Retooling the sharks part 1: management

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Changing of the guard in Western Conference – ESPN:

The Sharks? It’s a little more complicated than Detroit. For starters, they don’t have anything coming off their cap that’s really that noteworthy. The likes of Torrey Mitchell, Dominic Moore and Daniel Winnik are UFAs July 1, but all of the high-paid, core players remain signed.

Longtime Shark Patrick Marleau was a huge disappointment in the five-game loss to St. Louis, going pointless. He’s got two more years at $6.9 million a year and a no-trade clause to boot. Martin Havlat had a disappointing, injury-filled year. After scoring twice in Game 1, he was barely noticeable in the rest of the series. He’s got three more years at $5 million per season. Defenseman Brent Burns didn’t have the impact this season the Sharks had hoped they were getting after dealing for him last summer. He’s got five more years at $5.76 million per season.

The decisions won’t be easy for GM Doug Wilson. But this team needs a core shakeup. Aside from Joe Thornton (who was easily San Jose’s best player against the Blues), Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe and Dan Boyle, I’d be ready to trade almost anyone else on this roster.

Easier said than done, of course. But Wilson has a track record of making bold moves. He’s not scared of change. He spoke with Columbus about Rick Nash before the trade deadline. Maybe he revisits that.

Either way, Wilson is on the clock this summer. His Sharks need retooling if they want to hang with the new class in the West.

Pierre LeBrun gets to the core. Standing pat’s not an option. Getting better isn’t easy. How do we deconstruct these Sharks and make changes to move them forward? Or is it time to tear it apart and move on?

One quick dose of reality: the better a team is, the harder it is to keep getting better. It’s relatively easy for a team struggling to make the playoffs to improve enough to challenge for a division. It’s very difficult for a team that’s a President’s Cup contender to find a next step to take in improvement. The closer you are to that point in the curve where it flattens out, the more expensive it gets to keep pushing the performance curve upward — or the more risky the move you have to make to do so. And risky moves are, well, risky, which means sometimes they don’t work, or backfire. 

That’s part of the Sharks problem this year; Doug Wilson made a couple of moves of the “if this works, it’ll help us — but it’s risky”, and I think in this case, the Sharks didn’t roll craps but the moves didn’t work as hoped. that’s especially true with Marty Havlat and his weird hamstring injury that had him out of the lineup for an extended time. And his injury meant key players were out of position much of the season, and the “hoped for’ lineups and lines never really happened. 

Id on’t think, however, that this means the trades were failures or that the Sharks would have been better off without the moves. The reality is the Sharks last year needed to be pushed further up the performance curve, but doing so isn’t easy. And in this case, the things they tried were risky, and the risks came back to hamper the Sharks. Sometimes, that happens. But safe moves, lower-risk moves, weren’t going to move the needle.

So now what?

Let’s start from the top and work down, see which parts of the organization need work. The fact is, standing pat is not an option (it never is), because there set of the conference has worked hard to get better, and this year’s performance, I think, is tied as much to who the teams around the sharks got better as much, or more, than the Sharks under-performing. 

First, the ownership group. Greg Jamison is gone (and still seems to be sniffing around the Coyotes, although that continues to be a heap of complicated and taking forever to resolve). He’s been replaced by people who really want to stay out of view and run the business, but not make headlines. They’ve left hockey to the hockey people (i.e. Doug Wilson), which I like, and I don’t see much change in philosophy between what the Jamison group did and what they’re doing: there’s been some significant focus on the business side of the organization, but that seems to be a good thing overall. 

Overall, the Sharks ownership group has been supportive of the team, willing to try to bring in good hockey people and let them run things without interference, and willing to invest money to create a winning team. They have a good building and they’ve invested in keeping the building working well and looking good. They’ve been cautious about pricing and haven’t over-inflated ticket prices, and they’ve been involved in the community and invested in charitable endeavors. In other words, the Sharks ownership group has always been a pretty good one, and I think that continues. 

What they haven’t been, and this of course upsets some fans, is a “win at any price” group, ala the Yankees. That’s because the Sharks ownership group isn’t so rich that they can afford to subsidize that kind of spending and not care. The Sharks are not a rich man’s hobby, but a business that has to at least be close to supporting itself, and the pocket books have never been (and likely never will be) infinite. I don’t have a problem with this. To the fans that expect it, sorry. the days of a Steinbrenner spending huge amounts of money are waning — fewer owners exist that are willing to treat teams as an expensive hobby, and the Sharks have never been that kind of team.

The one criticism I’ve had of Sharks ownership and business team is that they are followers, not innovators. This has been true pretty much since day one. I’ve always wanted this team to drive innovation in the league; it is silicon valley’s team, after all, where a lot of this innovation happens in the world. But the  organization has never taken a league leadership role and always seems to wait for other teams to drive innovations — not surprisingly, given its owner, one of the more innovative teams is the Capitals. Maybe someday this will change, but I’m not holding my breath, and I don’t see the new ownership making this change.

The Sharks were one of the first league teams to have an internet presence, for instance (I know this, because Laurie and I were demoing this funky thing called a browser to them back around 1994 and telling them that this was going to be important to get in front of) — yet after being one of the early (maybe the first) teams to have a web site, they have pretty much followed what the league does rather than led the league forward. There are so many things happening here in the valley where the organization could potentially bring the partnership into the league and foster it through to the other teams, but that’s just not their mindset. They’re followers. Which is okay, but I always hoped for more. 

So Sharks ownership passes my test pretty well. If the greatest complaint I can find is that they aren’t taking a leadership position among the league owners or driving the league forward through innovation, well, those are ancillary issues. They don’t have to do that to succeed. Their support and investment in the team and hockey is fine. 

What about hockey management? And by that, I mean GM Doug Wilson?

I was a big fan of Dean Lombardi in San Jose. I am a big fan of Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles. I also felt at the time the Sharks fired Lombardi that ti was necessary, because he’d gotten too emotionally tied into the situation and he needed a change of scenery, and the Sharks needed a difference voice leading the charge. At the time, my first choice for GM was Doug Wilson (my second choice was Dave Nonis). 

I’ve been a strong supporter of Wilson with the Sharks — and I continue to be. As I said above, as you get better, it gets harder to keep getting better, and to keep pushing the curve you either need to throw more money at the problem (and do it wisely), or you have to take calculated risks and have those risks pan out. More money is not an easy option in San Jose, and Wilson has never been afraid to take those calculated risks. 

this year, those risks didn’t pan out. Does that mean he’s suddenly an idiot and needs to be fired? Not to me. It means some years, you roll the dice and they don’t come up 7. I don’t think that means he or his strategy is a failure. 

So Wilson gets a passing grade from me. One should not assume that a second year where the changes he makes don’t pan out will get the same result; one down year in his years of organizational growth and success isn’t a failure. Two years becomes a trend, and if that happens, you have to take a harder look at things. But this year? I like what Wilson tried, it just didn’t work as well as hoped.  I expect he’ll make more changes this off-season and next year will work out better. 

What about the coaching staff?

Todd McClellan impresses the hell out of me. End of discussion. Well, not quite. He gets a strong passing grade from me. I think he’s got the potential to be one of those coaches who can avoid the “short shelf life” problem where after 3-4 years, the team stops responding to his message. He wasn’t the problem. He’s part of the solution. So he stays, and I am looking forward to seeing how he adapts to this year’s challenges.

What about the coaching staff?

Well, here’s where it gets interesting. One of the big changes that happened before this season was that assistant coach Trent Yawney, who went off to be a head coach in the minors in his search to become an NHL head coach. To replace him, the sharks promoted Jay Woodcroft into a bench role. 

One of the big struggles the Sharks had this year was penalty kill and special teams. One of the things Yawney worked on with the Sharks was penalty kill and special teams. So the question I keep coming back to looking at least season is this: is one of the key problems the Sharks had because Trent Yawney left the organization?

Evaluating assistant coaches from a keyboard is somewhere between “almost impossible” and “are you kidding?” — so I admit up front that not being in on meetings and not being at practices and etc on a regular basis means I’m not qualified to answer this question. I also won’t let that stop me from doing so anyway, but the reality is, I expect this is something Doug Wilson and Coach McClellan will spend some time discussing, and however they decide to address it — I expect their decision to be the right one, while what I suggest here is one blogger babbling… Unless, of course, they end up agreeing with me. Then I’m a genius. 

Let me phrase this this way: I keep coming back to the loss of Trent Yawney as being a key problem this season. It just looks like the Sharks special teams struggled without his advice on special teams coaching. the talent was there, the focus and details weren’t there consistently. 

And I think it’s important to look at it as “we lost Trent Yawney” and not “Jay Woodcroft didn’t get the job done” because everything I’ve seen indicates Woodcroft is a good, young, up and coming coach and a positive to the organization. But he’s not Trent Yawney. When the Sharks lost Yawney, they felt it was time to promote Woodcroft — and I think the organization missed Yawney’s talent and experience. 

So here’s my first recommendation for the Sharks this off-season: they need to find someone to join the coaching staff who can bring back the experience and coaching that they lost when Yawney left the organization, especially on special teams. That means they should be looking for an experienced assistant coach, preferably an ex-player, and someone who can both bring these skills to the players AND work to mentor Woodcroft. Because I don’t believe Woodcroft deserves to be let go or demoted — but I do think the Sharks coaching staff needs to find a way to better fill the void they have from losing Yawney out of the organization. 

And if Wilson made a mistake last off-season, it wasn’t the trades he tried, it was in not bringing in a more experienced replacement for Yawney. If you look at where the Sharks faltered this season, that may have been the biggest mistake Wilson has made as a GM to date. 

I will be watching to see how Wilson resolves this one closely, because I believe strongly this is the one key thing he needs to do to put the Sharks back on track next season. 

Next up — the roster. And no, the players won’t be left blameless…