Things have not been good in San Jose for the last two seasons. First they infamously drop a 3-0 series lead to eventual Cup champions Los Angeles, then they wholly fail to qualify for the playoffs. The one begets the other.
If the Sharks win one of the four games they lost to the Kings, we're not sitting here having a conversation about, “What's wrong with the Sharks?” because it's wholly likely nothing is wrong with the Sharks. As has happened so many times in the past, a team suffered a miserable defeat and panicked. That's all. Doug Wilson saw his team blow a 3-0 series lead to a lower-seeded team that also happened to be a division rival, and determined that what went wrong was not “The Kings are just so good that it was unavoidable,” or “That was some terrible luck for our very-good-to-great team,” or a combination of the two. He determined that what went wrong was he hadn't acquired enough players like John Scott, Mike Brown, and Scott Hannan.
When the revolution comes, guys like Scott, Brown, and Hannan will be out of the league. No smart GM will hire them because they provide no tangible benefit to a club. Not individually, and certainly not collectively. If anything, they hurt a team — often badly — because they take roster spots away from players who can actually play. That Scott had a career year this season of 3-1-4 tells you everything you need to know about his value.
It was a lost season, no two ways about it. And if Wilson had his way, and was successfully able to trade one or both of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks might now be embarking upon what is probably a rebuild the franchise needs quite badly. Do they have good players at every position? Sure do. Are there anywhere near enough of them to compete in a nails-tough Western Conference? Sure aren't.
You get the feeling that this is a season in which Wilson's job will be heavily dependent upon team performance. He got to hire a new coach, of course, which is the last best sanctuary of the desperate general manager. If they miss the playoffs again then you'd think it's, “Smell ya later, Doug.” If they flame out in the first round again, probably the same result. Wilson has realized that his diversion toward “grit” was a bad one (too late, obviously) and will not ask either John Scott or Scott Hannan to return for a second year. He's also planning to buy out Adam Burish. Brown's still on the books and so is Raffi Torres, but progress is progress, and it's being made.
The good news for a team that's in need of a rebuild — San Jose's top five scorers last season were, in order, 30, 25, 35, 29, and 35 last season — is that when you miss the playoffs as badly as this one did, you get a top-10 pick out of the deal. San Jose is picking ninth this weekend, and given how deep this draft is, that's likely to be a pretty damn good player (though probably in a few years).
That last part, about having to wait awhile for whoever goes No. 9 overall to make it to the show and be an impact player, is a problem for Wilson. Because again, if his job security is based on how his team does this year, an aging Sharks core (with no current goaltender to speak of, mind you) doesn't seem like the best way to ensure he stays in his position. Which is why it makes a lot of sense that rumors are starting to circulate about the Sharks potentially moving out of the 10-top for more immediate help, and potentially dropping out of the first round entirely.
For his part, Wilson has said that his intention is to keep No. 9. In fact, he says he thinks there's a good chance they grab another pick somewhere in the draft, though that probably comes at the cost of picks next year or the year after. But as all GMs will tell you, they're always listening to offers, and if he gets one he likes — the example he used was when he acquired Brent Burns from Minnesota, because the Wild didn't have a first-round pick that year — he's free to pull the trigger. The rumor is that the Sharks are interested in acquiring Cam Talbot from the Rangers, and if so that probably costs them their second-round pick this year, but are also open to re-signing Antti Niemi who is a slightly above-average NHL goaltender for the length of his career (.916). Which, y'know, he'll be 32 in August, so he probably doesn't have too much tread left on the tires at this point.
But what complicates things is that Wilson probably could get immediate help more easily this season than in years past. It seems everyone who's anywhere near the cap is looking to trade someone of value to move up in the draft and gain a little extra cap flexibility. The Maple Leafs, for example, might be willing to take on someone's bad deal if they'll take Dion Phaneuf. (To Wilson's credit, San Jose doesn't really have too many bad contracts lying around, and their top-4 D really isn't bad enough that they'd be looking for a defensive upgrade in the form of a No. 2/3 guy.)
But what about maybe kicking the tires on, say, Ryan O'Reilly, or Kyle Okposo, or any of the other good, young players now reportedly being shopped for one reason or another? That's an upgrade that probably makes more sense for San Jose because Thornton, Marleau, Burns, Joe Pavelski (contrary to the bizarre popular opinion, he's not young; he'll be 31 on July 11) aren't getting any younger, and there will soon come a day when whoever's running the Sharks will have to take a hard look at a real rebuild. As opposed to whatever last summer's “rebuild” was.
The fact is that there was a time when San Jose was among the league's elite, when everyone was making a perfectly reasonable assumption that, okay, (insert season here) was the year when the Sharks would finally be a real Cup contender. The question is whether the team piddled away its last best chance, and whether anything can revive it for one last job.
That's a lot of trending downward: possession, high-quality scoring chances, goals, and zone starts are all down — sometimes significantly — over the last decade, and you have to keep in mind that the Sharks weren't very good a decade ago (from 2008-2013 was their real heyday). The only thing they do better now than they really have before was draw penalties and take more shots than their opponents, but even the numbers this past season were down from 2011-13.
There's a lot of reason to be worried here, is the point, and a quick-fix swap might be able to set it right for the time being. This would be especially true if the return for whatever trades San Jose may make is a younger difference-maker such as O'Reilly. The cost would, obviously, be high, but the question is whether it would be prohibitive.
These are not mutually exclusive ideas.
Let's put it this way: Wilson says he thinks this team can be competitive next season, but with the mediocre-to-poor free agent crop (excepting a few guys on the blue line where, again, San Jose doesn't need much help) most improvements related to acquiring an actual contributor would have to come through trade.
And here's Wilson on that issue:
“You’ve got to give to get, no matter what. Even unrestricted free agency, you are giving something. It’s cap space. Other teams that are in positions, they have to make decisions because cap space is of value. First round picks, second round picks. Those are of value. You’re going to have to give up something. Are we willing to do that? Sure we are.”
We can all acknowledge the Sharks have to improve — especially after the toughness dead end down which Wilson drove them last summer — and there's really only one way to do that. The question is how much they need to improve to be actually competitive in the West and the league as a whole (probably more than a little), and what that costs. The Sharks are swimming in cap flexibility, with as much as $17 million in cap space and almost everyone they need under contract for next season. Once they re-up Melker Karlsson and Brenden Dillon to what you'd think would be short-money RFA deals, that pushes them north of 20 roster players and probably leaves about $14 million or more in cap space.
Wilson certainly has money to throw around and doesn't necessarily have the bad contracts to offload to make a big acquisition happen. And if he feels like that's what he needs to do to save his job, then he has the ammo to do it. What happens over the next two weeks or so will tell us an awful lot about his intentions. His choices are to push the current tank to empty, or refuel at the expense of the engine's long-term viability.
Not a good position in which to find oneself, but if he's taking the latter option, he might be able to save his job. But either way, he can't save the current iteration of the Sharks.
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