The San Jose Sharks are consistently one of the top teams in the western conference and have also been picked as a Cup contender almost every year since the early 2000s. So why have they never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in their 22 seasons as a franchise. Is it coaching? Management? Players? Does the warm spring weather make everyone forget hockey come April?
Whatever keeps this team afloat during the season has seemed to fall apart in recent post-season runs. It isn’t always bad though. Who could forget the 2003-04 season where, despite earning the second seed in the west, they were still ‘underdogs’ against the St. Louis Blues (coached by Joel Quenneville) and the STACKED Colorado Avalanche (check out the roster and you’ll see what I mean)? Even though they lost to the Calgary Flames in the franchise’s first Western Conference finals appearance, I would still call that a successful season.
Since then, San Jose has yet to miss the playoffs. And not only have they made the playoffs, but they’ve had one of the top records in the West a majority of the time. Four of those years they were either the first or second seed. Including the 2008-09 President’s Cup-winning team that was bounced in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks.
So if you’re a Sharks fan, you have a lot more going for you than other fans around the league. Lets not forget that the Edmonton Oilers haven’t seen a playoff game since 2006 when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals as the eighth seed. But you also have things to be desired. Some fans would rather their team win the Cup and be bad for years because they can hang their hat on that one cup forever.
In 2013-14, the Sharks blew the series in dramatic fashion. It finally looked like the curse was over. They scored 13 goals in two games at home over the L.A. Kings, and then won the next game in overtime to take a 3-0 lead in the series. How does the team celebrate the series lead? By blowing it up. The Kings scored 13 goals in three games while limiting the Sharks to four. When it came down to game seven, the thought was that the team would turn it around at home and at least make the game interesting. However, as captain Joe Thornton described, L.A. “swallowed them up on defense,” and took the contest 5-1.
There are a number of things wrong with this series but first and foremost, what is going on with this franchise? There could be many reasons why a team struggles at the end of a season, but these many years of success while struggling in the playoffs is starting to make people (and this writer) wonder what is ‘wrong’ down in San Jose.
Whenever a team comes close but doesn’t win it all, they tend to change the roster, ever so slightly. The Sharks have done this in an attempt to correct their ‘issues’ in recent years. They traded Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek in 2009 for Danny Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle for Brent Burns in 2011, and Ryan Clowe in 2013. They also didn’t resign Mike Grier in 2009, Evgeni Nabokov in 2010, and Danny Heatley in 2011.
To counter their losses in free agency, they’ve brought in plenty of talent through signings of their own. Jeremy Roenick in 2007, Rob Blake in 2008, and Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi in 2010. The results have been the same.
So that can’t be the problem. What about management and coaching? Ron Wilson and Todd McLellan. Ron Wilson had a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs and missed the post-season three straight years while being replaced well after midseason by Randy Carlyle in 2011-12. So maybe that was the problem, though I’d say not considering Todd McLellan won a Calder Cup and had five successful years in Houston with the Aeros prior to coming to San Jose.
Leadership could be an issue. As good as Joe Thornton has been in his career as a captain, maybe it is time for a change. Your captain is the one who you’re supposed to rally behind at these trying times. Joe Thornton is 34 years old and has some good hockey years left in him so taking away the ‘C’ might not be the best thing to do at this point but there’s always the option of dual captainship to freshen things up.
One final thing to look at is the model of bringing players up through the system. San Jose and Worcester have been affiliated since 2006 and in that time 38 players have made the jump from the AHL to the NHL. For an example of how to bring players through the minors, let’s look at the Detroit Red Wings. In the same time the two Shark teams have been affiliated, Grand Rapids has produced 65 NHL players for the Red Wings. Granted, this is the model for near perfection, but perfection is what you should always strive for. Lots of individuals go into the development process so it’s tough to pinpoint changes to make. Worcester has not yielded results for San Jose or themselves, missing the playoffs four straight seasons.
When it comes down to it, good teams will find a way to win and San Jose has done it in the regular season. However, come playoff time all rules are off. You have to find a way to win. Leadership, system, and coaching all play a part. You can replace and retool until the end of time but at this point there is little excuse. San Jose has clutch caliber players and they need to win soon because the clock is ticking. Players will age, be lost to free agency, or traded, with no guarantee that future draft picks will work out.
It can be hard to pin down just one reason behind a regular playoff collapse. The post-season is anything but reliable. However, the Sharks need to find a change that’ll take.
San Jose is rolling the dice with the their talent and time, and so far they’ve hit double zeros.