I am not a fan of the San Jose Sharks. I have not suffered for years, teased in the regular season, let down in the playoffs. I have not seen my team picked to win the Stanley Cup and fail to make the final over and over and over again.
So I know this is easy for me to say now that the Sharks have become only the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead and lose a series, but here goes: The gut check was not Wednesday night, when the Sharks fell to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7. The gut check is the aftermath.
Will the Sharks stick with it? Will their fans stick with them?
Neither general manager Doug Wilson nor coach Todd McLellan should be sacrificed just for the sake of it – just to show the Sharks are doing something and won’t settle for the same old, same old; just to sell change. Firing McLellan would be the simplest and perhaps the most effective move, but the Sharks would need to upgrade. Whom would they hire to put this particular group over the top?
[Related: After heart-ripping choke, where do Sharks go from here?]
The core should not be broken up. The core cannot be broken up. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau just signed extensions through 2016-17 with no-movement clauses, so they aren’t going anywhere if they don’t want to.
Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are all signed to long-term deals. Tomas Hertl has two years left on his entry-level deal. Does anyone think they aren’t players to build around?
The Sharks need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Maybe they’ll part with Dan Boyle, a pending unrestricted free agent, and buy out Martin Havlat, who has a year left on his contract and a no-movement clause. Maybe they need to find a new goalie, if they don’t trust Antti Niemi anymore.
But Wilson was right last season when he said this team needed a refresh, not a rebuild, and he made smart changes – moving out slower players for faster ones while McLellan updated the Sharks’ style. The Sharks would be right to keep refreshing.
[Also: Kings complete incredible comeback, historic collapse by Sharks]
As horrible as this feels for the Sharks and their fans, especially against the backdrop of their history, it isn’t as bad as it looks for several reasons:
— A 3-0 lead ain’t what it used to be. The 1942 Detroit Red Wings were the first to blow a 3-0 lead and lose a series. The 1975 Pittsburgh Penguins were the second. Starting in 1976, 112 teams had a chance to be the third – and not one was even pushed to a Game 7.
But then the 2010 Boston Bruins blew a 3-0 lead and lost a series, and then the 2011 Vancouver Canucks and the 2011 Sharks almost did, blowing 3-0 leads and surviving Game 7s. Were those teams that couldn’t win? The Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup. The Canucks came within a win of the 2011 Stanley Cup. The Sharks were in the final four in 2011.
The NHL has evolved. The salary cap has evened out the talent. There isn’t much difference between teams, especially teams like the Sharks and the Kings. If one can win three straight in a series, the other can win three straight – or four. And now that teams have started to do it, no one gives up.
— Losing in the first round ain’t what it used to be. This is about parity more than the new divisional playoff format. Two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders were going to be out in the first round in the West, no matter what.
Had the NHL seeded the conferences No. 1 through 8 like it used to, the Sharks would have faced the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. The Kings would have faced the St. Louis Blues.
Because the league went to a divisional format this year, the Sharks faced the Kings, and the Blackhawks faced the Blues. Not only did the Sharks blow a 3-0 lead, but the Blues blew a 2-0 lead. Neither team needs to blow up the organization because of it, though both must figure out how to improve enough to advance within the division in the future. The West won’t weaken anytime soon.
[Watch: Kings, Sharks players shake hands after Game 7]
— There were extenuating circumstances. There always are when you blow a 3-0 lead and lose a series, in any era.
The 1942 Red Wings did it after coach Jack Adams was suspended for assaulting an official. The 1975 Penguins did it after Chico Resch took over in goal for the New York Islanders. The 2010 Bruins did it partly because of injuries. They lost Marco Sturm and David Krejci, while Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter and Michael Leighton returned for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Sharks lost Vlasic in Game 5, and McLellan went with Alex Stalock in goal for Game 6 instead of Niemi and then flip-flopped back to Niemi in Game 7. Vlasic, one of the best defensemen in the NHL, was a huge loss. Stalock had never started a playoff game before, while Niemi had won a Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010. You can question McLellan’s decisions, but Niemi put him in the awful spot of having to make those decisions. Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick found his game for L.A.
— This is underachieving only in relative terms. I have said it before and will say it again: We should all underachieve like the San Jose Sharks. No, they have never made the Stanley Cup final. But they have made the conference final twice, and they have made the playoffs every season in the salary-cap era. Only one other team can say that – Detroit.
The Cup is the goal. It should be. But only one team wins the Cup every year when several teams are good enough to win it, and don’t be so quick to devalue the regular season and the ability to stay in contention year after year. The Washington Capitals panicked and went from system to system, coach to coach, and no longer are they a great regular-season team that can’t win in the playoffs. They’re a team that didn’t make the playoffs at all. You could say something similar about the Canucks.
Say the Sharks fire Wilson or McLellan. How many truly underachieving teams will come calling immediately, hoping to get at least to where the Sharks are now? How many GMs or coaches would love to take over with this roster? The Sharks were one of the best possession teams in the NHL this season. They were a legit contender, no matter what happened in the past, no matter what happened this time. If they stay the course and make a few tweaks, they will be a contender again next season.
But I won’t pick them to make the final, let alone with the Cup. Maybe that’s what they need.
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