SAN JOSE — The Sharks are dead in the water, not that there weren't warning signs months ago.
On the heels of an epic postseason collapse, general manager Doug Wilson cautioned the team might need to take one step back before it could take another one forward. What he didn't say was that Team Teal would become Team Turmoil, lose 22 home games, allow its most goals per game in nine years and finish out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 campaign.
“We've been through a lot together, and it hasn't been a lot of fun the past few months,” coach Todd McLellan conceded this week. “Let's make sure we're still playing for each other and we're still playing hard.”
The answers appear to be no and no. In their last two games, the Sharks were embarrassed by the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes, neither one a playoff team.
Now, Germany-based team owner Hasso Plattner and his confidantes will face difficult decisions in the months ahead. Most of them center around a 35-year-old player with a $6.75-million salary and two years left on his contract, a general manager who has yet to reach the Stanley Cup finals in 12 years on the job and a well-respected head coach who is stuck in the middle.
The Sharks have been in a free-fall since mid-March, when veteran Joe Thornton called Wilson a liar in so many words and advised him to “keep his mouth shut.” Thornton has a no-move clause in his contract, so he can do that sort of thing. Plattner tried to downplay the incident after he spoke to both parties, and McLellan went so far as to say it could galvanize the team. Their 5-6-1 record since then suggests the public spat has pulled the group further apart, not closer together.
“As hockey players, you want to give yourself an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup,” forward Logan Couture said. “We're not going to have that chance this year. Especially with the way last year ended, it's very, very disappointing.”
The plunge started at this time one year ago, when the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead against the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. “We had a good team,” McLellan said. “We didn't succeed in the playoffs. We failed, we had a collapse, call it whatever you want.”
Afterward, Wilson spoke of a leadership void in the dressing room. Soon Thornton was demoted from team captain to an assistant against his wishes. Wilson referred to the Sharks as a team of “tomorrow” in the preseason — accurately, it turned out — but Thornton would hear none of it.
Wilson opted to play a pat hand last summer. Months later, the Sharks have the look of a dormant franchise whose days as a contender seem like a long, long time ago. Forward Patrick Marleau is 35 years old. Goalie Antti Niemi is 31. Defenseman Brent Burns and forward Joe Pavelski are 30. Except for Couture, 26, there are no All-Star talents to carry the torch for the next generation of Sharks hockey.
So the question becomes: Is Wilson the guy for a rebuild project that may take years to complete?
In recent years, the Sharks haven't had much luck in the draft, partly because Wilson traded their first-round pick three times in the last seven years. Forwards Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney and Matt Nieto lack NHL experience, and it may take years for any of them to become an impact player, if at all. The most pleasant surprise of the season has been 24-year-old Melker Karlsson, an undrafted forward.
Team defense is the biggest problem. The Sharks rank 23rd in goals allowed and 25th in opponents power-play percentage. Only Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic qualify as top-four defensemen. Niemi is in the final days of his contract, and while backup Alex Stalock has had his moments in limited opportunities, the 27-year-old has only 36 career starts on his resume.
The quickest, surest way to address a lack of depth in the organization is to trade the veteran player with the most value. That would be Thornton, who no doubt would draw considerable interest despite his modest goal numbers. The no-trade clause could make for a dicey proposition, however, as Thornton has expressed a desire to retire in a Sharks uniform.
Would an opportunity to compete for his first Stanley Cup with another team convince Thornton to move on with his career? We may soon find out.
Until then, most agree on this much: Any plan probably won't work unless Thornton and/or Wilson move elsewhere, whether it's Thornton to another team or Wilson to another position in the organization.
McLellan may be the least to blame for the mess. Yet some will tell you that he has stuck with his horses too long, namely Marleau, who has a minus-17 rating this season. The veteran continued to play heavy minutes in two horrific slumps that saw him score one point in 21 games. This team isn't known for its work ethic, and that falls on the coach, at least to some extent.
Or as McLellan put it the other day: “We should be better than we were this year.”
McLellan has one year left on his contract. If Wilson stays put, chances are McLellan will, too. But if Wilson were to leave, it would be no surprise if McLellan followed him. In that case, the coach wouldn't be out of work very long.
“I don't want to talk about anything until we're done,” McLellan said.
The Sharks are done. Now we'll see who picks up the pieces and how quickly they can be put together again.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.