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SAN JOSE, Calif. – San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson doesn’t wear a black turtleneck like late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
He’s not known for gray t-shirts like Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg.
In this cradle of modern-day innovation, heads of major companies in the area have a ‘look’ that becomes synonymous with them. For Wilson, it’s generally just a suit and tie or, on this day, a fleece and collared shirt.
Regardless of this conventional garb, Wilson (who is entering his 12th season with the Sharks as GM) has learned from his neighboring industry titans that you need to stay current. That advancement is a necessity. Whether you fail or succeed, you have to make an attempt.
“In Silicon Valley, you reinvent yourself every six months,” Wilson said.
On a team full of graybeards and veteran stars, the word “fresh” is floated through the team’s beautifully renovated practice rink locker room and SAP Center dressing room with ease and fluidity.
Maybe this upgraded model is just what San Jose needs after a difficult season.
A year ago the Sharks didn’t just have to battle the Western Conference. There was internal battling as well, including strife over the decision to strip Joe Thornton of his ‘C’ and go captainless during the 2014-15 season.
The Sharks also wanted a group of young players to step up and take a stronger hold of the team’s on-ice persona.
Both decisions, which seemed to come out of the disappointment from San Jose blowing a 3-0 lead to the Los Angeles Kings in the previous year’s playoffs, ended up being misguided at least in the short term. San Jose finished 12th in the Western Conference and missed the postseason for the first time since 2003. The team appeared to chafe at the captain’s issue, and youngsters like Matt Nieto and Tomas Hertl didn’t step up the way management hoped.
“There were a lot of good things that happened last year. There are a lot of things you look at and say, ‘Wow, you can build on that,’” Wilson said. “But all I can say is you go through it and you want to make sure you’ve done the things, the right things for this organization for both the short term and the long term.”
For the first time since 2013, there’s a sense of optimism heading into the season, not one of dread – albeit guarded optimism.
A strong offseason that saw the Sharks add veteran, playoff-tested players gives the team belief that it can take another shot at that elusive Stanley Cup.
Thornton and Wilson have mended their relationship after a contentious year that saw the ex-captain tell the GM to “shut his mouth.”
And there’s a new coach, in Peter DeBoer, who should accentuate San Jose’s strength of puck possession.
“Last year’s over, we have to forget about last year,” Thornton said. “We have new coaches, new players and we’re excited again.”
What went wrong?
In order to fix the Sharks, the management and the players had to get to the root of the problem.
In San Jose’s case, there were two main issues – the perceived relationship between Wilson and Thornton, which boiled over into the media at points during the season, and a youth movement that didn’t pan out.
The biggest decision was stripping Thornton of his ‘C’ and going with all alternate captains.
Some players indicate it caused a bit of a disturbance. Some say it didn’t. It did make headlines with Thornton lashing out that one time. This was a seminal moment for the Sharks – a point when all their problems were poured into one sound bite.
“It was extra stuff that was going on … and not even so much that nobody got (the captaincy) just that it got taken away. Because we all felt that pain a little bit,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “Obviously Jumbo’s the one it centered on, but we all played a role in that loss.”
The Sharks locker room is currently not one of turmoil and strife that you’d think based off all the rumors and questions about that place from a year ago.
There’s laughter. There are jokes. There’s chatter – maybe more than the typical NHL dressing room.
Hertl’s kid-like smile is often on his face. Thornton’s loud, boisterous voice bellows across the room. Defenseman Brent Burns looks and acts his typical wild and woolly self.
This nature is how the team has coped during its toughest times. And when the losses mounted, the Sharks’ inability to fall back on this trait hurt.
An eight-game losing streak at home in February did them in. A 2-1 loss in their Stadium Series game to the Kings added to the team’s struggles.
When the losing started, these off-ice leadership problems suddenly became magnified.
“It’s something that, ‘Hey, I’m not the captain anymore, no big deal’ and guys didn’t have a big deal with it,” Thornton said. “Kind of like the outside was like, ‘What’s going on with San Jose?’
And a lot of the younger players had to deal with this veteran drama as they tried to develop.
Before the 2014-15 season, Wilson said the team was in a “rebuild” mode. He didn’t make any major moves that offseason, believing that Nieto, Hertl and defenseman Mirco Mueller amongst others could pick up the slack.
Mueller had just four points in 39 games. Hertl had fewer goals in 82 games (13) than he had the prior year in 37 when he notched 15 scores. Nieto had just 10 goals.
The Sharks did have to get rid of veterans – defenseman Dan Boyle, who signed that offseason with the New York Rangers being a prime example. But was it the right time to give those younger players more responsibility without reinforcements?
“You want a chance to win the Cup and the only way you’re going to do that is making the playoffs,” forward Patrick Marleau said. “So it’s disappointing.”
The healing process
The Sharks real retooling came shortly after Thornton’s comments. He and Wilson met and realized they wanted the same thing: a Stanley Cup.
Though the slick-talking Wilson can give a bit of a corporate impression, he’s a proud former athlete who loves hockey and desperately wants to win his first NHL championship.
“I think after that, me and Doug, we started to kind of get rolling again,” Thornton said. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye for a long time, but we both want to win. Last year was a huge disappointment for him as well for me. We have to make the playoffs. He’s made some great moves. We’re excited, but as far as me and Doug go, we’re both cool.”
Said Wilson, “We expressed it by the end of the day. I’m proud of him. He’s got passion. He cares. I’d rather … you want that. We have a very, very good relationship. The beauty of he and I is we can talk to each other face-to-face.”
Once that was resolved, it was clear the team needed a new voice at coach. McLellan had been with the Sharks for seven seasons and it was time to move on.
Nobody with the Sharks threw McLellan under the bus, but it seemed clear his time with the Sharks was over after 2014-15.
“Sometimes just a change is needed. It’s not to point fingers or anything like that. But sometimes that happens,” Wilson said.
“Todd is a hell of a coach, there’s no denying that and I think it just … maybe it just ran its course,” Thornton said.
After McLellan left upon mutual decision with San Jose during the offseason, Wilson zeroed in on DeBoer. The former New Jersey coach believed in a strong puck possession system, which was perfect for San Jose, whose big, brawny forwards grind and cycle in the defensive zone.
“If you have the puck that’s the best defense you can have,” DeBoer said. “If you’re playing in the other team’s end that’s the best defensive team in the league because they can’t score from there. I think that’s our philosophy and it’s all those factors. We have to teach these guys to hang onto the puck and not be easy to play against.”
DeBoer has also said he will indeed name a captain, which will finally bring closure in the Sharks dressing room.
“Yeah, I think I felt part of the contributing factors to last year was distractions and the captaincy was just one of them,” DeBoer said. “That’s not the whole reason to pin a poor season on, but we want to eliminate all those distractions this year and just start fresh and play hockey.”
Then in free agency, Wilson atoned for the prior year’s inaction by signing Martin to a four-year, $19.4 million contract, Ward to a three-year deal, $9.825 million contract and bringing in goaltender Martin Jones via trade to replace UFA netminder Antti Niemi. They weren’t franchise-changing moves, but they were improvements. Also, Wilson left himself some wiggle room with over $1 million in salary cap space according to General Fanager.
Martin and Ward had options to sign with other contending teams. Both are in their mid-30s and don’t have many chances left at a Cup. They said they came to San Jose because they felt this place was still in a spot to make a deep playoff run.
“Every time we played here it has always been a fun atmosphere, a great barn, and the guys have a chance … the core guys are always here,” Ward said. “It’s just a chance to come in and help out and get over that little step.”
Said Martin, “You have some older, veteran guys who have been around for a long time and know how to play the game and a couple of Hall of Famers and that kind of thing and you have some young guys who want to prove they belong in the league and have that hunger to play.”
San Jose is a unique NHL market. It’s a 90s expansion team in a non-traditional region that has turned into a local staple. Though it shares the Bay Area with multiple other pro teams, it’s the only game in town in San Jose out of the four major sports. This gives the Sharks a small-town team feel.
Even on an exhibition game day in September, it’s not far-fetched to see a few people wearing teal ties around downtown – though this could be an odd coincidence.
For a while, it was hockey Xanadu. After the Thornton trade in 2005 moved the team to another level, the Sharks were a fun, fast team in a beautiful, picturesque part of the world. They made the Western Conference Final twice and won a Presidents’ Trophy.
They never had championship-level success, but in their best years, they were a bounce here or there away from that breakthrough moment.
There’s always been a sense of civic pride with the group. In recent years, the arena was one of the loudest and most full in the league with 205 straight sellouts from 2009 through 2014.
During this run, it never felt like the Sharks would hit a crossroads. But they did, and that’s not necessarily bad for the organization, which is in its 25th year.
For the first time maybe since before the Thornton era in San Jose, there are no real predictions, positive or negative. This team is a total wild card.
A rebound year and a postseason berth wouldn’t surprise anyone. A drop further back wouldn’t be shocking either, considering how last season went.
Thornton and Marleau are both 36 years old, and a boost in production isn’t likely, even though both have said they feel like they’re in their 20s. Thornton failed to hit at least 70 points for the first time since 2001-02. Marleau’s 57 points were his lowest full-season total since 2007-08.
When asked if a team with a 36-year-old first-line center could win the Stanley Cup, Thornton passed the buck down to Couture, saying the 26-year-old is the team’s top middleman.
“I’m probably 1b and I’m fine with that,” he said.
Pavelski is a lock for at least 30 goals. Couture has proven he’s a 60-plus point guy. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Burns are top-two type defensemen. And then there’s the young players.
Maybe both Nieto and Hertl taking their lumps last year will indeed prove beneficial. Nieto has speed, but can he finish on a more regular basis? Hertl changed his diet and has come into camp looking lean. But will this help him score more goals?
Mueller needs to prove he can play a full season in San Jose.
But those are typical on-ice hockey questions for any team. Which means the Sharks have indeed refreshed-reset back to normal.
“We think we’re a better team today,” Wilson said. “We think we’re positioned really well for the future.”
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