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Rising to Fall

One of the most lamented things in a life is the failure to recognize success. Those times when we only belatedly realize we were at our best, as high as we could go. Because we don’t recognize it, we do not fully appreciate it. I imagine some young players have that experience when they win the Stanley Cup very early in their careers. Others might reach a Conference Final and think this is but a stepping stone to the next level… only to find that the next level is much lower.

I don’t think the San Jose Sharks are bottoming out, but I do think those successes from years past were not seen for what they were- as high as that group could go. Changes have been made since then, but were they all the right changes? Has coach Todd McLellan taught the Sharks as much as they will learn from him? Is GM Doug Wilson stuck in a rut that he won’t get out of unless it is with another team? Both questions may or may not be answered in the next few weeks. The decision is likely to be tainted by the team’s epic failure to close out the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals.

Curtains for the 2013-14 Sharks

Curtains for the 2013-14 Sharks

Before that fateful seventh game, I snapped this photo after the morning skate. The curtains begged to be photographed, holding this pose for too long to be ignored. So I obliged, even though I was already late for media time with Coach Sutter.

It was a peculiar sight but not one you don’t see in the bathroom on a regular basis, where the shower curtain hangs suspended in a strange manner because of how the air and the steam are interacting. Still, the curtains just hung there at the end of the Los Angeles Kings’ morning skate. They met at the bottom to form a “V” shape, instead of neatly flanking the passageway that the visiting teams use to come and go from the ice at SAP Center. It did take me a little while to make the connection that “V” often stands for victory.

It was one of many omens I thought I saw. The proliferation of sevens, from the date (4/30/14) to the seventh hour start times and the prime number of Game Sevens being played (3).

Then there were the ties to 2010, when the Flyers made a comeback from just such a deficit against the Boston Bruins. Mike Richards played in those games, Jeff Carter was injured but on the roster. Both are now playing for the 2013-14 Kings. Additionally, one of the other Game Sevens scheduled the same day as the Kings-Sharks game was between the Flyers and the Rangers. When the Flyers lost, I simply knew the Sharks would too. It seemed impossible that both the Flyers and ex-Flyers would win Game Sevens on the same day, but for that to be an issue the Flyers had to win. Without those odds in their favor, the Sharks seemed doomed.

Most ominous of all was the blown three game lead in the series. By the seventh game, the Kings were on a winning streak, the Sharks on a losing one. When the Sharks scored first, as most Game Seven winners do, it didn’t seem to matter. The Rangers scored first too, so that pattern was satisfied for the day. The fates would not intervene to protect that silly little pattern, not when they were faced with a team like the Kings who were on a furious mission to beat the odds.

So that early one goal lead was just another piece of the Sharks’ pattern, the way they ended this series– rising only to fall.

In the dressing room that morning, I had a very strange sense of something being different, and it wasn’t only me running late or wearing a skirt. There was something in the way some players answered questions, an emotion I could not identify. They paused too long before answers, seemed to give them more thought than usual. Their faces were open and …. what? What was it?

It did not feel like weakness, it felt like grounding, a being more present than usual, less guarded. I believe it was a good energy, I believe it is what we saw at the start of the game, in that first ferocious period when anyone could believe the Sharks would win it. It just was not enough, it did not last.

Why did McLellan go back to his original lineup– minus Vlasic, which is a little like saying minus a goaltender, any goaltender? Vlasic’s influence is still underrated, even by those who notice that he is pretty good. In any case, reinserting Mike Brown and Antti Niemi was no answer to that. The only bright spot was how Matt Irwin played, though he still looked a little like a guy who had not played in a long time. Of course he did, because he hadn’t.

So what in the world went down with them? Logan Couture said he was disappointed that they lacked the killer instinct to win this series. What does that mean? Were the Sharks supposed to send someone over to stomp or kick Drew Doughty in the leg and elbow him in the head? While Jarret Stoll got away with taking Vlasic out, the odds were high that any such action from the Sharks would have resulted in a lengthy suspension.

I have never witnessed such strange officiating as I saw in Games 5 and 6. For the first time it was enough to make me wonder if something was crooked. Were they stretching the series out intentionally? The lack of suspension to Stoll can be written off as a hesitation from the new Director of Player Safety, but it was hardly a subtle act. It would have been a perfectly defensible suspension.

Short of an eye for an eye to even the blue lines back up, what is this killer instinct they lack? Mental focus? Mental toughness? How do you find a group of people so capable of losing their minds at the same time, again and again?

It’s over. Another offseason begins for the Sharks. Will Hasso Plattner speak up? Would he press to remove Doug Wilson? I think it is inevitable that Todd McLellan is done. A major change is needed, and regardless of popular opinion, I don’t think Thornton and Marleau are the problems. What happened to Couture and Pavelski being the new go-to guys? Go to them except with blame? No, it is time to give this group, or most of them, a good head shrinking, and I don’t believe McLellan can do it anymore.

I wonder if he gave leadership too much free rein? Did they need more tyranny and less listening? Tyranny can be reassuring in a crisis. Also, none of those players are ready to coach a team. They still need coaching, they have a game to play, they need simple direction. I will be sorry to not see McLellan with the Sharks anymore but I expect he will land somewhere else in a hot minute.

Back to Wilson… does he need to go? He has made some very good decisions, and some bad ones. While Raffi Torres had some good qualities, I don’t believe he was ever worth the reputation risk the team took on him. Acquiring Tyler Kennedy and Mike Brown was just rampant folly, but acquiring Martin Havlat was a spark of good sense that was never developed. Those three together are signs of a split personality, a divided direction this team has been fighting for years: skill or toughness? Torres bridged the gap, but was perhaps not encouraged in the skill direction soon enough. Kennedy might have done so as well but he never played enough for us to know. The team could have made better use of the picks they gave up than they did of him.

Several seasons ago I proclaimed that Antti Niemi was not the answer as a Number One goaltender. I felt he would be an ample backup or tandem partner but his rebound control at the time was inadequate. He has improved there, but his lack of puck handling is still a deal breaker. I know that most goaltenders are not great puck handlers but it seems like a shocking deficiency to me. If you have someone at that end of the ice why wouldn’t you insist that he be able to send the puck back up the ice without bringing a skater back? It is a terrible waste of energy. Niemi has improved in this area, but only to the level of not consistently turning the puck over when sending it up the boards. You still rarely see him actually pass the puck to someone.

It has been many seasons since Niemi came to San Jose. Someone should have helped him out with that.

So, is this on Wilson? I think that putting all his eggs in the Niemi basket is, especially without ensuring that he gets the coaching he needs. Is Wilson capable of letting go of the illusion that a team can use someone like Mike Brown over Martin Havlat? Of course Havlat has no place on a fourth line. Without other highly skilled players he is wasted. The collapse of the fourth line in this series (overlooked in the rush to blame the top lines) is one more symptom of a dying strategy.

Peter Laviolette was wrong to have Sean Couturier on the Flyers’ fourth line, but not because a player like that isn’t a great asset for a fourth line. It was a problem for the Flyers because they needed him higher in the lineup. At the same time, Laviolette made the same odd choices that McLellan has made, putting gritty guys in the game over players with significantly more skill. He was fired, but not for that. He was fired because his team kept losing. He was replaced by a coach who made exactly the same lineup choices. And so it goes.

I believe that fourth lines with players like Torres, Couturier, Kennedy, Desjardins, these are the future. They can do more, play more minutes and keep top six players more rested. I am probably insane by NHL standards, but that doesn’t make me wrong. Doug Wilson (like too many GMs) keeps looking to the past, which is just another kind of crazy.

Wilson has done the same thing on defense, acquiring players like Colin White and Scott Hannan and letting players like Ian White walk. Hannan performed well above expectations, but he was not what the team needed. He was a familiar face, a reliable defensive defenseman. The team needs more speed and play making than he could bring on his best day. He filled the holes when he was needed but there should not have been any holes. Ian White would have been one of those holes by now but at the time he was a perfectly viable offensive defenseman.

On the other hand, Wilson should get credit for drafting and developing players like Vlasic, Jason Demers (someone other, more impatient teams might have given up on and traded away), Justin Braun, Logan Couture, Matt Nieto, Tommy Wingels and Tomas Hertl (though he seems to have arrived pre-developed). Wilson should get credit for not trading away Joe Pavelski when there were times that he might have. Acquiring Brent Burns has on the whole been a positive, even if he wasn’t the answer for defense. Doug Wilson’s record is pretty enviable, even compared to the top General Managers in place now.

So, will Hasso Plattner fire Doug Wilson? Should he? For the first time in a very long time, ownership taking a stand is a real possibility for the Sharks. I just don’t know if that sort of move needs to be made. Replacing a coach can result in a quick return, if your team is well-built and able to respond to a new voice.

Replacing a general manager is not such a quick fix. His job is a necessarily plodding one, with most of the work being done through gradual development of carefully scouted and developed players. The big splashy trades do not make the big difference, unless they serve to undermine a team’s foundation. If that foundation is truly rotten, then that is a good thing, but it still won’t produce quick results as you rebuild the team from the ground up.

To do that to this team would be hasty. There are too many good players still in their prime, on modest, sustainable contracts. To toss all that out the window would be reckless. So, should Doug Wilson be replaced? Only if someone can be found to come in and do very little in the way of tearing down. I believe this team still has a good foundation, it just needs a light remodel.

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