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Blowing a 3-0 lead is, one supposes, cause enough for an existential crisis of sorts.
The joke about the San Jose Sharks has always been that they're amazing in the regular season and terrible in the playoffs, and this was the case pretty much from the second Joe Thornton arrived. Since 2003-04 (a season and a half before Thornton's arrival), the Sharks have posted 100-point seasons in seven of 10 tries, and have never slipped below 96 points. That's a lot of winning, but the fact of the matter is that no one in the NHL really cares how many times you post a triple-digit point total if you don't keep up the winning ways in the postseason. That's not exactly fair, but it's the reality of the situation.
But despite 10 straight postseasons, and a run of five seasons in which the team broke that 100-point barrier (from 2006-07 to 2010-11), they've been to the Conference Final just thrice, and in those series have won a grand total of three games. Two of those were against Calgary in 2003-04.
So you see where the “choker” label comes from, at least as far as those shortsighted enough to affix that to anyone in a seven-game series is concerned. The Sharks have, on paper, been good enough to win the Cup a few times in the last decade, but have failed to do so.
To their credit, though, the Sharks haven't really freaked out or anything. They recognized the team they had was strong, they poo-pooed the doubters who wrote off their core as being the Chicago Cubs of the NHL, and they kept winning in the regular season before losing in the playoffs.
Losing the series, even to the eventual Stanley Cup champs, after taking that 3-0 lead this year seems to have been the last straw, though. Doug Wilson has spent the entire summer on an Odyssean journey of not-knowing what the hell he's doing in an attempt to fix — maybe? — whatever problems have plagued the team he has always stuck beside come hell or high water for years.
If the team had a “critics be damned” attitude prior to this summer, it was with good reason. Now it's taking that on by completely changing course while the hockey world screams, “Why?”
What's important to keep in mind here is that despite all the jokes that have been made at the expense of the team's direction since its elimination from the playoffs is that this is still a great hockey club. All the players that were there last year are still there now, despite the threats(?) that they'd trade Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau this summer.
And you'd think, “Oh hey, that's good, right?”
But the Sharks are now acting as though having two high-quality players such as these, who help to give them tremendous depth, is somehow detrimental to their cause. And yet the trades never came, because if you give two really good players no-movement clauses and they don't want to be traded, that's what happens.
And so without the ability to get rid of them, the Sharks are now trying — futilely, one imagines — to get rid of their “voices” in the room. Thornton was stripped of the team's captaincy earlier this week, demoted to who-knows-what in favor of who-knows-who taking over. Marleau was stripped of his alternate captaincy, his second letter-removal in four years (in fact, it was almost four years to the day). Because without those letters on their shirts the team is guaranteed to not have to talk to or look at these two losing losers, apparently.
(It's important to note here, by the way, that the Sharks are being very politically correct about this whole thing. Todd McLellan says they haven't “stripped” Thornton and Marleau's captaincies, but rather “cleaned the slate.” An important distinction if you put stock in bull[expletive].)
And now the search begins for new leaders, who will presumably yell at Thornton and Marleau for their bad stewardship of the team and whip everyone into a frenzy and then they'll finally win the Cup.
At least, that's the ideal scenario, is it not? The Sharks make these superficial changes and win a Cup, and everyone can rub their tiger-repellent rocks and say, “See, correlation does equal causation after all.” As though the C and A on their respective jerseys was serving as some sort of weight that prevented their entire team from achieving postseason success. But the thing is, if the Sharks win the Cup it will be because they are, and have been, a great hockey team, which finally got enough kicks at the can and lucky bounces to advance all the way to the grandest stage.
But the problem is that while McLellan — who shockingly kept his job in the rebuild-that-wasn't — may think changing the voices changes the team, it in fact does not. Were Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture (one of whom, you'd think, has to be the favorite to be the new captain) not on the teams for these, ahem, failures? Were they not “leaders” even without letters on their shirts, simply by dint of being talented veterans who “play the game the right way?
The campaign now under way against Thornton in particular is as hilarious as it is misguided. Darren Dreger said yesterday — and this is a 100 percent real quote — “I'm not saying Joe Thornton is going to be a fourth-liner, but if he plays like a fourth-liner, then he will be.” The statistical odds of Thornton being a fourth-liner are, you must understand, non-existent.
He hasn't been one since that seven-point rookie season in Boston, when he clearly wasn't ready for the bigs. And since his sophomore year, his points per game has never dipped below 0.74. He has more seasons of more than a point per game (nine!) than Pavelski does in the NHL (eight). The suggestion that Thornton would ever play like a fourth-line option is patently absurd.
This is just a baffling move to cap off a bizarre summer for a team that is still legitimately great. They brought in toughness and badness simultaneously with Scott Hannan, Mike Brown, and John Scott, and made the team actively worse in the process. They moved one of their most effective power forwards back to defense for reasons that are wholly unclear other than the overarching and nebulous need for a “shakeup.” And now they're smearing the best player in franchise history by a pretty wide margin. Because they happened to lose four games in a row to arguably the best team of the last three seasons.
The Sharks are a model franchise, albeit one that seems to have suffered a psychotic break from the reality of their still-prime position in the league. How long that lasts remains to be seen, though. No one's saying the loss wasn't bad, but the only thing that should be actually troubling to the franchise is the reaction.