We’re up to part seven of our season review of the San Jose Sharks, covering the ownership and general manager.
Sharks Season Review:
- The Main Points
- The Forwards
- The Defense
- The Goalies
- Salary Cap and Roster
- GM and Owner
- Summary (coming next)
Looking at the Sharks management, this season, we find generally good news. Owner Hasso Plattner, like most seasons, was rarely seen. Meanwhile general manager Doug Wilson had relatively quiet, though effective year. Alas, a franchise changing injury will make the upcoming offseason much more difficult.
The Business Side
For many years, the Sharks sold out their venue with relative ease. A few years back this stopped. Warning signs flashed for those paying close attention, but management wasn’t among those paying attention. When empty seats, often lots of empty seats started to show, management took notice. The owner, all the way from his residence in Germany, took notice.
In the past few seasons, the Sharks made a concerted effort to win back customers. And they’ve succeeded, to a degree. The game experience improved and a Stanley Cup Final appearance didn’t hurt. One example of this change, the Sharks created a tradition (can two seasons be considered a tradition?) of having a local celebrity open the door for the Sharks when they head out onto the ice to begin playoff games. Rickey Henderson, Jerry Rice, David Shaw and Christian McCaffrey (Stanford football coach and running back) did the honors this season.
Attendance at the Shark Tank has room for improvement, but it is trending in the right direction. Games where one-third of the seats are empty seem to be a thing of the past.
The Barracuda’s Growth
An additional consideration is the arrival of the AHL’s Barracuda. Now in their second season in San Jose, they are steadily building their own fan base. While some Barracuda games have been very sparsely attended (as in, just walk down to row 1 and pick a seat on the glass), the playoff games garner a respectable and enthusiastic crowd. Having a team in the final four in the Calder Cup playoffs helps, too.
The consumer friendly price brings in many families (with $1 hot dogs, it’s probably cheaper than a movie). Sometimes a celeb or two shows up (yes that is Apple founder Steve Wozniak wearing his orange Barracuda jersey). Sharks players show up as well, including Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi. They’ll wave to the crowd and sign some autographs between periods.
The Barracuda fan experience is very good, the value outstanding. The team might not make money, but they are growing the fan base for hockey in San Jose. Which is good for the business.
The General Manager
For the past 14 years, the Sharks have had one person run the hockey end of things, Doug Wilson. While the job has many facets, the primary role of the GM is to provide the team the best possible roster.
In the 2016-17 season, Wilson delivered the best roster in franchise history. It was a better roster than the Stanley Cup Final team from the prior season. For those who aren’t sure about this, out went Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, Dainius Zubrus, Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels. In came Jannik Hansen, Mikkel Boedker, David Schlemko plus rookies Marcus Sorensen, Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier. What came in is clearly better than what left.
Alas, the roster is not the lone determinate of playoff success. Wilson did his part, but questionable coaching and especially bad luck with injuries sealed the Sharks fate – a round one exit from the playoffs.
One can break down Wilson’s moves this season, and while none strike me as particularly great, Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the roster he assembled.
Mikkel Boedker, the top free agent signing, was a major disappointment. The talent is there, but Boedker didn’t mesh. Here the GM did his job, but the coach failed to integrate the talent. A case in point. Boedker had 47 power play points in his three seasons prior to his arrival in San Jose. Could Boedker, a strong power play performer, help a struggling Sharks power play? Boedker had only one power play point all season.
Defenseman David Schlemko was the Sharks only other NHL veteran free agent signing. Most considered it an under the radar move and it received nods of approval before the season started. This move played out positively. So positively, Schlemko is at risk of being the player Vegas selects in the upcoming expansion draft.
The lone in-season veteran acquisition was Jannik Hansen. I was not a fan of the deal. The Sharks needed a big move. Hansen is a lower to mid-tier forward and San Jose is loaded with these sorts of forwards. Hansen is a respectable player, just not player San Jose needed.
The team still needs a big move. Hansen didn’t help the Sharks this season, but he has another year on his deal and he’s a reasonable value. I’d expect him to be a useful player on a second or third line in 2017-18.
During the season, Wilson parted company with Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto. While some have faulted Wilson for getting limited returns (a late pick plus AHL players for Wingels and nothing for Nieto), I have no problem with either move. Wingels was sent to another playoff contender (Ottawa), which is good for him. He needed to get out of had coach peter DeBoer’s doghouse, and this required a change in scenery. Nieto, struggling to hold an NHL roster spot was grabbed by Colorado, which allowed him greatly increased ice time, something he needs to stay in the NHL.
Most of the time, it pays to get every last morsel out of a deal. But sometimes, it’s wiser to consider the karma of a situation. Giving Wingels and Nieto the opportunity they needed was the right karmic choice. There was no home run to be hit with either player. Wilson did the right thing and allowed the players a chance to succeed elsewhere in the league.
One player didn’t depart (or get demoted), though many expected it. Goalie Aaron Dell, in his first NHL season, was a question mark. The Sharks gave Dell the chance to prove himself a capable backup, and though rumors had the Sharks adding a veteran backup, it didn’t happen. Sometimes the best moves are the ones not made. Keeping Dell is this sort of move. He delivered a strong first season.
For Doug Wilson, the 2016-17 season was an understated season.
The biggest move, signing Boedker, hasn’t paid off. But the talent is there, the contract has three more seasons and this can turn positive if the coach and player get on the same page. Schlemko already looks like a good signing and I expect Hansen to be more effective next season, when he has more time to develop with his teammates.
This coming offseason and the season to follow is a different animal. Nothing understated about it. Wilson must be very good in the months ahead, and he needs a major move to put this team into the Stanley Cup conversation.
The injury to Joe Thornton’s knee is franchise changing. The best player in team history and slam dunk Hall-of-Famer is now a 38-year-old player with a bad knee. History isn’t kind to athletes who fit this description.
The Sharks are in the market for the player who takes the role of a top center and lifts the entire team. This is the role Thornton played for over 1,000 games, from the day he arrived in 2005 until April 2, 2017 when he left the ice in Vancouver, unable to put any pressure on his injured knee. Even if Thornton returns to San Jose, his days as an elite, and often dominant, center are over. Wilson will look to acquire a top-flight center using whatever means possible.
The GM will also need to sign several players, make some tough calls on top AHL talent, figure out who to expose in the expansion draft plus get extensions with Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. And oh yes, decide if the Sharks will keep Patrick Marleau and/or Joe Thornton.
If there is an area where I’m uncomfortable with the management, it relates to player management. As discussed throughout this series, fatigue was an expected challenge for this season. Wilson recognized it, as did the coaching staff led by Peter DeBoer. But neither seemed to take it seriously.
A second, somewhat related issue, also makes me uneasy. Players get injured, but how they recover, protect themselves from further injury and so forth are issues which matter to the organization. Joonas Donskoi separated his shoulder, twice. The second time came just a week after returning from the initial injury.
In the playoffs, both Joe Thornton and Logan Couture were vulnerable to additional injury. Couture took a hit one game and required further numbing of his already badly injured mouth to continue playing. As for Thornton, I can’t imagine any doctors suggesting playing on two torn knee ligaments. Even going back to the original injury, I have questions. Given the modest contact on the play, I’m not sure Thornton’s knee was fully healthy before the injury in April.
Wilson has a major role in how the team manages things like playing time and injuries. In his postseason remarks, Wilson stated “sometimes you’ve got to protect players from themselves.” He sees the responsibility, but the actions were not sufficient. Wilson is not the sole voice, or in some cases, even the most important voice. But as the senior executive, he has to make sure the team uses good judgment when it comes to players, their health and the best interest of the team. I’m not comfortable this team, including Wilson, did its best.
Expectations and Results
On the business side, it was a solid season for the organization. Improved attendance, fan experience and development of the Barracuda fan base are all moves in the right direction.
The Sharks didn’t go far in the playoffs this season, but the work of the general manager was solid. There were challenges this team needed to overcome for another deep playoff run. The GM did his part well, he delivered a terrific roster. Others were less effective in their roles. At season’s end, though, injuries cast the decisive ballot. This was not the Sharks season.
The major legacy of this season is the Thornton injury. It changed more than the 2016-17 season, it changed the future of the franchise. Everyone knew the day would come when Thornton was no longer the most important forward on the roster. Many figured it would come sooner than later. We now have the exact date, April 2, 2017.
Wilson has plenty to do this offseason. He already nailed two important pieces, extending forwards Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson, both with reasonable contracts.
The Sharks are a piece away from being a strong Cup contender, but it is a very tough piece to acquire. Given the challenges ahead, Wilson needs plenty of skill this offseason and in the season ahead. Perhaps the hockey karma Wilson merited from the Wingels and Nieto moves will help him net him the player San Jose needs. The Sharks can use every bit of good karma they can get.
In my earlier piece on the roster, I indicated defenseman Tim Heed of the Barracuda is an unrestricted free agent. I’ve gotten a correction on this. He is a restricted free agent, which gives the Sharks organization a better chance to keep him. Heed is the top defenseman on the Barracuda, and among the best in the AHL this season. Heed is the only AHL defenseman averaging over point per game. Thanks to Zachary DeVine and the folks at CapFriendly for their work on this correction.