After too many seasons of coming up short in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s time for the San Jose Sharks to make some significant changes.
Since 2006, the Sharks have made the playoffs every season, usually among the dominant clubs in the league, finishing first in the Pacific division four straight seasons and second in three seasons.
During that time, however, they’ve never advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, only going as far as the Western Conference Final twice.
This shortened season was no exception. An inconsistent performance resulted in a third place finish in their division. They swept the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, but fell to the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings in a hard-fought seven game series.
They’ve become the Western Conference version of the Toronto Maple Leafs circa 1999 to 2004. A team which on paper looked like a potential Stanley Cup contender, but unable to meet lofty expectations.
It’s the same old story for the Sharks, which must be tiresome for their fans.
GM Doug Wilson did a good job over the past eight years maintaining the Sharks as a playoff team. Now, he has to take bold steps to change the culture and build this club into a legitimate Cup contender.
That means trading or buying out Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle.
The Sharks inability to rise to the next level doesn’t rest solely upon their shoulders, but Thornton, Marleau and Boyle are supposedly the veteran leaders, and for whatever reason have been unable to lift the Sharks into Cup contention.
Sure, the supporting cast deserves its share of the blame, as does Wilson, former coach Ron Wilson and current coach Todd McLellan.
At some point, however, you have to wonder if your leadership can get the job done.
If Thornton, Marleau and Boyle were in their mid-to-late twenties, it would be hasty to move them, as they would still have time to grow into the roles expected of them.
But Thornton will turn 34 in July, Marleau 34 in September, and Boyle turns 37 in July. They’re still talented, but their best days are behind them. The Sharks window of opportunity to win a championship with this trio is rapidly closing, if it hasn’t already.
Yes, they were among the Sharks leading scorers during this regular season and the playoffs, but time is catching up to them.
Thornton, Marleau and Boyle each have a season remaining on their respective contracts. Thornton and Marleau also have full “no-movement” clauses while Boyle can list eight teams he would reject as trade destinations.
Moving them via trade obviously won’t be easy, but it’s time Wilson explored that option. And if they’re unwilling to go, he should use his compliance buyouts on two of the three and use the savings to bid aggressively in this summer’s free agent market, or target teams willing to trade high-salaried stars at bargain prices to become cap compliant next season.
Granted, there currently isn’t much depth in talent in the UFA pool which could be considered an improvement over Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, but that could change if a number of high-salaried players are bought out by other clubs this summer.
Wilson probably prefers to buy out Martin Havlat, though if he hasn’t recovered from his latest groin/hip injury by the compliance buyout period, he’ll be ineligible. Brent Burns could be a candidate, but if Wilson moves Boyle, he’ll need Burns’ puck-moving ability (despite his defensive flaws) back on the blueline.
So, the trade market is probably the best route for Thornton, Marleau and Boyle. Despite the trade clauses and the pending free agent status next summer, there would be interest in the trio if Wilson were to shop them, especially from clubs which are a skilled forward or blueliner away from legitimate Cup contention willing to acquire a short-term fix.
Wilson has to shed salary this summer. He’s got 15 players under contract for next season, and only around $8.6 million in projected cap space. Somebody’s gotta go, so it might as well be a couple of his ageing stars.
The Sharks have a good core of younger talent to build around in goaltender Antti Niemi, blueliners like Burns (despite his faults) and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, and forwards Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Trading away and/or buying out Thornton, Marleau and Boyle could fetch a decent return of younger talent via trade or free agency to compliment that core.
Wilson is likely facing the prospect of losing most or all of those three veteran stars via free agency next summer. If he re-signs any of them, even to shorter, affordable deals, he’ll be stuck with depreciating assets which, if he were to try to move them later, won’t fetch nearly as much as they could now.
Sure, he could keep them for the final season of their contracts, opt not to re-sign them, and then try to replace them next summer in hopes the free agent or trade markets might be deeper, but there’s no guarantee those markets will be any better than this year’s.
It wouldn’t be disloyal of Wilson to move those three via trade or buyout. He’s given them more than enough opportunities to bring a championship to San Jose, and tried to surround them with a good supporting cast.
This is a business, and those GMs who stick by fading stars out of loyalty end up with a fading team, and eventually out of a job.
The Sharks have had a good run with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle, but it’s time to turn the page and move on. Better to do it now than to prolong the agony.