They’ve been the NHL’s model of consistency, with 10 consecutive years in the postseason and an average of more than 106 points per 82 games played.
Now, the San Jose Sharks are – apparently – talking about tearing it down.
“We now become a tomorrow team,” was how general manager Doug Wilson put it rather dramatically earlier this week, raising eyebrows around the league. “When you spell that out, it does create a response.”
The most appropriate response, even in light of their first round playoff exit, is: Why?
If anything, the Sharks are a team that’s better positioned to succeed now than ever. They have young talent coming up through the system that can play a key role at a discount price, and if they pull the trigger on a couple of buyouts this week, they can also afford to spend $8-million or so to reload.
This is a team that finished with 111 points this season – tied for fourth in the league – even with mediocre goaltending, and they were one of the most dominant puck possession teams in the league (ranked third).
They also took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the first round – albeit by frittering away a 3-0 series lead – and beat them five times between the regular season and playoffs.
A retooling is one thing, but this is not a group that need a total overhaul.
“It comes with some pain,” Wilson said of a potential rebuild. “The timeframe of that rebuild will be based upon the players that get added, the growth of some of the players that we have and how we manage it.”
There’s some discussion in San Jose over what exactly “rebuild” really means here, and whether or not Wilson is merely putting up a smokescreen that will allow him to deal a popular veteran.
If so, that’s a workable solution, if only to change the mix.
The reality is every core piece they have aside from Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and netminder Antti Niemi is under 30 years old. Even with Dan Boyle gone via trade already, the Sharks can easily move out one or two of those vets for younger assets, change the makeup of their team and still continue to compete with the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.
That’s not an easy assignment for any organization, but this notion San Jose doesn’t have the horses to pull it off is flat out wrong.
One of the biggest issues in their series with the Kings was the fact that top defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic went down with an injury and missed most of the final three games, which pressed the likes of Jason Demers and Matt Irwin into big minutes.
The other problem was Niemi posted an .849 save percentage after the Sharks went up 3-0.
Other than that, they were ridiculously close to knocking off the best team in the league. The shots on goal in the series were 179-179 at even strength, and in close situations, San Jose more than held its own in terms of controlling play (50.7 per cent possession).
The best course of action for Wilson, in other words, isn’t to blow things up. Or anything close.
Replacing Niemi is one low-risk option, especially with Ryan Miller available in free agency and his likely willingness to take a discount to play in California.
The Sharks, meanwhile, can easily replace Boyle by returning Brent Burns to the blueline and making an add in free agency, something that will change the mix and potentially give them more depth.
Given they want a culture change, trading either Thornton or Marleau still remains highly likely – but that kind of major move isn’t necessarily fatal, provided they get the right return.
What Wilson can’t do is follow the path of other franchises that overreacted to some hard luck in the playoffs – i.e. Washington after its first-round loss in 2010 – and abruptly changed course.
San Jose may have this reputation for failure based on never getting past the third round, but the only way this is a “tomorrow team” is if management forcibly turns it into one.
Wilson may simply be trying to lower expectations, but this is a franchise as close as it’s ever been to making an impact in the playoffs – and rebuild shouldn’t even be in the vocabulary.