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After heart-ripping choke, where do San Jose Sharks go from here?

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy
Sharks GM recommends no change in coach
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San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, from left, defenseman Brad Stuart, and defenseman Justin Braun sit on the bench during the third period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The Kings won 5-1. (AP Photo)

As Logan Couture said after the San Jose Sharks pissed away a 3-0 lead to the Los Angeles Kings in the most epic choke in franchise history – and that’s saying something – this was the “type of series that will rip your heart out."

Of course, that assumes the team has heart in the first place, which is something it clearly doesn’t. It has panic, doubt, confusion, lack of confidence and delusion by the bushel, but nary a postseason atrium or ventricle.

“It’s just so disappointing that we were able to go up 3-0 and not find a way to have that killer instinct, to find a way to scrape and claw and win games like they did,” said Couture.

But they’re not the Kings. They’re not the Blackhawks. They’re not the Bruins. They can match their star power and point totals and postseason expectations, but much like the rest of the NHL they can’t match their structure, poise and reliance on players that continually come through when it counts most.

Was there really any doubt about which team was built to a win a Game 7? Might it have been the one with Drew Doughty, who constantly finds higher levels on championship stages? Or Anze Kopitar, everything Joe Thornton isn’t? Or Jonathan Quick, whose dogged mental focus and leadership took him from people making “shouldn’t have traded Bernier!” jokes to bowing at his skates? Or Justin Williams, who now has an obscene 10 points in five Game 7s? Or Darryl Sutter, the steadiest of hands on the wheel?

Or the one with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton?

“It’s tough saying it, but I think the better team won the series. They were better than us. We lost four games,” said Couture.

And that’s one of the reasons why, despite putting their names in the record books as one of the four biggest playoff chokes in history, the Sharks once again seem to have some wiggle room for excuses.

Look, in all logical assessment, this team should be hit with a wrecking ball and then the pieces should be sledgehammered and then the whole mess should be shoveled into a furnace. Two quarterfinal losses sandwiching a semifinal loss. Never winning a Stanley Cup in 17 franchise playoff appearances, because they’ve never played for one.

And yet there’s something that keeps one from pushing all the way down on the red candy-like button that reads “DEMOLISH.”

Maybe it’s that the Kings, at the end of the day, are simply the better team and the reason why the Sharks have hit the greens the last two postseasons.

Maybe it was because they missed Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whom Todd McLellan called their Drew Doughty like Ken Hitchcock called David Backes his Jonathan Toews, in Games 6 and 7.

Maybe it’s because you look at this Sharks roster and wonder how and why they can’t win. It’s an annual rite. Despite this playoff disaster, we’ll probably do it again next season. (Ed. Note: I’m out, however. This loss means I take a pie to the face from the LA Kings mascot thanks to a Twitter wager. The Sharks are dead to me. DEAD!)

But maybe you can’t demolish the roster because it actually can’t be demolished, thanks to Doug Wilson. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, Vlasic, Brad Staurt and Martin Havlat all have various no-move and no-trade clauses. Thornton and Marleau are both signed through 2017.

So where do the changes begin?

McLellan is done. He knows it, too, which should make this easier.

“I’m in charge, I’m responsible for the group that performs on the ice. I have to accept that responsibility,” he told Working The Corners. “When we break down the series, I’m not going to throw any individuals or group of individuals under the bus, because we lost it collectively. But I’m responsible for that group.’’

Everyone assumes McLellan will find work quickly after his inevitable firing, and he’s a quality coach and a quality guy. He’s also worked with quality talent over the last six years; the idea of him being as effective in another market is reminiscent of other coaches that would “find work quickly” after their firings. Randy Carlyle and John Tortorella come to mind. Hey, look who might hire McLellan!

(Another coach in that category is actually an intriguing option for the Sharks: Peter Laviolette, who would jump at the chance to be this close to the Cup rather than taking on a Nashville or Florida project.)

Should Doug Wilson be done, too?

In theory, the problems start at the top, and that another set of eyes and opinions would be able to slice open this carcass and see where the cancer is. But Wilson’s going to be charged with that task, and likely with making significant upgrades to this roster for next season.

Not blowing it up. Improving it.

The problem is, how do you improve on psyche?

How do you erase the hard drives of these players who only know defeat, and whose brief tastes of victory lead to unjustified inflation of their egos?

“(Another) problem we ran into was getting them to understand that those 6-3, 7-2 games (at the beginning of the series) weren’t going to keep coming. They’re too good a team for that. This isn’t like last year (when the Sharks also lost to the Kings in seven games). That series was a lot closer than this one was. They were the better team. That was quite evident,” said McLellan.

A new coach, a new goalie – Alex Stalock should get his chance, but Niemi’s out of them – perhaps a significant upheaval on the back end with Dan Boyle moving on. These are the baseline changes for the Sharks in the offseason.

The rest of the roster, however, might be kept intact. This is the hand Wilson wants to play, and damn it, he’s going to win the pot at some point. The beacon of hope here is that the 2010 Boston Bruins, victims of the same reverse sweep, went on to win the Stanley Cup the following season. They’ve become the model for teams looking to make excuses rather than significant changes: Adam Oates sang their praises after the Capitals were ousted from the playoffs last season.

He’s out of a job now.

Sure, it can happen. Maybe losing Vlasic is akin to the Bruins losing David Krejci in Game 3 against the Flyers. Maybe this was the ultimate indignity before the ultimate reward.Maybe if they don’t play the Kings. Maybe if they aren’t 0-for-15 on the power play to end the series. Maybe if Niemi was better. Maybe, maybe, maybe maybe.

It can happen. Just like it can happen every season for the Sharks. They tease, they tantalize; they’re the ultimate “something’s gotta give” team.

Or maybe there are, and forever shall be, the Sharks. The Prometheus of hockey; but instead of its liver, it's the heart that gets ripped out every spring, only to grow back again to be ripped out once more. 

 

 

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