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On the surface, the San Jose Sharks still look like the team they've been for years. They're deep down the middle, sturdy on the blue line, and reliable in net. They have some of the game's best centers, explosive talent and very solid coaching.
But what happened to them this spring, losing a series they led 3-0 to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, seems to have done something to them. They kicked around the idea of firing coach Todd McLellan — nearly violating the cardinal rule that you shouldn't fire a coach unless you know someone better is out there — before deciding against it. They vowed major changes to the roster that have led to rumors of the team trading Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau or both. Their big free agent acquisition this summer was John Scott, for some reason.
That's in addition to signing Mike Brown for $1.2 million — to essentially do the same thing, if we're being honest — and then bringing aboard Micheal Haley (on Thursday) to do it in the minors and get called up to the bigs when both those stiffs get hurt or suspended.
Scott, Haley and Taylor Fedun are essentially the only changes Doug Wilson has made to a team that's $10 million below the salary cap. He's also re-signed Brown, backup goaltender Alex Stalock, and the corpse of bottom-pairing defenseman Scott Hannan.
It seems impossible to understand the “Why?” of it, though.
Maybe the Thornton-and/or-Marleau trade is coming, and that means far bigger things for the team that their inability to get anyone to provide the guys they must necessarily, as a condition of such a trade, think aren't good enough with a little help. Maybe they're counting on bigger contributions from the kids, like Matt Nieto and Tomas Hertl; that's not a bad idea, really.
Additionally worrying, though, is that the Sharks apparently intend to move Brent Burns, who helped Thornton and Joe Pavelski wreak havoc on opposing defenses as a strong power forward, back to the blue line.
The thing is, for all hemming and hawing people in San Jose's front office have done in the last little while, this is still an excellent team. An oddly quiet one, but an excellent one. Even if the only thing you do all summer is bring everyone back from a team that finished with 111 points, the third-best fenwick numbers in the league, and a sub-100 PDO, and you've essentially guaranteed that you're going to be good again. This wasn't some freak thing, their. The Sharks have been more or less elite for years now, and if anything last season was their best one in a while. Which is saying something.
It's been said before that standing pat was the Sharks' best bet, and maybe that's what they're doing. But there's something about the psychology of these moves that should be unsettling. Bringing back Hannan because he's a “veteran leader” is a little iffy because he's also a “bad hockey player,” and adding “toughness” from John Scott is questionable because he “can't skate.” If the Sharks believe that the reason they lost to the Kings is they weren't hard to play against, it's pretty clearly a fallacy because in reality they just run into a buzzsaw.
The problem with standing pat at this point, though, is that it might not be good enough. Not given what the other legitimate teams in the Western Conference have done, anyway. Los Angeles locked down Marian Gaborik, who helped round out an offense that always seems to sputter for the majority of the season. Anaheim went out and got Ryan Kesler to shore up some of the problems they were having down the middle that might have led to their rougher possession numbers; it's tough to be convinced that they're capable of winning this particular division on PDO alone yet again. Chicago went out and got Brad Richards to replace Michal Handzus, and that's a clear upgrade. The Blues acquired Paul Stastny. Minnesota will be better through time helping their prospects along and acquiring Thomas Vanek. Dallas improved its second line and special teams on July 1 alone. Vancouver probably can't be an 83-point team again now that they don't actively hate their coach.
That's a lot of improvement in what was already the better conference and the Sharks have stood there, hands in their pockets, waiting for John Scott to come along so they could offer him a contract. If they're banking on positive returns from a trade, they're clearly trying to bulk up while the rest of their competition gets better.
The problem for the Sharks is that unless they win the Pacific, which is possible and perhaps even likely, depending on how pucks bounce for Los Angeles and Anaheim, the new playoff format essentially punishes them for being in a division of titans. Finish second or third, and you're guaranteed to play Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Vancouver. Get past that point, and it's probably the winner of the division.
The Sharks' biggest problem has always been the luck of the draw, because they've basically played title contenders every time they've made the playoffs the last few years. That's something over which they have no control. But if they're not spending money, and they can't make a trade that makes them a better team right now, then they're letting the rest of the West pass them by because they're having this existential “Who are we, really?” crisis for inexplicable reasons.
On the other hand: Their offense remains more convincing than LA's, their success seems more statistically sustainable than Anaheim's, Chicago isn't as good down the middle, St. Louis doesn't have the depth, Minnesota has no goaltending, Dallas has an uninspiring defense, and Vancouver still has a lot of potential for dysfunction. None of these teams are anything less than “good,” but San Jose might, in theory, be more complete.
For that reason — even with this lack of any moves this summer and its best players a year older and potentially less effective — it really isn't a stretch to say this San Jose team could finish the regular season as the best in the league. But it's less likely than it was on June 30, and with no real options to improve the team in an especially impactful way left out there, all we can do is wait for Wilson to show his hand.
Any trade of a central figure means the Sharks take a step back, finish lower in the conference, probably bomb out of the playoffs as they always have. Any lack of such a trade shows they're riding this horse back into the breach once again, perhaps for the last time.
Maybe this will be the year. If it's not, everyone's going to pay the price. There will be no hiding next time.