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10 must do's this summer
Sharks need to be proactive in order to keep hockey relevant
4/20/09 - By Mike Lee -

Two weeks have passed since the Sharks were so unceremoniously bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs but the sting of losing is still painful. What's worse is the fact that the Sharks have become irrelevant not only at the national level, but at the local level as well. Losing so quickly in the playoffs after winning so often during the regular season raises many questions about the direction San Jose needs to take to be a viable contender for a championship, but nobody is even bothering to ask those questions in the Bay Area right now. Hockey season is over as far as the Bay Area media is concerned, and that stings a lot more.

All the signs pointed to an early exit, but the glow of a President's Trophy blinded many of the faithful. With a tarnished regular season record all that's left to celebrate, the Sharks ownership group gets to decide how it needs to proceed.

The group of players the Sharks entered the 2008-09 campaign with, was for the most part, the same core group of holdovers from the previous season. That being the same group that was taken to seven games by a lower seeded Calgary Flames team and then eliminated by a lower seeded Dallas Stars squad.

A 40-year-old Jeremy Roenick saved the day against Calgary in that decisive Game 7, but there was no answer for the Stars. Losing in four overtimes somehow left the Sharks brass with the impression that the core group of players that would return the following season would have what it takes to get the job done come the spring of 2009.

Granted, Sharks general Manager Doug Wilson did solidify his blueline by adding defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, but in order to make the pieces fit under the league imposed salary cap, he was forced to send defenseman Craig Rivet packing.

In an environment like the playoffs, guys like Rivet are worth their weight in gold, but Blake's scoring ability lured Wilson into dealing the gritty Rivet to Buffalo.

Shoring up the lineup in the toughness department is something the Sharks stood pat on until the trade deadline in March, when Travis Moen and Kent Huskins were added to the mix. San Jose gave up quite a bit for the pair of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents, and now has to decide if they want to bring either back, or take the compensatory picks that will be allocated if the two players sign elsewhere.

There are plenty of issues that the Sharks still face, but fret not. I have all the answers. Here are the ten things San Jose start with in order to avoid another post debacle like they did this year.

1) Start at the Top - Sharks president Greg Jamison has already publicly stated that GM Doug Wilson's job is safe. Too bad. While Wilson gets an "A" for calming the season ticket holder base in the past with his calm disposition, the fact of the matter is his roster is ill equipped to do any damage when it counts most. The ownership group gave him the resources to press the salary cap, but handing out big money, multi-year deals to duds like Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo have hamstrung his ability to do much beyond what he has on his roster today. If the Sharks were willing to change the attitude in the clubhouse by bringing in Todd McLellan, then they should be equally eager to do it at the GM position. Outline a timetable that makes it clear to Wilson what he has to do and how long he has to execute on the plan. That plan should include a championship during the 2009-2010 season. Nothing less is sufficient anymore.

2) Bulk Up in Front of the Net - I hate to say it but if a team can't get motivated to play hard when it counts, then you either a) don't have the heart to compete, or b) you don't have the talent to compete. In the Sharks case, I think it's a little of both. The one thing the Sharks relied on during the regular season was their team speed. In the playoffs clutching and grabbing is employed more often, because teams can get away with more during the playoffs. Team speed means nothing on the power play, because most teams will setup up their power play units before attempting to score. In the Sharks case, their lack of presence in the front of the net has always been a killer when it counts. Lose a few fringe players and try to fill your roster with guys that are willing to pay the price.

3) Burn the Banners - The Sharks aren't the first top seeded team to fail in the first round of the playoffs, but that won't bring much solace to those fans, who have been paying big money in support of this team for close to two decades. Hanging a banner in celebration of their President's Trophy would only rub salt in the wound. Every division championship banner already serves as a subtle reminder to the failures of seasons past. The only banner that counts is the one they give you for being the last team standing in June, so the Sharks should lower all existing banners on opening night and burn them at center ice.

4) "C" is for Character - I'll go on record by saying that I've been a huge supporter of Patrick Marleau, but it's become evident that he needs to focus on making his immediate line better, not an entire lineup. His performance in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs seemed to be a breakthrough in the "lead by example" department, but his encore fell flat. Granted he did play through in injury in the Anaheim series, but you don't need a healthy knee to motivate those around you. In fact, you could say that his injury could have served to inspire. It didn't, and that's why he needs to relinquish the captain's responsibility. Give that job to Dan Boyle. The guy played like a true champion, even down to the final seconds in Game 6. His demeanor is more suited for a team that needs to be kicked in the pants. I've heard the arguments about how guys like Steve Yzerman didn't have to be vocal to be a good captain, but guys like Yzerman didn't have the responsibility of trying to lead a team that has consistently underachieved.

5) End the Experiment - I don't think it's a stretch to assume that the Claude Lemieux experiment has run its course, and that Lemieux won't be back next season. Hopefully Jeremy Roenick comes to his senses as well and decides to hang his skates up. The whole reason both of these guys were even given chances to play again was to have veteran leadership in the locker room. The reason both shouldn't be back is that a) it didn't work and b) it's high time the players Wilson decides to keep figure out how to motivate themselves. The Sharks need to commit roster spots to players that can score or defend. Preferably by self motivated players.

6) Bolster the Blueline - Focusing attention on the blueline is probably the last place you're thinking the Sharks need to add any help, but some changes are required there before they can address some of the other personnel changes needed to get over the playoff hump. First, Wilson needs to bring back Rob Blake at a reduced price tag. San Jose can't afford to bring back a 40+ year-old defenseman at $5 million a season, regardless of the performance Blake turned in during the Anaheim series. If Blake really wants to win, he'll lop a 1 to 1.5 million dollars off the cost of returning in order to free up some money to bring in some more toughness up front. If Blake returns, it's also time to move Christian Ehrhoff. The defenseman got off to a hot start at the beginning of the regular season, then tailed off, even though the Sharks game plan emphasized scoring from the blueline. The strategy was tailor made for Ehrhoff, but he failed to seize the opportunity.

7) Retire the Sharks Head - It was a cute gimmick when the arena opened back in 1993, but let's face it, the shark head needs to go. If someone can convince me that Genghis Kahn or Ivan the Terrible made their armies storm through inflatable circus props before battle, then I'll let this slide. If you can't, then move the dumb thing out of the playing area. I get the fact that the kids love it, so move it onto the concourse, where the Shark-wannabes can play on it before games. It's always appeared to me as a trophy. If you want to hang trophies in the rafters, sling a duck's head or an octopus up there after you actually knock one of them off in the playoffs.

8) Commitment to Youth - The injury issues that the Sharks faced last season, created an opportunity for San Jose 's prospects, but their inability to produce created a revolving door in Worcester . Injuries are a part of the game, so it's safe to assume that San Jose 's youngsters will get some of the same opportunity next season. Unless they're dealing with a blue chip prospect, the Sharks need to have a little more patience with the youngsters that they do bring up. Hopefully players like Jamie McGinn and Derek Joslin get the chance to prove themselves in an extended tryout next year. Getting rid of Lemieux and Roenick should make those opportunities more available.

9) Banish the Underperformers - The playoffs were just a microcosm of one of the biggest issues that plagued the Sharks from mid-January to the end of their run. That being the lack of players ready to pick up the slack when the top liners were shut down. Those top line players carried the load for most of the regular season, bolstered by a new defensive corps that had four score more than 30 points. With the scoring being addressed by the top liners and defenseman, the Sharks needed the checking line to fill the physical void that was lacking the season prior, especially in the playoffs. Players like Marcel Goc and Tomas Plihal don't get the minutes to build on the scoring numbers, but the opportunities that they did get weren't being used to punish other teams around. The Ducks re-exposed San Jose's lack of commitment by second and third tier players who been collecting a pay check for too long.

10) Get Tough - It should be a given that the Sharks need to toughen up in the playoffs. This suggestion isn't focused on the roster, but rather at the local media and fan base. The Sharks have had 17 chances to get it right, but when they fail, there's nothing in terms of backlash. This may be the only thing written on the state of the Sharks between now and September. Don't count on much attention being paid by local news outlets this summer. Hockey will be a 4th tier sport in the Bay Area until the Sharks win something. You'll see blurbs on personnel changes in the paper, but that's about it. It's time to get tough. The Sharks plan on hosting a "State of the Franchise" open house on Thursday, which will include Boyle, Thornton, Wilson and Sharks president Greg Jamison. Hopefully those in attendance really move past the lip service and let the franchise know how awful it is for hockey to be irrelevant in the Bay Area.


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