EDMONTON, May 2, 2014— As the final seconds ticked away, not only on Wednesday’s deciding game seven, but on the San Jose Sharks’ season, one fact was inescapable. The Sharks, as they are currently and have been constructed, are simply incapable of playing championship hockey.
After stomping the Los Angeles Kings in the series’first three games, the Sharks inexplicably devolved into a team unable to execute the simplest of plays, and fans could only watch in disbelief as their beloved team squandered home ice and a 3-0 series lead.
The Kings showed their championship mettle by surviving the beatings they took early in the series, never deviating from their design.
Under head coach Darryl Sutter, Los Angeles plays a heavy, punishing, defensive game in front of goaltender Jonathan Quick, and though he was lit up in the first couple of games, the team did not panic or change its approach. The Kings kept moving forward, meticulously assuming that, while they may have lost a couple of early battles, they would ultimately win the greater war.
Playoff futility has become a spring ritual for San Jose fans. Each year, general manager Doug Wilson makes subtle roster tweaks, bringing in veterans to shore up whichever area was exposed the previous year, while keeping the core of the club intact. Clearly, this approach needs to be revisited.
The Sharks have done the same thing, year after year, expecting different results. They have fired coaches, switched goalies, and shuffled periphery players of age and experience in and out of the lineup, and, while they have accumulated winning seasons with impressive numbers, playoff success has remained agonizingly elusive.
During the Kings improbable reverse sweep, the Sharks players who chipped in with good performances were depth players. Conspicuous in their absence from the score sheet were the big money guys, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture. Marleau and Thornton have been at the center of San Jose’s regular season dominance and post-season futility for almost a decade now, a fact Doug Wilson can no longer dismiss as coincidence or lack of support.
Rookies Thomas Hertl and Matthew Nieto were impressive, and defensemen Justin Braun, Jason Demers, and Matt Irwin acquitted themselves nicely, but they are not the club’s stars. On championship teams, the best players must be the best players, on the Sharks, the best players were rookies and depth guys, hence another early summer for San Jose.
Conversely, in the deciding seventh game, the Kings’ best players were Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar, the players who are being paid to elevate their games and their team when the stakes are the highest. Every time a Kings player had the puck, they made the smart play. They defended their own end and made it almost impossible for the Sharks to get the puck out of theirs.
San Jose was in perpetual disarray, throwing the puck to nobody in particular and failing to capitalize on several power play opportunities, including a lengthy two-man advantage.
For whatever reason, the Sharks remain incapable of playing the type of hockey which wins championships. They can, and probably will, fire head coach Todd McLellan, but it will not matter.
The Sharks must find a way to part with Marleau, Thornton, Burns, and Pavelski. When something does not work, it must be discarded and replaced with something which does. It is no easy task. All four players are highly skilled and beloved by Sharks fans, not to mention that Marleau and Thornton were just re-signed to extensions and have no trade clauses in their contracts.
If Doug Wilson wants to keep his job and deliver a championship to the Sharks long suffering fan base, he must shake up this roster. The Sharks have a cancer, and though it is made up of likable, talented players, it remains a cancer nonetheless.
To win Stanley Cups, a team needs leaders who hate to lose, an attitude which trickles down until it infects the entire locker room. The Sharks do not and have not had that player since Owen Nolan, who led them to their closest brush with greatness, the 2004 western conference finals.
This summer ought to prove interesting in San Jose, and if it was not already abundantly clear to Doug Wilson that massive change is called for, the Kings just put a huge exclamation point on it. Anyone watching game seven could see that one team was playing championship hockey, while the other looked lost.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.