Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where do the Sharks go from here?

Regular season hockey and playoff hockey are two different animals. The level of play is elevated and the intensity is dialed up a few notches. Most veteran clubs are able to flip that switch and take their game to the next level in the push for Lord Stanley. The Red Wings struggled a bit down the stretch (emphasis on "a bit")but turned it on and swept Columbus. Anaheim is only 2 years removed from skating the Cup and their roster is chalked full of guys with a myriad of post-season experience. The San Jose Sharks made moves in the off season (Boyle, Blake, and Lukowich) to bring in players who had won a Cup. They were supposed to be the perfect compliment to the Sharks young, battle tested core. Marleau, Thornton, and Nabokov. These players are the "core" that Todd McLellan referenced when asked who needed to step up. Simply put: They didn't.
It's not that the Sharks aren't lovable guys. Who wouldn't want Joe Pavelski over for a barbecue? Thornton seems as laid back as anyone and Marleau is a normal, quiet guy. But post-season hockey isn't the place for "nice guys" to hang out. The Stanley Cup playoffs are an arduous grind of will and determination. The desire in each individual that they will not tolerate losing. The Ducks were busy blocking shots, hustling for loose pucks, and basically dismantling the Sharks on the counter-attack. The game plan was simple enough: Let the Sharks control the play, keep them on the perimeter, and then strike quickly on the counter-attack. Sure the Sharks out-shot the Ducks, but many of those shots were not of the quality variety. The one X-factor of the series was the battle in net. Rookie, Jonas Hiller played out of his mind and it was clear that he was on top of his game. He shut the Sharks out twice, won the first 2 games at HP Pavilion, and only allowed 10 goals in 6 games. Nabokov played average at best.
This has been a recurring theme for the boys in teal. Unfortunately as a career observer of this team, it was clear that Game 1 was more than just a typical loss. Hiller asserted himself as a dominant force that would not be beaten easily. He had wrestled the starting job late in the year from J.S. Gieguere who led the Ducks to 2 finals and won a Cup. The Sharks looked puzzled, and by Game 6, clearly a frustrated bunch. The Ducks out-hustled, out-classed, and out-played the Sharks and deserved to win the series.
So what now?? Blow up a team that won the President's trophy? A regular season prince charming that turns into a pumpkin at midnight when the playoffs start? Clearly something is missing. Patrick Marleau has had success in the playoffs (single handedly beat Colorado to send Sharks to West Final in 2004) and has been apart of some not so memorable moments (the goal against in Game 4 against Detroit in 2007 to tie the game when he went for an empty net). Do you strip Marleau of the Captaincy? If you do that, can you afford to keep him around? Do you give the "C" to Jumbo Joe? Let's face it, the jury is still out on Thornton's playoff legacy also. What do you get in exchange for a Marleau or a Thornton? I'm sure plenty of teams would entertain the idea. Nabby has been shaky in the last few post seasons. It is time to ask the question if this team will ever go where it thinks it's destined to with Nabby between the pipes?
Then you have the next tier of players, who any coach will tell you are a critical part of a teams success in the playoffs. Joe Pavelski played poor. He didn't win any of those individual battles (minus him punching out Ryan Whitney) that make Lil Joe such a valuable player. Milan Michalek pulls a Houdini every post season and completely vanishes. He is big, he is fast, he is immensely talented. He is also an underachiever and seems to lack a "killer instinct".It might be wise for Doug Wilson to explore his trade value. Clowe is tough, but needs players around him playing at a high level in order for him to be successful. Cheechoo may have run his course in San Jose and his "shoot the puck at any cost" philosophy has worn thin on this Sharks fan. Cheechoo may have played his last game for the Sharks. Setoguchi played average at best, he is capable of more. Marcel Goc is a waste of roster space, and Mike Grier's best days (if you are comfortable calling them that) are certainly behind him. That about sums up the state of the forwards. 6 playoff games, 7 goals by forwards. Not so hot.
The defense had been such a bright spot all regular season. The Sharks got seemingly nightly offensive contributions from their blue-liners and the Blake, Boyle and Lukowich experiment drew rave reviews for 82 regular season contests. Dan Boyle had a great series and was the best Shark in the playoffs, hands down. He is an amazing talent and a player that you can build a defensive core around. He is absolutely mentally tough enough and is a treat to watch skate. Rob Blake led the Sharks in shots in the playoffs, but at times looked slow and I suspect injured. I would guess his back didn't hold up as well as he would have liked. Vlasic is young enough that he has time, but he needs to be more assertive with his puck handling and seems like he can be rattled when the pressure is on. Too many times he gripped his stick to tight and cost himself a scoring chance. He was the worst Sharks D-man in the series. Not to say that Christian Ehrhoff didn't give Pickles a run for his money. Error-hoff made the same bone-headed plays that Sharks fans have come to expect. He has a rocket of a shot, but lacks any accuracy whatsoever. What good is a bullet shot that goes 3 feet wide? He is a brilliant skater but routinely is out of position and constantly makes very poor decisions in his own end. Douglass Murray wasn't physical enough and the Ducks were able to set up shop in front of Nabby all series. Lukowich played good at times and not so good others. Overall the Ducks D out performed the Sharks D. It was a complete dismantling of a team with expectations higher than ever.
The following is a list of Sharks players who I feel could be on the way out. This list is as objective as can be and I am merely applying logic and my hockey I.Q. to support why these players may be expendable.
Public enemy #1. Captain Patrick Marleau (Does this guy ever get mad? He is the leader, the leadership failed). #2. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov (Had his chance and it just might be time to try someone else). #3. Milan Michalek (Lacks heart and vanishes in post season). #4. Jonathan Cheechoo (2 years on the decline. May still possess some trade value). #5. Mike Grier (2 years on the decline). #6. Christian Ehrhoff (Lacks focus and intensity). #7. Rob Blake (5 Mill Per a little steep). #8. Joe Thornton (6 goals in 40 playoff games, needs to play with more edge in playoffs). #9. Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Still young, but hasn't performed well in playoffs). #10. Marcel Goc (If this guy is a true defensive forward, shouldn't he be good defensively?).

Anyone of these players may not be back next year. I could see Doug Wilson being able to justify moving anyone of these players for those reasons. Only a handful of Sharks I feel are not trade bait. Devin Setoguchi could be a 40 goal scorer next year. Joe Pavelski is tough and I feel is an ideal second line center. Dan Boyle is the foundation of the D. He can QB the Power Play for the next 5 years. Ryane Clowe and Torrey Mitchell are good, young players and have bright futures in the NHL. Aside from these players, I could see anyone else getting shipped out of town.
The Sharks have lost to an inferior team 4 out of 5 years. (I don't include Detroit in 07 even though the Sharks blew a golden opportunity in that series). This team has come up short too many times and change is needed. For whatever reason, they lack that killer instinct you would expect from a team called "The SHAKRS"! The accountability begins with the leadership and trickles down. Younger players look to Marleau and Thornton and Nabokov for how to act. If they see the veterans with fear in their eyes, it will undoubtedly affect the youngsters. They did the "fire the coach" thing last year, this year it may be time to fire the Captain.

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