Friday, January 16, 2015

The San Jose Sharks: One Hot Mess?

I stumbled upon an interesting article that had been retweeted by San Jose Sharks blogger and insider Kevin Kurz (@KKurzCSN). James Mirtle (@mirtle), a Toronto journalist, described what he believed was a dysfunction relationship within the Sharks organization. He cited to rumors that have been swirling that general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan have been butting heads, which may lead to the coach's dismissal by the end of this season. Mirtle offered the waiving of Adam Burish as an example of how the two have not been getting along. According to Mirtle, McLellan had wanted to utilize Burish more in games, but Wilson wanted to give the younger players more time on the ice and effectively waived Burish to ensure his wish was granted. To make matters worse, Mirtle claimed that Wilson did not even inform Burish personally and had even pretended to help the player by offering to make a favorable trade or move for him. Reading this was very surprising, as it directly pointed to mismanagement of the team.

Later in the day, Kurz issued an article about the relationship between Wilson and McLellan and what exactly happened in terms of the fate of Adam Burish. Kurz reached out to Wilson directly who categorically denied that there were any problems in his relationship with McLellan and that all coaching decisions were entirely up to the head coach. He admitted that while he did not speak to Burish directly about his being waived, he had informed Burish's agent who then informed the player. Wilson also stated that he never tells McLellan how to run the team and that they are on good terms.

As I read these articles, it made me also think about the general manager and head coach dynamic that turned into a complete catastrophe with the San Francisco 49ers organization. I am in no way suggesting that Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan are at odds or that either of them will be fired at the end of the season, but I did began to wonder what may be in store for the Sharks at the end of the season. The team certainly had an interesting summer as they rallied from what could be perceived as an embarrassing exit in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I use the words "could be perceived" because I believe that their defeat looked worse on paper than it actually was.

Let's backtrack a bit. In the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the San Jose Sharks were matched against the Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks had an explosive start winning both home games against a lackluster Kings team. By the third game, the Kings had started to regroup and lost to the Sharks in overtime. It was in the fourth game that the Kings returned to their former glorious 2012 Stanley Cup Championship form and went on win the next four games, defeating the Sharks, and eventually winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. It was a historic comeback, and Los Angeles became the fourth team in NHL history to win a playoff series after losing the first three games. The Sharks organization was shocked, and they began what the media dubbed "The Summer of Shame." While this came as a bitter loss to Sharks fans, I believe that is a half glass empty point of view. In the playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings morph into a monster team that steamrolls the competition. They seem to find ways to win the games that truly matter, and when they play in rhythm, they play some beautiful hockey. While it is disappointing to be beaten in the first round to a division rival, it's hard to be too down considering the team went on to become the champions.

From what I've read and heard from Sharks fans during "The Summer of Shame" is that there had been an expectation of change, or at least one really big change to refuel the championship expectations. Immediately following the Sharks exit from the playoffs, speculation started swirling over whether or not Doug Wilson and/or Todd McLellan would return the following season. At the time, I felt certain that at least Wilson would return, only because majority owner Hasso Plattner had stated that he knew relatively little about hockey operations and would rely mostly on his front office. I was unsure whether or not McLellan would return because he made an easy scapegoat for Wilson as to why the team had not met championship or bust expectations. However, I have the uneasy and cynical feeling that Wilson kept McLellan because he could later be blamed if the team did not meet expectations, yet again. Think of it this way, when there needs to be a shake up in management, who is the first to go? In most cases, the head coach is replaced because the general manager is essentially his boss. The only time a general manager would be fired first is if the owner or front office types demand a change. However, the new general manager often will select his own head coach and dismiss the former one. Thus, by staying the status quo, Wilson has the opportunity to dodge a bullet by offering McLellan as a scapegoat.

In any case, Wilson and McLellan returned to command the San Jose Sharks. In terms of the roster, there were few changes of note. They promoted an idea of a "tomorrow team" meaning that while Wilson and McLellan fully expected to continue to make the playoffs, they no longer felt that a Stanley Cup was as imminent. It was a tad confusing, but I think the idea was that rather than focusing on winning the Cup in 2014, the team would make tweaks in order to win the Cup within the next few years. There would be no rebuild like in Edmonton or Calgary, but there would be more focus on acquiring and developing younger talent to replace veterans. The biggest changes to the team were the buyout of Martin Havlat and the release of veteran defenseman Dan Boyle. I felt that Havlat's buyout would be more of an impact in the locker room where the team had difficulty finding the right chemistry than on the ice. I had heard from a few sources in the media that Havlat was notorious for being disliked by other players and the media and was one of the most difficult people to work with. One of the problems with the Sharks is they did not seem to have chemistry in the way great teams do. For instance, the New York Rangers rallied around new teammate Martin St. Louis (who is one of my absolute favorite hockey players) because he knows how to be a leader, and he is such a likeable person. When his mother passed away during their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he gave a very moving speech, and on the ice, you could watch his teammates play their hardest for him because he inspired such passion. It may be trite to say, but when players begin to play for each other, that is one of the intangible things that can elevate a team from good to great. The Sharks did not have that type of emotion, and it lead me to wonder from what I had heard about Havlat, if this might be a factor.

The release of Dan Boyle was also a big move for the Sharks in a way because he had been the heart and soul of the defense. However, he was getting older, and if Wilson wanted to promote his "tomorrow team" cutting Boyle fit into that plan. To fill the void, Brent Burns was moved back to defense. I thought this was a particularly wise move because Burns seemed to be a favorite among his teammates with his relaxed attitude and sense of humor. He would also be a young veteran who could mentor the younger defensemen like Matt Irwin and Matt Tennyson. Although Burns had some difficulty adjusting to the Sharks defensive scheme when he first arrived from the Minnesota Wild, I think he has a strong work ethic and wanted to be a central fixture on defense. As an outsider looking in, I felt this was perhaps the best move that Wilson made.

I think what most highlights what could be construed as friction between Wilson and McLellan is the acquisition of John Scott and Tye McGinn. While I would not say that they have a dysfunctional relationship, I believe that they are not necessarily on the same page in terms of how they envision the team. Todd McLellan is an excellent coach, and if he is fired at the end of the season, I believe it will be because he was not a good fit for Wilson's vision of the Sharks and not because he is an inadequate coach. Having come from the Detroit Red Wings, McLellan is familiar with a system that relies on fast skating and very solid defense. It is not to say that the Wings are a soft team because I do not think that at all, but they do not necessarily win their games with pure physical play. However, Doug Wilson seems to be looking at the competition within the Pacific Division and responding to the more physical nature and big bodies that the divisional opponents employ. Here is where the two differ, and it stems from Wilson's acquiring Scott and McGinn on a roster that already has Mike Brown and Raffi Torres.

When I first heard that Tye McGinn was traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the San Jose Sharks, I was thrilled. I still remember watching McGinn in his first fight with the Flyers. He was a big body who learned how to use his size to his advantage under the tutelage of the Broadstreet Bullies, unafraid of physical play, and had the potential to be at least an average scorer. He's young, which fit the "tomorrow team" theme, and he could continue to learn to be physical with Torres as a mentor. Not to mention, he was the brother of former Shark Jamie McGinn, which could possibly facilitate friendships with his teammates. I recall Jamie being good friends with Logan Couture, so I figured it might help Tye adjust to his new team. Then Wilson brought in John Scott as a free agent. I didn't quite understand this move because he is basically an enforcer (but in the modern way), and the team already had Brown and Torres. However, it was revealed that Torres was injured and would be missing a large chunk of the season, so the move made more sense. I assumed Wilson would adjust the team once Torres returned.

The only thing is that I feel that with a roster that has Brown, Torres, McGinn, and Scott, despite them not all being active, is not quite the team that McLellan is familiar with handling. When you think back on the days when Ben Eager was on the roster, he was a big body who could get physical, but I do not feel that McLellan utilized him in the best capacity nor was exactly sure how. And again, there is nothing wrong with that. He came through a system that relied mostly on speed, the dangerous hands of Pavel Datsyuk, and a shut-down defense. Todd McLellan is a great coach, but with the roster that Wilson has given him, I am wondering is this is the right fit. Either Wilson needs to give McLellan more of the players that fit his scheme or find a coach who utilizes more physical bodies (possibly like now former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle). So are the San Jose Sharks one hot mess? Absolutely not. I am inclined to believe that Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan do have a good relationship, but I do question whether they see the road to winning as the same road.