Sunday, February 24, 2013

The taming of the Shark

I did not keep my word.
I have failed to write anything in months. I wanted to but something kept me away.
First it was the anger of the, then, never ending lockout. Later it was the thrill of the return of NHL hockey. Then it was the astonishment created by the Sharks' fast start and a little later the disappointment of the unexplained struggles.
NHL hockey has returned to us: fast, loud, thumping, exciting. It is all we remembered and more. There are a ton of surprises. The Ducks were not supposed to be this good, Habs and Leafs were supposed to blow, Oilers were supposed to be better, Caps were supposed to rebound
And the Sharks were supposed to  ...
Well it is hard to tell what the Sharks were supposed to do. After the disappointment of last season many expected the coach to be let go an/or major changes to be made in the lineup. Some even whispered about the GM losing his job. Somehow, none of it happened. Doug Wilson is still in his high chair, he confirmed Todd Mclellan for  another year, and the annual bottom lines shakeup has occurred. The two "major" events of the post-season: Hiring Larry Robinson as AC and bringing "back" an aging, by some standards, Brad Stuart. The rest? Some people have been let go, some other people have been brought in ... and, of course, another annual event for the Sharks: the yearly Doug Wilson reclamation project: Scott Gomez.
All good then, on paper this was looking to shape up like an improvement over last year's .. debacle .. for lack of a better word.
And the Sharks started like a possessed team. The first four games in particular  were  of the "bash your opponent" nature. They were dominating all areas of the ice, they were scoring in any situation, they seemed fast and very compact. Then came the overtimes and shootouts. Sharks kept winning. Fans and media were talking about a Sharks team that can roll through anything the game throws at them. But to the more astute viewers, something was wrong. Then the scoring problems and losing started, culminating, last night, with a rather embarrassing loss to a Dallas team that, recently, has had a hard time keeping the puck out of their own net.
So, how is this possible? After that fast start, how can it be that this team has reached such levels of scoring impotence?
Well, there are various factors at play. First, those with some sense knew the season will start with all sorts of oddities. no training camp, not pre-season games, everybody will be in "tune-up" mode when the season got on the way. the Sharks were among the teams with quite a few "active" players during the lockout, either abroad or in North America's minor leagues. Some of the players who did not play got needed recovery/rest time. It worked wonders .. for a while. The the other teams started getting in "game shape", started finding out who they were, and they started pushing back against the Sharks.
No problem, the Sharks needed only to adapt and work harder. Unfortunately, it is not happening.
There are several problems at play:
  • The Sharks are getting older. Several years ago, Doug Wilson was preaching size, speed and youth. And the Sharks were big, young and relatively fast. Over time, adjustments were "required" to get them over the hill and into the idyllic garden of Lord Stanley's Cup. And slowly the youth and speed has been traded away. What the powers at be call "the core" got older. Draft picks were being handed in exchange for "experience and leadership" and the remaining picks did not exactly bring much of note into the farm. The result: a team that, man for man, cannot keep up with what seem to be today's good teams. No problem, that can be rectified through game speed, like the Wings ( a team Doug Wilson tried to emulate for a while) have done for years. Yea but:
  • The Sharks have become predictable. For the most part, the system put in place by Todd Mclellan has worked, initially. But everybody knows it now. Sure there were changes and small variations but the core of it is still as it was 5 yrs ago. The Coach has tried to change things but got scared when it didn't work and went back to his small bag of known tricks. Another problem with the system is that, it seems, all four lines have to play the same. Now that makes things consistent across the board and allows for the musical chairs game with the on-ice personnel to be done without many surprises .. or so it would seem. But it is not so. Because, it would seem, the system, offensively at least, is tailored around the likes of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. now, while the Sharks have players like Couture or Pavelski that can fit well in that system, the majority of the offensive core simply cannot. they can try, and even succeed for short periods of time and at far lesser levels but the truth is painfully obvious to all with a keen eye and a few working neurons, it simply doesn't work. And it makes you predictable. And it shortchanges, no, ignores particular sets of talents other players have. More on this later.
  • Farm, well there really isn't one. The Sharks farm is, currently, a feeder for bottom lines. there simply are NO prospects projected to blossom into a top 2-3 D-man or a viable top 6 offensive player, currently playing in Worchester. Most teams have a hope or two in their farm systems, whom they bring up once in a while for a short taste at the sweetness of the big boys game, the Sharks have NONE. Doug Wilson tactics have left the cupboard quite bare. There was/is some hope in the goaltending department but while there is talent, I am not so sure about the coaching their are getting. And there is the problem of the scouting staff and tactics: in my humble opinion is completely inadequate. One , very sore, point to be made: in the recent years, they have, almost entirely, ignored skating. I am sorry but what is one of the main requisites for hockey? And look what players have long careers in NHL: those who can skate.  
  • Team culture: much has been said among fans and some media, about the team culture in SJ. Easy going, family friendly, country club atmosphere. It is all true. I am not going to waste a lot of time on this, even though it is , probably , one of the main reasons this team has not won a cup during those years of excellence in the regular season and one of the main reasons they are faltering now, but I will give you an example that sums up all that has been said about this team's "philosophy". Some games ago, the Sharks lost to the Coyotes. in a post-game interview, the Captain, Joe Thornton, made a startling statement : he said he thought they played a good game, and that he is COMFORTABLE with the way they are playing. They have won one out of six games since, against a tired St Louis team featuring their third string goalie. Comfortable!
So how do you fix this?
There are, currently , a few trains of thought in this area:
  • The bottom six are not producing, must make changes . Well they just made changes last summer, and the summer before, and the one before that, and the one before that. No matter what they did , the bottom six simply failed to make notable contribution to scoring. Sure the current crop doesn't sounds very impressive but other teams have the same problem and they still make it work, more or less but definitely more than the Sharks. Maybe the problem is not just the on ice personnel, but it is also in the game they are asked to play. And we go back to the system implemented by the coach, a system that takes away from players' strengths and sacrifices their talents on the altar of the system. sure bringing new faces in might have positive results for a while, it had in the past, but it never lasted
  • Trade for a top 4 winger who can score. This once rings true more than it is obvious. The Sharks have a bevy of Centers but no natural scoring wingers. an no, Clowe is not a natural scoring winger. All their centers can score, but none is a bonafide sniper. The Sharks tried with Heatley for a while but he was one man and got slowed down by his skating , injuries and natural decline ... and I often felt .. well .. the system. The Sharks basically moved Heatley for Havlat but, while he is a winger and can score, he is more of a chance maker. He opens space not just for himself but for others, he is fairly strong with the puck and very crafty with it. But he is not the type of scorer we are talking about here. Not to mention that, after being tossed around the bottom lines for reasons known only to the coach, he seems now lost and unsure of what his place on the ice is. So yes this "solution" could help improve the Sharks ... but is it enough?
  • Fire the Coach. I have never been that impressed with Todd Mclellan. Yes he took the Sharks to consecutive WC Finals but he inherited a dominant team that , at the time of his hiring, also got a much needed boost on both D an O so naturally it was a better team than Ron Wilson had the previous year. I am not trying to knock down Todd Mclellan's achievements with this team but the fact is , since those trips to WCF, the team has gotten progressively worse and while many put the blame on players, Management etc, clearly a measure of fault needs to be put on the head coach himself. In the past couple of years, the on-ice personnel has changed, save for the core. They changed goalies, defenders, offense .. to no avail. Also , the past few years, The assistant coaches have been swapped to the point that only J. Woodcroft is left from the "original" crew of assistants. Whose turn is it now?
  • Don't move a finger. Stay put, let them work it out and figure it out for themselves. this team has a fairly solid core perfectly capable of getting themselves to brighter days. They have had a few sparks here and there in the last three games that would indicate something is moving in the right direction so there is a chance things will return to "normal". More effort on the part of the players, a few tweaks from the coaches and they might start winning again, and probably be consistent about it. There are a few bright spots: the goaltending of Niemi has been better than we've seen from him in the past (it still is not satisfactory for this grouchy "writer" and probably will never be unless he magically drags this team to a finals appearance, which I find extremely unlikely because, in my not so humble opinion he lacks a good number of qualities I find necessary for a goalie to be called "elite" in today's NHL), but save for a number of soft goals and flops and thuds that earned him the nickname, "sloth" among fans, he has been done a good enough job to enable his team to win on most nights.
Now, one has to wonder, is any of the above "solutions", individually, a viable one that will put the Sharks back into the top teams in the league, back into the "Cup Contender" category? Given the problems I listed, I tend to say : no.
Yes , each "solution" listed can make a difference on its own and help the Sharks regain some measure of pride and points but I have a sneaking suspicion none of them, individually will fully straighten the ship, because nonce of them will cover enough of the problems listed.
Ultimately it will the GM's decision, and the history say , he will make a couple of trades and hope for the best.
This blog entry would not be complete without my own personal outrageous and idiotic solution to save the world .. I mean the Sharks:
Give them this following homestand. do not touch anything for a week more see if there is anything to the few bright moments they have had in the last few games. If they can't pull themselves out, fire the coach, bring in a new one with some pedigree (Ruff is available wink wink) or try to pry John Hynes ( a guy I like and who I think could make a good NHL coach) from the baby Pens, and give him the rest of the season to see what he has to work with. then, in the summer, make the tough decisions.
If they manage to right the ship a little bit, get a couple of wins out of the three games they have at home, then  make a couple of tweaks and let them play the rest of the season out. Then, based on the results at the end of the season, make the tough decisions.
Of course, there is the third option. Fire the GM, let him bring his coach, trade away the old core, fix the drafting and development at the farm ( another thing that sorely lacks behind other organizations) and start the long and painful process of rebuilding. I am fine with that. In any case, this team will never win a Cup with the current lineup, coach and culture, baring a miracle, ofcourse.

Bash Away

PS, I was going to put in individual performances from the main names in the line-up but the team's record sort is sort of self-explanatory. They mostly sucked, almost to a man.