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Stumbling out of the gate
Wilson's apathy pointing Sharks in wrong direction
10/16/17 - By Mike Lee -

Four games into the 2017-18 NHL season and the San Jose Sharks are at a crossroads. Just two season removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson placed his bets on his Cup Finals roster to repeat their success even though they tripped a year ago. With essentially the same roster intact, Wilson placed his own destiny in the hands of that core lineup to rekindle some of the magic that saw them sweep through the first three rounds of the playoffs in the Spring of 2016 without as much as a hiccup. That bet is starting to look like lost money as the Sharks have floundered against three teams that they would have handled easily two seasons ago.

Last year's mediocre regular season and first-round playoff exit were the first signs that Wilson's aging core had more downside than potential. Led by a 38 year-old Joe Thornton, the Sharks seem to be showing the grey in their beards even more than ever. Thornton's point production dropped 32 points last season and he's done little in four games to suggest that it was a fluke.

Time is a cruel thing to a professional athlete, and Thornton is starting to show signs of it. He has a single assist in four games, and hasn't shown the same flashes that made him an assist factory like in season past.

Sharks captain Joe Pavelski is another big money player the Sharks need to produce. Through four games, he's also only produced a single assist. Pavelski's role goes far beyond scoring, but he's been lost on the ice the past 8 months. The shine is starting to tarnish on a player that's known for sticking his nose in tight places to make the machine work.

San Jose's team speed was exposed in that Stanley Cup Final by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Pavelski was one of the players put under a microscope following that defeat. The Wisconsin native skates like he's downing Kringle and cheese kurds before every game. His ability to disrupt games by deflecting pucks in front of the net seems to have disappeared.

Of course. Opposing defenses have a lot to say about that. After the Sharks used that approach to generate timely goals in 2016, teams around the league started to figure out that you could control that offensive approach by floating their forwards higher in shooting lanes when on defense. Those skaters started to block a lot of the shots that Pavelski would typically tip.

It's no mystery. Last season, the Sharks averaged 29.9 shots per game which ranked 19th in the NHL). In their Stanley Cup season, they averaged 30.4 (11th in the NHL), and 31.6 (5th) the season before that. Fewer pucks to the net means fewer scoring opportunities.

Now they are averaging 31.8 shots per game through 4 games this season, but they had a 41 shot output performance on Saturday night against the New York Islanders that generated few real scoring opportunities. I'll go as far as to say that the statistician was extremely generous in the 3-1 loss to the Islanders. They scored three goals against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 5-2 opening night loss that netted 35 shots on goal.

The Sharks have continued for the most part, to implement the big blast approach on offense. The lone exception to that was the Sharks 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabers, when they scored all three goals from inside the dots.

That game offered some enlightenment for San Jose that went ignored two days later in the 3-1 loss to the Islanders. The insistence to ignore those successes and fall back into a style that has led to three losses in four games on top of their failures last season is all you need to know about this team and / or coaching staff.

Head coach Peter DeBoer likes to play the odds. He'll repeatedly rely on a given approach and never deviates from that approach. It's either stubbornness or a lack of creativity. It's likely a little bit of both.

The real culprit in all of this is Wilson. He didn't make any major changes in the off season other than to let Patrick Marleau walk. Marleau's exodus wasn't necessarily the worst decision that Wilson made given the dollars that the centerman convinced Toronto to hand over, but his unwillingness to fill Marleau's void will turn out to be Wilson's big mistake.

Marleau collected just under $7 million a season in each of his last 4 seasons as a Sharks, which freed up a big chunk of change for Wilson to supplement his roster. He did nothing with that money. With ticket prices increasing significantly in the offseason, it seems as if Sharks owner Hasso Plattner is applying some of his German business acumen to the bottom line, rather than building an NHL contender.

That or Wilson just whiffed on his duty to build the most competitive budget possible within the constraints of his budget. There has been mention by Wilson that he intends to sign a big money, big impact free agent this upcoming off-season, but it begs the question of why he didn't do anything this past summer? Marleau had committed himself to Toronto in July. He also had to have some contingencies in place if Marleau were to walk. Nothing ever materialized.

Perhaps he thought that fans wouldn't notice. There's a shiny new banner hanging at SAP. Perhaps that will fool some fans? That banner celebrates the big club's AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, who made it to the AHL's Calder Cup Semi-Finals.

So as the organization that has become synonymous with celebrating 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishes wallows early in the 2017-18 NHL season, we can only sit back and wait to see what they're going to do with all their money next summer. Knowing Wilson, he'll blow it all on Thornton, and a 1 assist average every 4 games.


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