SAN JOSE- Certainly blowing a 3-0 series lead was yet another disappointing finish in a string of frustrating playoff exits for the San Jose Sharks who are still searching for their first ever Stanley Cup victory.
In response to the embarrassing exit, the Sharks have already started making big changes to their core set up, which if you ask this pundit, is a big mistake.
From the stretch run of the 2012-13 season through the finish of of the 2013-14 season, the San Jose Sharks top forwards of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns have been nothing short of brilliant.
Burns’ move to forward in March of 2013 sparked the group to become one of the best five-on-five scoring teams in the league the last 1.3 seasons. Thornton and Marleau remain 70 point producers, if not for injury and a shortened season Couture would have four straight 30 goal seasons to open his career, Pavelski scored 41 goals this past season, and Burns was simply dominant in his first full season at forward with the Sharks.
Despite his unique attributes and elite level play as a forward (even strength scoring rates amongst the best forwards in the game), the Sharks have already come out as saying the right-handed Burns will return to defense where San Jose already has two solid right-handed top-4 puck movers in Jason Demers and Justin Braun, both of whom are likely to return.
What is the saying? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Sure enough the Sharks as a team didn’t get it done in the playoffs but it is certainly ridiculous to say they are miles away from being as good as the Kings. Two years in a row they were one more good bounce away from beating Los Angeles.
In no way shape or form were these five players the primary cause of San Jose’s playoff misfortunes. These players are amongst the best of the best that the NHL has to offer and four playoff losses, three while missing their team’s best defenseman against arguably the best team in the NHL, does not change that.
San Jose’s real problems lie in the moves made around the fringe of the roster. For as great of a core as Sharks GM Doug Wilson has built, he has come up short when looking for the final pieces of the puzzle.
Back in 2007, Wilson traded away defenseman Josh Gorges and a first round draft pick (which turned out to be Max Pacioretty) for Craig Rivet and a fifth round pick. Rivet was a likeable guy in the room and a true competitor who made solid contributions in a little over a year with the Sharks. However, Rivet’s time it teal was short compared to Gorges and Pacioretty who have been long time, big time producers for the Canadiens.
In 2009, Wilson traded away prospect Nick Bonino to the Anaheim Ducks in a deal for veteran winger Travis Moen and defenseman Kent Huskins. Moen left as a free agent that offseason and Huskins was little more than a seventh defenseman. Bonino meanwhile is currently flourishing with the Ducks.
During the offseason of 2010, the Sharks failed to re-sign veteran center Manny Malhotra. While Malhotra did receive a substantial pay raise from the Vancouver Canucks (his wife’s home town), Malhotra was a huge part of San Jose’s 2010 success.
While Malhotra was apparently too pricey, that same offseason saw the Sharks re-sign veteran defenseman Niclas Wallin to a curious pay raise. In what ended up being the long time Carolina Hurricane’s final NHL season, Wallin saw a one-year pay increase from $1.725 million to $2.65 million despite clearly being on the decline.
During the 2011 offseason the Sharks elected not to bring back center Kyle Wellwood who flourised on the wing of Joe Pavelski. Instead of keeping intact a third line that provided much needed scoring depth in route to the Western Conference final appearance, the Sharks decided to go another direction, a direction that was a turn for the worse.
Instead, the Sharks pumped Pavelski back into the top six and signed veteran center Michal Handzus. To be fair, Handzus did have to deal with the loss of his best friend Pavol Demitra during the offseason leading up to his first year in teal. Unfortunately Handzus just never fit well in San Jose. At the time the Sharks didn’t have the scoring depth or speed to offset the slower, more defensively minded center.
While struggling to stay afloat near the 2012 trade deadline the Sharks traded away Jamie McGinn along with prospects Mike Connolly and Michael Sgarbossa to the Colorado Avalanche for wingers Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi. This is a trade many Sharks fans bemoan to this day. While the trade certainly didn’t work out for San Jose, it wasn’t as bad of a swap as some like to remember. Winnik has always been a versatile top-9 forward and Galiardi came with some promise.
Sure enough McGinn has established himself in a bigger scoring role with Colorado but his 38 points in 2013-14 were only eight more than Winnik’s 30. The biggest problem of the McGinn trade for the Sharks was not re-signing Winnik, as those 30 points were scored for the rival Anaheim Ducks. Even though Galiardi (who returned to San Jose the following season) and Winnik were close friends, the Sharks didn’t appear to make much of an effort to re-sign the underrated winger. Instead, (on day one of unrestricted free agency mind you), the Sharks signed journeyman fourth line winger Adam Burish to a much more lucrative four year deal for $1.85 million per season than the two year, $1.8 million AAV deal Winnik signed with Anaheim. At the time of these contracts, Winnik had accumulated 101 points in 366 career NHL games, .28 points per game average. Burish meanwhile had accumulated just 54 points in 297 career games for a .18 ppg average. In the last two years since the deals were signed, Winnik has scored 49 points in 124 games for a .39 points per game rate. Burish meanwhile has been awful offensively, chipping in an absurdly low, three points, that’s right, just three points in 61 games for the Sharks. Do I need to point out that this equates to a .049 points per gamerate? Yiiikeesss.
During the 2012 offseason the Sharks also made a trade and sign to bring back defenseman Brad Stuart. Stuart had played his best years with the Detroit Red Wings where he won a Stanley Cup. Wanting to return home where he kept his family, Stuart signed a three year deal worth $3.6 million annually. While Stuart was solid in his first year back, the Sharks didn’t get as considerable of a home-town discount as many thought. In his final years in Detroit Stuart made $3.75 million and 150K isn’t all that much in terms of cap relief. After struggling in year two of his deal, this cap hit doesn’t look very friendly for next season but it isn’t out of the question for Stuart to have a bounce back year given better health.
This past offseason (2013) the Sharks decided to cut ties with Galiardi as they traded him to his hometown Calgary Flames. While most of Galiardi’s tenure with the Sharks was a struggle, he finished the 2012-13 season flourishing on a line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Instead of retaining him, the Sharks essentially replaced him by trading for Pittsburgh’s Tyler Kennedy.
And finally, during the middle of last season the Sharks traded for tough guy Mike Brown. While the fourth line fighter did score a big goal in the playoffs, the fact of the matter is that Brown is one of the worst forwards in the entire NHL when it comes to corsi numbers and the eye ball test. He creates little to nothing offensively and isn’t particularly effective in the defensive zone either. It was Brown (acquired for a fourth round pick) who played in six of seven playoff games against the Kings, while Kennedy, acquired in the offseason for a second round pick was scratched for the entire series.
Before fans, the media, and the Sharks themselves overreact and blame their core, they should address the real problem in that their decisions at depth defense and depth forwards have not put them in the best positions to succeed in the playoffs.
Yes, your best players have to be your best players in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they must always be better than the opposing team’s best players. Even star players go through slumps, and that is why you need depth to compensate. One of the better hockey cliches is that come playoffs, top players often cancel each other out and it’s the depth players that make the difference.
In the Joe Thornton Sharks era, the best opportunities at winning the cup have come with significantly better depth players. In 2010 and 2011 WCF appearances and in the 2013 sweep of the Vancouver Canucks, the third line centers were huge impact players in Malhotra and Pavelski. In the 2009, 2012, and 2014 first round disappointments, the third line centers were far from difference makers. Jeremy Roenick in 2009, Handzus in 2012 and James Sheppard in 2014. Neither were anywhere near the level of Malhotra nor Pavelski.
Fans, most media, and the Sharks organization itself seem fixated on blaming the blown 3-0 series lead on the top players. But where is the accountability for the GM, one whom effectively downgraded the roster from the likes of McGinn, Winnik and Galiardi to Burish, Kennedy, and Brown?
Winnik and Galiardi combined for 47 points in 138 games this past season, while Burish, Kennedy, and Brown combined for 22 points in 127 games between them. Winnik and Galiardi essentially doubled the production of the players Wilson replaced them with.
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