Monday, September 1, 2014
Rough Summer Waters For San Jose Sharks
In many ways, this has been the Summer of Bizarro for the NHL.
On one hand, traditional-leaning teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs have invested in forward-thinking analytics. On the other hand, the San Jose Sharks — a team known for being steady and keeping things close to the vest — have engaged in a turmoil unseen in franchise history.
It all started with the infamous loss to the Los Angeles Kings, notable for blowing a 3-0 series lead (also notable for being the only series that took the eventual Stanley Cup champs to seven games). Then it veered into discord about rebuilding, then clarifying (re: backtracking) on statements by GM Doug Wilson, then signing veteran tough guy John Scott and no one else, then stripping captain Joe Thornton and alternate Patrick Marleau of leadership letters, then Raffi Torres underwent surgery for the same surgery he had last year due to an infection.
Somewhere in between, the Sharks also got an outdoor game at the San Francisco 49ers new stadium. For NorCal hockey fans, this has been the only bright news in an otherwise strange summer.
On paper, the Sharks still have a fairly strong forward group. Their blueline is a bit thin, and Antii Niemi — one year removed from a Vezina nomination — comes with all sorts of questions in goal, along with Alex Stalock chomping at the bit. Thus, the Sharks haven't really lost anything in the lineup other than a fading Dan Boyle and often-scratched Martin Havlat. Team pundits are high on defensive prospect Mirco Mueller, and greater responsibilities will go towards emerging young defensemen Justin Braun, Jason Demers, and Matt Irwin, all under the watchful eye of Larry Robinson.
So are things actually in dire straits? Or is it a media/fan reaction during the summer doldrums?
The answer is unfortunately unclear.
Doug Wilson talked about wanting to institute a culture shift in the team, one where the younger players such as Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture would take a larger leadership role. Larry Robinson was recently quoted as hoping the removal of the captaincy would allow Thornton to focus better on his role as an elite playmaker in the latter stages of his career.
There are many ifs surrounding the team. If Thornton and Marleau can check their egos and simply become high-level role players, the team is better for it. If Couture, Vlasic, and others can step up and assume a stronger part of the team identity, the team is better for it. If players like Mueller take the opportunity presented to them, then the team is better for it.
Those are some pretty big ifs, which marks this as a significant transitional year for the team. Coming out of it unscathed isn't totally out of the question. However, it will take a balance of effort, maturity, and a different kind of leadership to get there. Sharks fans will have to hold their breath while the result unfolds, and a verdict probably won't be truly seen until halfway through the season.