumulative effects of years of playoff disappointment has taken a toll. But change for the sake of change isn't easy. Nor is it always the right move. In fact, after a cooling-off period to get past the gut punch of that loss to L.A., it's hard not to arrive at this conclusion: The 2014–15 version of the Sharks could be every bit as dangerous as the one that won 51 games and finished with 111 points, good for the fifth-best record in the NHL. The team's ability to dictate possession is almost unmatched. San Jose also has enviable depth down the middle, a solid defense and a promising young goalie in Alex Stalock.
There are no guarantees in the cutthroat Western Conference, but the Sharks still look like big fish in this pond.
Ideally, Wilson would have done more to alter the team's chemistry than just trading the rights to pending free-agent defenseman Dan Boyle to the Islanders, or buying out Martin Havlat. But in the cold light of day, and limited in what he could take on salary-wise, what options did the GM really have?
Given San Jose's clearly stated desire to remain competitive, it was a fantasy to think that Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau could have been shipped out of town over the summer for the sort of picks-and-prospects package that would have laid the foundation for a rebuild and, more importantly, would have allowed Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture to take immediate control of the group dynamic.
Wilson deserves his share of the blame for selling the notion of the rebuild to the fans and then backtracking, but the truth is that the best time for him to make a significant move is months down the road. If he's still in the mood for a change at the trade deadline it will be much easier to sell a deal then, when the veterans might be more inclined to transition to a different opportunity and competing general mangers might be willing to part with more of their treasure. And in the meantime, San Jose begins the season with two players who ranked among the most productive in the league last season, when Thornton ranked second in the NHL with 65 assists, and Marleau was 11th with 33 goals.
So holding those cards makes sense. It's harder, however, to justify Wilson's decision to bring in Scott, a player who is capable of "skating" up to four minutes a night while performing the exact same job as another recent signing, Mike Brown. Or to re-sign Scott Hannan, a bottom pairing blueliner who couldn't possibly bring enough in the way of intangibles to compensate for his lack of NHL-level ability. It's tough to get excited about those moves when the Ducks are trading for Ryan Kesler or the Blues are signing Paul Stastny.
With Wilson shooting blanks, the Sharks will count on internal growth to keep their engine humming. A step back is likely for Pavelski, who is coming off a season in which his shooting percentage was a career-high 18.2 (his career average was 9.95 going into last year). He could keep his eventual slide to a minimum though if he's given greater responsibility on offense. Couture is one of the game's top players under the age of 25, and sophomores Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto will challenge for top-six roles. Their development will be key with Brent Burns slotted for a return to the blue line. That particular decision can be questioned—and may be reexamined over time—but on the surface the extra six or seven minutes a night should make Burns a more valuable asset.
The onus now is on coach Todd McLellan to make a fresh meal from familiar ingredients. Maybe that entails taking a letter away from one player and giving it to another. Maybe that means limiting ice time for some vets in order to create opportunities for the next generation. And it certainly involves working the numbers to ensure that everyone is put in the best position to succeed.
Can this team win the Stanley Cup? Maybe not, but the Sharks should be in the mix for the 16th time in the past 17 seasons. Plenty of teams would be happy with a tomorrow like that.