Sharks Problems Lie Not With Their Core

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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.

 

As always for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch

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2 Responses to “Sharks Problems Lie Not With Their Core”

  1. Koji Watanabe
    May 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    Amen brother. Doug Wilson is a good GM who can turn loyalty from players into cheaper contracts than their market value, but occasionally, he makes absolutely perplexing decisions and right now, has shifted the blame from his decisions to the team. Band aids on bullet wounds has been is approach to our defense for years, and Niemi has NEVER been good for us in the playoffs. Ill just list off names of Doug Wilson plug defense guys who gave me fits of terror on the ice. Huskins? Wallin? Semenov? Vandermeer? Colin White? An aged Hannan?

    Giving away Ehrhoff for nothing hurts a bit. Especially since our weak point now is left side defensemen. In fact, a big problem now is playing Brad Stuart on his off side just so Braun can play the right side(Which is okay because Braun is great after a year under Robinson). Stuart is over the hill, but even worse is playing his off side and making huge gaffs and not transitioning the puck at all. It is easier for a defenseman to learn to play forward than it is to play their off side.

    We are set on the Right side. Burns, Braun, Demers is a solid punch. But on the left side we have Vlasic, our best defenseman, and then Stuart and Irwin. Since Wilson basically just came out and told us you will see no big moves in free agency in his interview the other night, and implied he is going to give the kids tons of icetime to force their development. Hopefully Mueller has a great camp, but I would not bank on it. Not everyone can be Vlasic. Mueller does look like he would be a Vlasic type player though.

    I am down with Stalock in net. I would even support trying to get Reimer for a 3rd from the leafs to platoon and let the kids battle for the job. But Niemi has to go. Between Niemi and the horrendous holes in defense ability to transition the puck, the team was shot the moment Vlasic went down. I fully support letting Boyle go because his reaction time and anticipation is worse than ever since the concussion, and he does not move the puck well anymore and he hesitates shooting long enough for shooting lanes to close now.

    I was not sure what Todd M was thinking in the playoffs. Pavelski was doing horrendous on faceoffs, but he kept throwing him out for more and more faceoffs. Thornton, by contrast, even in the last 3 games, was winning almost 70% of his faceoffs. Pavelski had 20 more faceoffs than Thornton in the final 3 games, and Thornton still won more draws with 20 less opportunities. Couture was not doing well on faceoffs either in the last 3 games, and Marleau went 0 for 7 when Couture got tossed.

    TMac also wasted home ice advantage. When you have home ice, you get to pick the matchups on ice with last change. Why then, was Sutter continually getting the players he wanted out against the lines he wanted instead of vice versa? When the powerplay went 0-16, there was no adjustment from coaching. Kept sending the same units out over and over doing the same thing.

    But overall, blowing this up now would be a mistake. Dear Doug Wilson, you made a commitment with no movement clauses to those players in order to sign them to lower than Market value contracts. You MUST honor that agreement or you will forever taint your trustworthyness and nobody will want to sign here. Instead of fixing the team needs, you add bums like Burish and Kennedy and do not do anything to shore up the left side defense. Worse, you keep going with Nemo in net when he NEVER steals a game. Ever. But sure, Blame Marleau and Thornton, even though Couture, Pavelski, Burns and, well, everyone else scored 0 points in the last 3 games.

  2. Erik Landi
    May 30, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

    I just wanted to say that while I agree with some of the above article and fan post I really think that the coaching staff needs to rethink the TOI of the players. Too often during the year you’d see 19, 12 and 8 in the 20′s min range in TOI because of the lack of depth in the bottom 2 lines. By the end of the Kings series especially games 5, 6, 7 Marleau, Couture and Pavelski did not look right playing through some stuff. Not having a fully function Raffi and Burns also did not help, but the elephant in the room is the play of Boyle. Boyle’s foot speed had returned since the Lapaire hit but you could tell the decision making was not as snappy as it had been in recent years, when Boyle took a step back the PP did as well. I hate to use the injury excuse because players fight through them but we did face a lot of them this year and showed it come playoff time.

    Moving JT, and Patty is not the answer; however its time to give the “C” to someone else, and we need a capable PP quarterback that has a shoot first mentality to help move a stagnant PP. I think that its also time for the coaching staff be harder on JT for not shooting more, bench him, threaten to trade him and do whatever it takes for him to unleash his shot. In that Kings series, the defence for the Kings always played him to pass, sometimes even giving him a lane to Quick daring him to take it to the net and he just passed it away I vividly remember screaming at the T.V. for him to shoot on a 5-3 PP. I think that the coaching staff should have shared blame with this collapse just as much as the players, it seems like Todd is getting a free pass on this one.