“You have to take one step backward to be in a position to go two steps forward.”
Taking one step backward to go two steps forward can be an understandable strategy. What Wilson could never have expected, however, was exactly how large a step backward his Sharks would take.
The Sharks had two viable options to take after collapsing again in the playoffs last season: Stand pat and let a team that had 111 points take another shot at it, or blow everything up and rebuild from the ground up.
Wilson ended up executing neither, instead putting a Band-Aid on the Sharks’ shortcomings, making few upgrades yet several tweaks within the organization to enact a small amount of change. The Sharks’ major moves before last season consisted of showing the door to aging defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart – moves that were expected – switching Brent Burns back to defense, removing the captaincy from Joe Thornton, and signing John Scott.
The end result? The Sharks took a step backward all right, off a cliff and out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Trouble started right away in training camp, when Thornton disagreed with Wilson’s aforementioned comments and was rather defiant:
“I have enough motivation. I don’t need somebody else telling me we can’t do it.”
Six months later, the rift between GM and star player would put a defining stamp on the Sharks’ season, with Thornton telling Wilson to “stop lying” and “shut his mouth” after Wilson spoke to season ticket holders about the decision to take away the “C” from Thornton.
Lack of leadership was just one issue that coalesced into the Sharks’ lost season – four assistant captains with no true locker room voice and a disgruntled star player thrown under the bus by management.
And that came before the season, before the on-ice issues started building. The Sharks just seemed off the entire season, even when they were comfortably in a playoff spot, even when they won nine of 10 games in mid-December.
Take the home opener, a 3-0 shutout over the Winnipeg Jets that head coach Todd McLellan was none too pleased about, calling out the power play and labeling the team “a work in progress.”
Fast forward 80 games, and little progress was apparent in a season filled with disappointment. Losses to the bottom-feeding Sabres, Panthers, and Coyotes canceled out wins against quality opponents; a 5-3 loss to the Coyotes two weeks ago virtually ended their season.
Individual struggles bear plenty of blame. Patrick Marleau’s 19 goals were his lowest total in five full seasons, brought on by several slumps without a goal. Neither goaltender – Antti Niemi or Alex Stalock — particularly shined or bailed the Sharks out of their struggles. Second-year players Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto failed to improve upon their promising rookie campaigns.
Burns’ move to defense was a flop; although he was the Sharks’ lone All-Star and his 60 points was tied for second-best in the league amongst defensemen, he finished with a plus-minus rating of -9, a decrease of 35 from last year when he was a forward. Burns looked lost on defense, whether turning the puck over in his own end or being in the wrong position, often times resulting in an opponents’ goal.
The home struggles were puzzling too, a telltale sign the Sharks lost their mojo. San Jose finished the year with more home losses than wins (19-17-5) and went through the entire month of February without a win at SAP Center, losing all eight games. This, from a team that had consistently dominated at home, notching the best home record in the conference the previous season.
We could drone on – the sellout streak ending at 205 games and ticket sales diminishing, the firing of beloved commentator Drew Remenda that rubbed nearly everyone the wrong way, the questions surrounding McLellan’s job security, this report describing dysfunction between McLellan and Wilson, losing to the rival Kings in front of 70,000 fans outdoors at Levi’s Stadium.
It’s time to point fingers above the players. Is it McLellan’s fault for failing to reach players and adjust to the struggles? Or is it Wilson’s fault for sending the wrong message in the first place, setting up his coach and players to fry?