We all know the way to San Jose but once again we must ask ourselves if the Sharks know the way to NHL playoff success.
That no doubt is the question the Sharks’ owners will be asking general manager Doug Wilson in the wake of yet another playoff disappointment. Strike that. Disappointment is too mild a word for what the Sharks visited on their fans: blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Los Angeles Kings and then bowing out 5-1 in Game 7 to become just the fourth team in the past 97 years to lose a seven-game series with four consecutive losses.
It was the lowest point for a franchise known for regular-season success and playoff failure. Since Wilson was hired just before the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have never missed the playoffs. They finished first or second in the Western Conference four times, in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010. But for every time the Sharks made the conference final in the postseason – 2004, 2010, 2011 – they were booted in the first round – 2009, 2012, 2014. And the three conference finals are as far as they’ve been in their 23 years in the NHL.
So the easy answer for the owners, when Wilson takes the hot seat in front of them, is no. He can’t get us over the playoff hump and both he and head coach Todd McLellan have to go. Then, as they love to say on Twitter, it’s time to blow it up and rebuild.
Well, if only life in the salary-cap world were that simple. The fact is, even if someone new was brought in, the roster cannot be blown up. CapGeek.com tells us the core of the team – forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, as well as defenceman Marc-Édouard Vlasic – is signed for at least the next three years. Plus, Couture and Pavelski are the only ones in the group who do not have no-move contracts, so good luck on the trade market.
The owners also have to ask themselves if they fire Wilson (and McLellan for that matter), who out there is better. Making a guess about who will be the next great GM among the apprentice class, Jim Benning, Paul Fenton, Laurence Gilman, Claude Loiselle, Dave Poulin et al, probably won’t sell with the San Jose fans. They are tired of the playoff flops. They’re smart enough to know there is enough talent on the team to do better, so they want it now.
If you look at Wilson’s record as a GM it shows there probably isn’t one of his peers who is available who could do better. Not unless Peter Chiarelli or Stan Bowman or Dean Lombardi suddenly declare themselves free agents.
Sure, there are the usual mistakes on his resume (signing goaltender Antti Niemi) but every GM has a few of those. Wilson’s drafting and trading records, though, are solid.
Thanks to all that regular-season success, since 2005 Wilson had just two picks in the top 10 in the NHL entry draft. He got Devon Setoguchi eighth overall in 2005 and Couture ninth in 2007. Setoguchui turned out to be a dud but in the same draft Wilson got the Sharks’ most important defenceman, Vlasic, 35th overall and their backup goaltender, Alex Stalock, 112th. There are also forwards Thomas Hertl (17th overall in 2012) and Matt Nieto (47th overall in 2011), a late call-up who produced five points in the Kings series. Other drafted regulars are defencemen Jason Demers (186th overall in 2008) and Justin Braun (201st overall in 2007) and forward Tommy Wingels (177th in 2008).
The Sharks have some age among their core. Thornton and Marleau will both be 35 by the time next season starts, pending free-agent defenceman Dan Boyle will be 38, defenceman Brad Stuart is 34 and forward Martin Havlat, a candidate for a buyout, is 33. But Vlasic, Couture and Pavelski are all 30 or younger.
Add it all up and the Sharks still have a window of at least a year, perhaps two, where they can reasonably expect to challenge for the Stanley Cup. The roster is also in need of a patch here and there, such as in goal, rather than a rebuild.
The sensible thing to do, then, is give Wilson that year, perhaps two, to show he can finally produce that success. Then think about canning him.