Blay: Is Doug Wilson to blame if Sharks choke again?

(Dave Nelson/Flickr)

By: Jeff Blay, Executive Editor
@JeffBlay

We all know about the San Jose Sharks’ unfavourable playoff reputation, which has formerly been linked to the under performance of the team’s top players. While both captain Joe Thornton and fellow veteran Patrick Marleau have shown tremendous improvement in the post-season in recent years, the team has still only managed to make it as far as the Western Conference Finals.

After a successful run in the 2011 playoffs, Sharks’ general manager Doug Wilson made several moves in the offseason with the goal of filling in some missing pieces and solidifying the team in hopes of making another run at the Cup. Unfortunately, the moves didn’t pan out quite as the team expected as San Jose had its fair share of struggles throughout 2011-12. Offseason acquisition Martin Havlat, who’s known for being prone to injury, had a slow start to the season before missing a large chunk due to, well, injury.

Fellow offseason addition Brent Burns played reasonably well for the club, but he still didn’t quite hit his peak and certainly needs to be more consistent as the Sharks, who just managed to squeak in to the seventh playoff seed, face-off against the dangerous St. Louis Blues – a team that’s thrived under veteran Stanley Cup-winning coach, Ken Hitchcock.

Despite being the seventh seed, the Sharks, who play a similarly physical and tough two-way game as their first round opponents, will still have that pressure on them to shake-off the playoff monkey that’s rendered them the title of ‘playoff choke artists’, which they likely won’t live down until they win a championship.

As the Sharks nucleus of players are only growing older, many expected Wilson would put the team in a position to make a legitimate Cup push by this season, but if we dissect some of the trades and signings Wilson has made through 2011-12, many signs point to the effort being a failure.

Offseason Deals

Exchanges with Minnesota – While Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi had decent seasons for Minnesota, these trades weren’t the worst of the bunch. When healthy and on their games, Havlat and Burns are equally as skilled, and Burns especially has the potential to do wondrous things from the San Jose blue line. Although separate deals, the Sharks also acquired James Sheppard from the Wild, who missed the entire season and likely won’t see playoff time. They gave up a third-round pick for Sheppard in a deal that has yet to pay dividends.

That said, the biggest loss here for San Jose is 2010 first-round draft pick Charlie Coyle, who went to the Wild along with Setoguchi and a first round pick for Burns. Coyle had an excellent season with the Saint John Sea Dogs and is absolutely tearing it up in the QMJHL playoffs, where he’s notched 11 goals and 21 points in just eight games played. Losing a prospect like Coyle may not effect the team now, but it definitely will in the long run. This is a theme Wilson seems to be following – trading away future.

Signing Role Players – Picking up veteran centre Michael Handzeus wasn’t a terrible move either, as the faceoff specialist was also the team’s best shootout performer, although his game lacked otherwise and shootout performance doesn’t matter in the post-season. Handzeus was given a ‘D-‘ grade by Sharks Insider, Kevin Kurz in his recent assessment of the team at CSNBayArea.com.

Brad Winchester was probably the best free agent signing, as the gritty fourth-liner played physical, stuck up for teammates, wasn’t a liability on the ice and even chipped in with 10 points. He even saw some time on the first line when head coach Todd McClellan had to shuffle the combinations. Jim Vandermeer was another free agent signing, and although he only played 25 regular season games, for the price, he could be a valuable depth piece in the playoffs as he can play both defense and forward. Still, not a signing that had any sort of major impact on the team, or likely will moving forward.

Deadline Deals

The Sharks made two deals in February, and neither of them have panned out so far.

The first deal rendered bottom-six centre Dominic Moore and a seventh round pick in 2012 from the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Sharks gave up yet another potential piece of their future in a 2012 second round pick. In 23 games with San Jose, Moore picked up just six assists and struggled defensively with a minus-8 rating. Moore has essentially been invisible for the Sharks and the deal has really proven nothing as far as improving the team. Moore scored an ‘F’ grade in Kurz’s assessment, where he stated:

“The Dominic Moore trade could very well go down as one of the worst of the Doug Wilson era… The numbers speak for themselves. His ice time decreased from more than 16 minutes with Tampa Bay to 13:43 with the Sharks, as he became essentially the fourth line center. The unrestricted free agent-to-be cost the team a second round pick in the draft – a high one at that, as the pick originally belonged to the Minnesota Wild. Calling this move an outright disaster is not an overstatement.”

The second and final deal completed prior to the deadline involved a plethora of promising future talent now lost by the Sharks. Wilson sent hard-nosed 23-year-old power forward Jamie McGinn to the Colorado Avalanche along with prospects Mike Connolly and Michael Sgarbossa in exchange for TJ Galiardi, 23, and Daniel Winnik, 27. McGinn emerged as a consistent third-liner for the Sharks this season, notching 12 goals and 12 assists in 61 games and maintained a plus-1 rating before leaving for the Avs. Since landing in Colorado, McGinn thrived on the team’s second line, notching eight goals and five assists in the final 17 games of his season.

As for the prospects, Connolly played 51 games between the Worcester Sharks and Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL and finished with 13 goals and 35 points. Sgarbossa, who has been one of my favourite understated young players coming out of the OHL, finished a more than successful season with the Sudbury Wolves, where he tallied 47 goals, 102 points, 68 penalty minutes and a plus-21 rating, placing him first overall in scoring in the entire league. Sgarbossa has a promising future ahead of him and plays the exact style of game the Sharks like to see of their players. Another sacrifice of the future.

Meanwhile, Galiardi scored a goal and was a minus-1 in 14 games with the Sharks, though he spent some of his time injured. Although he’s the same age as McGinn, I can’t see his future being as bright. Winnik, on the other hand, has been the better piece of this trade, although his three goals and five points in 21 games as a Shark don’t hold a candle to what McGinn had to offer; to me, Winnik is an older, less-skilled version of McGinn.

A lot on the line…

With all of the above considered, it begs the question of who will be responsible if the Sharks don’t make it to the Cup final, or worse – are eliminated in the first round. I doubt the blame can be placed on Jumbo Joe, who led the team in scoring this season and seems to have found his groove in the playoffs – he notched 17 points in 18 games last year and has a combined 29 points in 33 games over the past two playoff appearances. I expect Thornton to continue his exceptional play against St. Louis.

Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture have all done well in the previous two post-seasons and will need to show some leadership up front again this year. Assistant captains Ryane Clowe and Dan Boyle haven’t had much trouble in the playoffs either – save for Boyle scoring on his own net from time to time. Joining Boyle on defense is the highly skilled and sizable defenseman Burns, along with a pretty solid core of players in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, veteran Colin White and youngsters Jason Demers and Justin Braun.

That only leaves the bottom six forwards that are really in question for San Jose, which has quite frankly been the case for the past several seasons. In order to win a Cup, we all know depth and role players are crucial, as it’s those types of players that often block a key shot, contribute secondary offense, throw a big hit to swing the momentum or even score the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

If it’s these types of players the Sharks continue to lack, the blame can only be placed on the man in charge of acquiring (or keeping) these players, and that man is Doug Wilson. I’ve always been one to commend Wilson for his excellent work in shaping the team, maintaining the core of star players, and refraining from offering those long and ridiculous contracts that so many teams have made the mistake of doing.

However, as the Sharks just barley qualified for the post-season, have lost a lot of their future talent and draft picks, and would almost need a miracle to power past the opposing Western Conference teams to make it to the Cup final this year, I have to begin to wonder if Wilson’s time in San Jose is drawing to an end.

Depending on how the Sharks fair against the Blues and potentially through the rest of the post-season, it will be interesting to see if Wilson maintains the trust of the Sharks ownership this summer if they have yet another underachieving spring. Only time will tell, but mark my words, at some point, the man behind the moves has to be accountable. After all, if it were Toronto, I’d bet Wilson’s time as GM would have been over long ago.

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