So….. Now what?

The Sharks go up against the LA kings again in the first round of the playoffs, and once again lose and end their season too early. This time, however, they were up in the series 3-0, only to lose 4 straight. The fans are pissed. With good reason. The team is pissed. The coaches are pissed. The GM is pissed. The exit interviews are fascinating.

What happened? What does the team do? What can it do?

One thing is clear. Changes are coming. What are they? I don’t think anyone knows — although I’m sure Wilson has some ideas he’s not telling anyone yet.

The problem is a tough one. The Sharks are (at least) a top six team in the league, and live in a division with three top-ten teams — the Kings and the Ducks. Two years in a row, the Kings have proven to be a better team than the Ducks.

It’s not enough just to make changes; you need to improve the team. It’s a lot more likely that changes will make the team worse, not better; you can’t just rearrange the pieces and expect improvement.  Just ask any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance. Or look at the Vancouver Canucks, a team that was close to the Sharks in talent who made changes to try to take that next step, and found themselves out of the playoffs and golfing.

There are a lot of teams that would love to have the Sharks problems. That, of course, is a faux rationalization, because this is the Sharks and we’re not solving other team problems here.

Everyone who follows the Sharks — and many who don’t — have an opinion. Here’s what I’d tell Doug Wilson if he asked for mine.

 Starting at the Top

We need to start at the top. If you have bad ownership, it’s all over. If your management is bad, it’ll be impossible to get the right players onto the team when you need them. If they hire the wrong coaches, even if you have the right players, they’ll struggle to win consistently.

I’m a big fan of Sharks ownership, both in the past with Greg Jamison and now with Hasso Plattner. They can afford to spend money on the team, they are willing to — and to me just as importantly, they seem committed not to spend money foolishly, so they aren’t wasting fans and their own money paying off people who aren’t on the roster to fix mistakes they shouldn’t have made.

I also am a fan of Doug Wilson as GM. I look at the trades and personnel decisions he’s made and it’s very hard to find one you look at and think “I wish he hadn’t done that’. Maybe on a personal level when a favorite player leaves the franchise — but from a performance analysis it’s hard to find a deal where what was brought into the organization didn’t perform better than what left. The weakest deal I can think of in the last few years is the Marty Havlat deal, and Wilson admitted at the time it was a bit of a dice roll over his injury history, and in retrospect, what we rolled weren’t sevens.

I have only one caveat about Wilson at GM. That’s my expectation that we’re close to losing Tim Burke, one of his key assistants, who’s proven himself to be very deserving of being a GM as well. the one thing I might consider, especially given the role Plattner seems to want with the team compared to Jamison, is whether now is a good time to promote Wilson to team governor and president and make Tim Burke the Sharks GM. If we don’t, there’s a very good chance Burke will be GM for someone else in the next year.

But get rid of Wilson? Crazy Talk. (minor disclaimer: Laurie and I were webmasters for a group that included Wilson and Kevin Constantine a number of years back; Constantine’s name should give you an idea how long ago that was. We worked primarily with another partner, and I doubt Wilson could pick me out of a crowd today. But I am pre-disposed to thinking he’s incredibly competent, because he is).

Coaching? I’ve seen a few people muttering about making coaching changes. To consider that, you have to ask yourself if this collapse was a coaching problem, a roster problem, or a player problem. A couple of years back, the sharks had a season where the special teams simply didn’t perform. The Sharks reacted to that by adding a new coach, some guy named Robinson.

Was the problem bad coaching? The first three games of the series argues no. The Kings were able to make adjustments, the Sharks couldn’t react to those adjustments well. My evaluation of the series and the comments by the coaches and players all indicate to me that it was the players unable to implement the adjustments, not a lack of direction from the coaches.

So if I were Plattner, Wilson and the staff stays. Similarly, I don’t see any issue within the management side of the Sharks: good scouting, good drafting, a great farm/development system. There’s very little wrong here, other than we can’t get to the conference finals. (that, of course, is not exactly a cosmetic flaw).

One intriguing thought is Barry Trotz, let go by the Predators. I don’t think he’s a better coach than McLellan, but if a coaching change is made, he’s my pick. I’d also want to see if he could be convinced to join the team in some other capacity, but I expect he’ll be hired as coach by someone (hint: Vancouver’s insane if they don’t) soon. Another thought: Mike Sullivan was let go as assistant coach in Vancouver when Tortorella was fired. I’d love the sharks to find him a spot in McClellan’s team if he wants it.

One quick thought on Tortorella: If you believe replacing McLellan with Tortorella will solve the Sharks problems, you can stop reading this piece now. And while we’re at it, fire Wilson and hire in Mike Keenan as GM to complete the set. While you do that, I’ll go pull out my Kings jersey out of storage, because that’s who I’d be watching moving forward. I don’t quote Larry Brooks very often, but his thoughts on Tortorella seem spot on.

The Problem

Watching the series against the Kings, I didn’t see any player playing badly, or not playing as hard as they were capable of. I thought Demers was struggling, but it seemed more a case of trying to do too much rather than doing it badly. Most of the players I saw interviewed after game 7 looked physically exhausted and mentally drained. They seemed to have given it everything they got, and it wasn’t enough.

A big part of the core of the team is getting older. The time on ice stats is telling: Joe Thornton, 19+ minutes; Dan Boyle 21+, Patrick Marleau 20+, Brent Burns, 17+. The key players on the top line are playing major minutes in 7 games over two weeks. Take a look at the Joe Thornton exit interview linked to above, or the Burns video. Both of them, the next day, sound and act so tired they seem to struggle to figure out how to answer some questions. The tanks are empty.

So my main key for why the team faded? Too many of the older sharks had to play too many high stress minutes in too many games too close together.

How do you fix that?  The risk of making the team worse is high, because it’s quite hard to make this team better. That said, changes have to be made. Standing pat and hoping to be better next year; with this team, too many of the core players aren’t going to improve with time, and some are coming ever closer to their use-by date.

This has been Thornton and Marleau’s team for a number of years. They’re now old enough that the Sharks need to start transitioning that leadership role: this needs to become Pavelski’s team, and Couture’s team. We have some really interesting younger players growing into major roles like Hertl. If Dan Boyle isn’t brought back next season (and perhaps even if he is), I’d put one of the “A”‘s on Pavelski’s jersey.

The challenge of reloading instead of rebuilding is one many teams struggle with. the one team that has done so very successfully for many years is the Detroit Red Wings, and that’s the model I recommend here. There’s no reason to “exile” anyone from the Sharks, but the reality is some changes are coming. Thornton and Marleau will be back next season, and I see no reason to remove the captancy from them, but I do want to see the younger core being given more responsibility, even if that is symbolic (more or less).

Up Front

Players like Thornton and Marleau are horses; good luck trying to get them to cut back. But I think the biggest problem with the Kings series is that at 19-21 minutes a night, in a 7 game, every other night series after a long season of games playing lots of minutes, the top lines hit a wall and couldn’t keep up with the top lines of the Kings. That, in a nutshell, is what failed.

So next year what I want to see is those older key players playing 3-4 minutes less a night. Pull them back and conserve their legs and play them 15 minutes instead of 19. You can’t do that unless you have players that can suck up those minutes and be effective, and I think the reality is that at key times, the coaches had to lean on the older guys.

The Hertl injury played into this. I wonder how he would have matured as the season went along; it’s posible he could have picked up some of the load. The Raffi Torres injury definitely played into this, forcing the team to play the top six forwards more as they struggled to find a fourth line that could consistently play 10 minutes instead of six. If you look at the Kings series, the Kings 3-4 lines were playing 9-15 minutes, while the Sharks 3-4 forward lines were in the 7-13 minute range.That seems like a small difference, but that means other forwards are playing more. Other than Kopitar, who is insane and averaged 20 minutes for the series, Sutter did a great job of balancing his ice time among the forwards and none of the other forwards averaged more than 16 and a half. The Sharks, on the other hand, had Pavelski at 20 and a half (chasing Kopitar most of the time), but Marleau was 20 minutes, Thornton was 19 minutes, Couture was 18 and  half, burns 17 and a half.

Our forwards were playing more minutes, under more stress, and were older. They wore out. The way to solve that? younger legs, fewer minutes per game for the older legs. Hopefully Hertl is healthy next season, and his numbers should jump from 13 to 16 or 17. Nieto ditto, Sheppard can hopefully step up from 12 a night to 14. All of this will pull back minutes from Marleau and Thornton and Burns and give them more of a chance to make their minutes impact minutes.

You still need to look at parts of the roster: Brown, DesJardins, Havlat specifically, and think you can improve those roster spots and bring in players for those roles that will stay healthy and play more than ten minutes a night. You hope Raffit Tores stays healthy, and if so, he’ll be good for 10-12.

I’d love to see Thorton/Marleau shifted to being the second line and a first line built around Couture/Hertl. Next year, that’s possible. But the big need is to manage the legs of the top six forwards, and they ended up wearing out and being outplayed by the Kings. Because of the age of some of those guys, and their willingness to gut it out and try, the coaches need to pull back their minutes all season, and the forward lines need to play a more balanced set of minutes; look at the Kings forwards ice time numbers and you’ll see the core reason why they were better in game 6 and 7.

On Defense

A healthy Vlasic impacts the King series, but a healthy Vlasic doesn’t change the final outcome.

We have some similar challenges on defense to our forwards. Jason Demers struggled somewhat in the series (at -4), and I think that put pressure on the older players to take up key minutes on defense. Boyle played 22 minutes a night. Stuart almost 20. Hannan 17 and a half. Vlasic’s injury hurt here, but it worries me that so many minutes are going to the greybeards.

Boyle is a free agent. Do we bring him back? I would, but I would with an understanding his role will be pulled back, similar to my recommendation on the forwards. I want him playing 18 minutes a night, not 22. More days off, more special teams work. Hannan is a free agent, I don’t bring him back (I hope he’s ready to retire as a shark, personally). Demers I bring back, he’s a solid player. Stuart’s under contract and he’s back, but again, let’s try to moderate minutes.

Goaltending

Niemi struggled at times. He’s getting older. From what I could tell, after he had a game off (like game 6) he came out with a much stronger game, indicating to me that the main flaw in his game is overwork — so again, the answer here seems to be to cut back on his playing time in the regular season. he likes working hard between games, he likes playing lots of games, but he’s at an age where he needs help understanding an appropriate workload to stay sharp.

Fortunately, I really like Staylock in goal as well. My recommendation: tell both goalies they get 30 starts, and that the rest of the starts are up to who plays better. That caps Niemi at about 50 games and both push each other to win. I think everyone wins under that scenario, and if Staylock beats Niemi out, I wouldn’t feel bad.

Free Agents

My thoughts on the Sharks free agents:

  • James Sheppard (F, Restricted): Bring him back. I really like what I’m seeing and I think he’s still improving.
  • Tommy Wingels (F, Restricted): Bring back. averaged 17 minutes a night in the playoffs. Hard to see us replacing him with a better player for the money he’ll get.
  • Mike Brown (F, Unrestricted): Cut Loose. we need fourth liners who can play more than 7 minutes a night. This roster spot can be used more effectively.
  • Bracken Kearns (F, Unrestricted): Cut loose. Hit his “use by” date.
  • Dan Boyle (D, Unrestricted): Bring back for the right price in the right role. I love Boyle, but he’s at that age where the team needs to manage his minutes and his role needs to be scaled back — and so does his salary. Will he be willing to do that? He says he wants to stay; I expect the Sharks would like to keep him, but he’s not a $6m player any more, and he needs to be willing to player fewer minutes and fewer games to stay effective. Fortunately, with Matt Irwin, we have a player that looks ready to take up some of those minutes effectively.
  • Jason Demers (D, Restricted): Bring back. Still maturing, and I think he’s a solid player. Maybe never more than a 3-4 defenseman, but definitely a player worth keeping.
  • Scott Hannan (D, Unrestricted): Cut Loose. I love Hannan. But if our D corps is going to get younger, we can’t afford to have Hannan AND Stuart AND Boyle, even if Hannan goes into the season as our part time 7th (the role I want to see us shifting Stuart towards, where he can give Boyle games off). I’m hoping he’ll retire as a Shark and maybe move into the organization in some way, but I can’t see bringing him back in uniform.
  • Alex Staylock (D, Unrestricted): Bring Back. I think Staylock can make a challenge to be the #1 goalie over the next couple of years. I’m not convinced he WILL do it, I think he might and deserves a chance. I do think he makes a great goalie to pair up with Niemi and the chemsitry there shouldn’t be ignored. That said, if I were another NHL team with goalie problems, I’d make a run at Staylock and see about grabbing him away from the Sharks, or bidding him up to annoy Doug Wilson. Hopefully Wilson locks him up soon.

Next Year

I’m expecting more from Couture, Pavelski, Nieto and Hertl and Matt Irwin as this team reloads and transitions from being a Thornton/Marleau team to a Couture/Pavelski leadership core. I want the old guys to play fewer minutes but take full advantage of the minutes they play. Doug wilson hinted that Mirco Mueller (D, 2013 first round) might be looked at closely for a roster spot next year.

Sharks need to go younger, and seem to have mostly the right mix to do that now. I won’t speculate free agents that Wilson might consider because he’s proven to me that any attempt to outguess him makes me look silly; he invariably finds someone pundits don’t think of that is a better choice than any of us made. I no longer track the minor teams closely so I won’t fake a guess at who might be ready to step up to the big team next season.

The Bottom Line

Let’s not forget that this team is better than 25 other teams in the league. It needs to get better, but that’s not an easy prospect. Changes for the sake of change will often backfire (hello, Vancouver!). That shouldn’t imply that changes are unnecessary, but as frustrating as this series loss was, we have to remember the changes are strategic, not a blow it up and start over thing.

I will predict that between now and opening night, Wilson will pull off one “holy crap, I didn’t see that coming” deal. If I were a betting man, it might be something that packages up Niemi and some other assets and brings back in another goaltender and a young forward or a 2-3 defenseman, especially if that D can run a power play. If they choose to not bring back Dan Boyle the chances for a deal for a Dman go way up.

The reality is the Sharks built this team to win the Cup, and while it’s been very good, it didn’t get there. It’s also true, I’d say, that the key pieces have aged past their “prime years”and are starting to fade a bit, so it’s time to reload. The Sharks have done a good job of reloading in place with Pavelski and Couture and now Hertl so ther’es no big need to make massive changes, but changes do need to happen. I’m happy that we have Doug Wilson figuring them out and that he has a strong coaching team to help him and then help the players make it happen.