By Mary Walsh
The San Jose Sharks are not the only team to lose a Game Seven in 2014, or even in the first round. Because they began with a three game lead, the loss was considered an upset, a collapse. Other teams who lost in Game Seven when they were expected to win include the Boston Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.The Bruins were grumpy in the handshake line, the Penguins fired their GM.
The Anaheim Ducks were the regular season Conference champions. They held a lead at one point in the series against the Los Angeles Kings, but they were not strong favorites, especially after the Kings’ first round comeback against the Sharks.
Does a little distance change how we should view what happened to the Sharks in the series against the Kings? Doesn’t it appear that they did not have to make many mistakes to lose to the Kings? Perhaps, but some of the mistakes were ones we have seen before that should have been avoidable.
When the Sharks flagged after the questionable goal that involved pushing Alex Stalock into the net, it was not unlike the 2011 Conference Finals against the Canucks. There, a bad call in the last 13 seconds of the third period left the team flat-footed. The Canucks tied the game and won the series in overtime.
What is this, and how do you fix it? Would making a lot of roster changes do it?
Sharks GM Doug Wilson said the team needs more than a band aid. The problem is that any major surgery takes time.
The first moves announced were actually non-moves. The coaching staff would be retained, Dan Boyle would not be resigned, and Marty Havlat would not be with the Sharks next season. The odds are very slim that this last means anything other than “Havlat will be bought out.” If Wilson were trying to trade him, he probably wouldn’t be announcing it to the media. This would be a first, a difficult first for a GM who has always been careful to not get into a contract he cannot live with.
The other announcement is the oddest of the three: the Sharks will use Brent Burns as a defenseman next season. Yes, he was acquired for that purpose, his contract was negotiated on that basis, he has more NHL experience as a defenseman than as a forward but… he really was a standout forward. He was maddeningly inconsistent as a defenseman.
The choice is not so shocking, but the announcement itself was strange. Was it a way of saying (unbidden) that the Sharks will not pursue a free agent defensemen this summer? Or that they will pursue a top six forward? Did that announcement have any place on the list of “questions people want answered?”
Dan Boyle, in discussing his time with the Sharks, said that the last two seasons were the Sharks’ best. Reminded that they had made the Conference Finals twice before, he admitted that perhaps recent seasons were just more vivid in his memory.
I think he was right the first time. The Pacific Division has become more formidable than it was when the Sharks went to the Conference Finals. The Sharks have been better in the last two seasons, but so has their competition. That means that success is even more about bounces than it ever was.
Bounces cannot be controlled, but the way a team handles them can be. A team’s psychological resilience can be improved by changing the players, but there are not very many players who can step in and hold a team together through a crisis. There may not be any who could do it for all teams.
Would trading Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau really improve matters? Joe Pavelski? Who? And who do you get to replace them? Keeping in mind some no movement clauses would have to be worked around, who could Wilson get back? Unfortunately, those other players might come with much heavier salary burdens, assuming they could produce as well as any of the Sharks’ leaders, and also fix what ails the team.
That is a lot to expect from some player on some team a Sharks player would agree to be traded to… it is a lot to expect from even two or three players.
Wilson may have the flexibility he wants, but he has not built the team out of an NHL Leggo set. Few successful teams are built like that. You don’t replace pieces, you replace ingredients. Each player has an effect beyond the players to either side of him on the bench. The wrong big move could doom the next few seasons.
Should they move goaltender Antti Niemi? Was he really the weakest link? A better puck-mover would be nice, but every goaltender has his weaknesses. Those with few are rarely available. How much could Wilson get in trade?
Again, would that fix what ails the Sharks? What does ail them?
Composure. This is something the Kings are being praised for. They have rebounded in two playoff series now. Their goalie has recovered from some poor outings to play at his best. Give them credit, they keep their heads.
But do they keep them so much better than the Sharks? If the Kings are such a better team than the Sharks or the Ducks, why did it take them seven games to win those series? Why did they lose so badly to start the playoffs? Perhaps their playing style has to be paced. Playing a very physical game, the sort of game that produces a high injury rate, takes its toll on both teams. Perhaps it takes the Kings a while to work up to it.
Is that what the Sharks need to do, whichever Sharks remain next season? Does that style of play guarantee a win? It has gotten the Kings farther than the Sharks have gone several seasons in a row now. So why don’t more teams emulate the Kings?
Again, why did it take them seven games, twice, if they are so much better?
Maybe the Kings are not a perfect model, they are just one that works for those players with that coach right now.
Those players. Mike Richards spent a good amount of time on the fourth line. He might be a buyout candidate this summer if he cannot return to a top six role. No team is going to willingly give a fourth liner six or seven years at $5.75 million. In the mean time, he posed an enormous threat to opposition, and not because he is so tough or gritty. What distinguished him from most fourth liners is skill.
The Sharks had Mike Brown on their fourth line. They also had Raffi Torres there, with a still very troublesome knee. Had he not been injured, would he have been on the fourth line at all?
The Sharks would do well to look for more skill to go with the grit they have relied on there. They have players who could make up an over-qualified fourth line, if they added one or two top nine forwards…
Yet the coaching staff thought it would be better to try to get Marty Havlat to play there occasionally, instead of moving someone who could do that job (like Tommy Wingels) and keeping Havlat in the roll he was acquired for– a skilled top nine forward. Unless they re-evaluate how they use their assets, it doesn’t matter who the Sharks trade or acquire.
If their roster is so flawed, then significant changes have to be made. That is unlikely to produce quick results. Whether they replace a lot of players or drastically change their style of play, both will take time to adjust to. They probably won’t get off to a quick start, they might be pushing to reach the playoffs at the end of the season. Then, if they stumble again, it can be explained away by too many changes to adjust to in one season.
Not making big changes hasn’t satisfied anyone. It will be difficult now to not make them. It does seem like a shame to waste the one useful thing the team got out of that loss to Los Angeles: a painful shared memory of what they don’t want to experience again.