Sharks Need to Get Stories Straight

By Mary Walsh

The way the San Jose Sharks have proceeded this summer has been heavy on theory and light on specifics. Their plan has been revealed primarily through  inaction and subtraction. “Giving more responsibility to young players,” for example, sounds like a great idea, but removing the C and the A from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau is the first specific step the team has taken in that direction. They also removed some veterans, letting Dan Boyle walk, and buying out Martin Havlat. Beyond that, Doug Wilson has left his plan wide open for interpretation. For those of us who like to think the team will take another run at the playoffs fueled mostly by the angry memory of recent failure, there is fodder enough to think that. But that same fodder, the minimal roster and staff changes, could be used to argue pretty much anything or nothing at all.

The Sharks’ captaincy is the more glitzy story, but the Raffi Torres knee surgery mess is at least as significant. In neither case are the specifics that momentous. Hockey players get hurt and sidelined all the time, and the knee should be a long way from a life-altering injury. The importance of who wears which letter is of debatable importance, but both stories red-flag communication problems with the Sharks.

One hint that information does not flow well in San Jose is the apparently catastrophic state of Raffi Torres’ knee. Why Torres had to have his knee repaired a second time due to an infection resulting from a procedure known to be highly susceptible to infections… well that is a saga that boggles the mind. Knee surgeries are supposed to be straight forward, more commonly complicated by things like advanced age. The Sharks have had too many problems with player knee surgeries to ignore the stink. It is enormously disappointing that there is no return date for Torres. In the few games he has played with the Sharks, he has been very much a difference maker, and not for the reasons his dubious reputation would suggest. When playing with discipline, he is exactly what the Sharks need right now: a middle-six winger with all the tools to score and create scoring chances. All of that is moot now, as he is out indefinitely.

The fiasco around who knew what when regarding the letters suggests that the Sharks will need more than new software to fix communication problems. Coach Todd McLellan accepted blame for not being clear in a meeting with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. That lack of clarity resulted in Thornton not being aware of the decision until asked by reporters. Sometimes being clear is only a matter of saying exactly what you mean. Euphemisms and metaphors are nice but people really do need to know what you are doing as well as why you are doing it.

It is easy to see why the phrase “clean slate” would not necessarily mean “we are stripping you of your letters to start training camp.”  In such an environment, McLellan should know that he has to spell things out, especially to his players. It is better to be accused of tedious repetition than of vagueness.

In an interview with TSN last week, Larry Robinson suggested that Joe Thornton might not have been as approachable as a captain needs to be. That came as a surprise to me, not because Thornton is such a jovial fellow with the media. The easy-going style the cameras are used to would not be very effective at motivating his team, so one could only hope Thornton shows a more assertive persona to his team-mates. Yet Robinson suggested the opposite, that Thornton maybe needed to have a softer touch to be a successful captain.

Obviously, leadership methods have evolved a lot since the Middle Ages, where a club served as well as courtesy, but even Machiavelli knew that subtle manipulation often worked better than mass terror. Certainly a hockey team captain should be available to listen to his teammates, but his teammates have to be willing to speak as well. Even if Thornton lacks the mastery to encourage a taciturn person to speak, I don’t buy that the Sharks are a particularly timid lot. I think it is misguided to put communication failures on any particular player.

Sharks media coverage misses Ryane Clowe, we will miss Dan Boyle. They were two of the more outspoken players in public. Were they also the most outspoken in team meetings? Few NHL players share as much as they did, few were as emotive in post game interviews. (Raffi Torres can be a good interview. Too bad his availability has been and will be so limited by injury.)

Is there really such a large gap between what we see in front of the cameras and what goes on off camera? Are the Sharks too careful with their words to get the job done? Will deposing the captain make a difference? Do players defer to a letter or to reputation and status? If longtime Sharks defer to players like Thornton and Marleau out of habit, then new arrivals will be hard pressed to do anything else.

It will take more than putting letters up for grabs to get this team talking. It might sound silly, but maybe they need to get a talking stick and pass it around at every meeting. Nothing could be sillier than a group of grown men unwilling to air their thoughts, good or bad, with a team they are supposed to be part of. They certainly need to do something to get in the habit of saying whatever is on their minds, before it festers and scuttles another season.

Three is Prime: Sharks Keep Stars in Place

By Mary Walsh

The San Jose Sharks really like the number three. They needed three goals to win their sixth in a row Saturday night. All three goals were scored by the Sharks who just signed three year contract extensions: Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

With those contract extensions, the Sharks propped open that window people talk about, the one that is supposed to be closing on them. Whether or not they also extend Dan Boyle, the team has locked up most of its most productive players for at least three years.

One piece the Sharks do not have locked up, and are not likely to have before the summer if at all, is associate coach Larry Robinson. It is safe to say that there is little if any negotiation involved there: it is a decision Robinson will make when the time comes. Any NHL team in their right mind would want Robinson to stay as long as possible.

The arrival of Robinson and Jim Johnson was a boon. Whether it was a matter of continuing development, as with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, or getting a player back on track as with Jason Demers, the new coaches have had an enormous impact on Sharks defensemen.

If Robinson does not stay, his influence will remain in what he is teaching Sharks players, but in some things it is good to be greedy. It would be very regrettable if the Sharks could not convince Robinson to stay on.

On the player front, the Sharks should retain Dan Boyle, but numerically they have the majority of their top skaters in place until 2017: Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Vlasic, Braun, and now Thornton and Marleau. That isn’t a whole hockey team but it is a fine collection of centerpieces.

That is why signing those three year contracts made sense for Marleau and Thornton too. It is a situation that offers as much chance of success as they would be likely to find anywhere else. Anyone can argue that there is something wrong in San Jose that they have never won the Stanley Cup after so many trips to the playoffs. But there’s many a slip twixt a cup and a lip, even more slips on ice with a bunch of guys trying to jostle your hand. No outcome is certain in the playoffs, except one: you can’t win if you miss the second season.

Maybe the Sharks need to finish the playoffs every which way they can before they win it: swept out, four games to one loss, game seven OT funny bounce loss… Maybe they have a few more exits to try before they find the right door. Not keeping their top players at this point won’t help them find it any sooner.

The notion of rebuilding right now is preposterous, with Couture and Vlasic and Braun and Tomas Hertl locked up. When you have promising players like Tommy Wingels, Matt Irwin and Matt Nieto playing as well as they are right now in the NHL, when you have a few more like Eriah Hayes and Matt Tennyson in the picture, and you might have a dark horse or two lurking in Worcester, now is not the time to trade everyone away and start over.

Alex Stalock is vying for more attention than Sharks backups usually get. Unless the Sharks will give him enough work to really test his potential as a starter, they may not reap the full benefit of his skill. That Stalock got two starts in four games is a step forward here. Maybe McLellan is ready to force some rest on his starting goaltender.

That isn’t a serious problem, and it certainly would not be solved by the acquisition of another player. The team doesn’t have any gaping holes, any glaring need of another big money player- actually or figuratively.

That is why the Sharks should try to keep Dan Boyle. The Sharks don’t need a significant disruption. Boyle probably wants a multi-year contract. Why wouldn’t he? Who doesn’t? What kind of salary he wants is probably the hold up. Doug Wilson has shown that he can get players to sign for less than they would be worth on the open market. That is partly because most players would rather not hit the open market, but also because the Sharks are perennial contenders.

I would guess that Boyle stays with the Sharks. If his salary requirements are reasonable, which would be significantly less than he is presently earning, I think Wilson is likely to offer him three years. He has given as many and more to players who are less central to the team’s core. With Thornton and Marleau at three years, it would be indecent for Boyle to expect more.

I would not put money on that guess. Boyle is at the point in his career where he is deciding how and where he will finish his playing career. Wilson has more cap space to work with than he might have after signing Marleau and Thornton, but he is not swimming in it.

Wilson might need some room to keep Jason Demers.  While Demers has been in and out of the lineup for a few season, he is clearly coming into his own now. He will probably have some suiters calling if the Sharks don’t secure him early.

While other teams are giving their masthead names seven years to stay, it is a sign of confidence from Marleau and Thorton that they accepted three. A 34 year old can’t expect seven years, but players of Thornton’s and Marleau’s stature could certainly get five somewhere. 37 isn’t a great age to be looking for a new contract, but those two are willing to take the risk. If they really think San Jose is the place to be, maybe it is.