You Either Die a Hero…
Apparently both Jim Harbaugh and Joe Thornton needed to die heroes had they not wanted to live to see themselves become the villains of their respective front offices. Despite both Harbaugh and Thornton being the best things to happen to the San Francisco 49ers and San Jose Sharks respectively over the past decade, both would have been forced out by now if it were up to Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
Unlike Harbaugh though, Thornton has a full no trade clause, AKA a no-movement clause which means he has the clout and job security to tell his boss to “shut his mouth and stop lying.” Thornton, who Wilson acquired in 2005 with the Sharks amidst a 10 game losing streak, has been the face of the Sharks franchise ever since. He won the MVP that first season and has essentially been the driving force behind San Jose’s decade long playoff streak. For a top 50 player in the league, he doesn’t break the bank, signing multiple team friendly extensions well below market value. If Thornton wanted to be paid, he would easily make well over eight million dollars. Instead he makes less than seven, allowing Wilson to make the necessary roster additions to build a a deep team. Unfortunately for Thornton, Wilson has failed miserably in putting together the finishing touches on a roster as the Sharks are always one of the top heaviest teams in the league. The Sharks are forced to overly rely on their top guys in spite of the fact fellow core players Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture are also playing below open market value.
Thornton, at 35-years-old is still a dominant force on the ice this season, and is far from the reason the Sharks haven’t gone further in the postseason. It’s not Thornton’s fault that management would rather play a seven minute fourth liner over a proven playoff scorer like Tyler Kennedy. Over recent years, Wilson has been miserable in the free agent market. He has signed the following veteran free agents since the 2010 offseason: Antti Niemi, Antero Niittymaki, Colin White, Jim Vandermeer, Michael Handzus, Adam Burish, Brad Stuart, Mike Brown, Melker Karlsson, and John Scott.
Wilson can blame California tax rates if he wants, but you would be hard pressed to find a worse group of free agent acquisitions in the league. Karlsson, the Swedish born 24-year-old, signed this past offseason, is the only quality free agent skater (ie not goalie) signed over the past four seasons. Finding strong depth players has been an issue for the Sharks for nearly the entirety of the Joe Thornton era. While Wilson has brought the above players in to have little success, a number of good depth players have walked away from the Sharks after incredibly short stints, none lasting more than one season. Some of those names are Manny Malhotra, Daniel Winnik, Ian White, Kyle Wellwood, and Dominic Moore. Although to be fair, Moore did want a change of scenery after losing his wife during his short stint in San Jose.
…Or Live Long Enough to Become the Villain
Despite acquiring Thornton in the best executed trade of his GM career, Wilson is now making Thornton out to be his fall guy. Instead of blaming himself for doing a miserable job at filling out his roster over the years, he is blaming the best player ever to wear a Sharks sweater. He is blaming the Sharks inability to get through to the final on primarily one individual super star.
The obvious question is can Wilson be this naïve to the facts? Over the last five seasons, the Sharks have lost in the playoffs to the better team on paper. While I will argue they outplayed the Kings in 2013, the Kings had the depth and the goaltending that was simply better than the Sharks. In 2010, the Blackhawks were the superior team, 2011 the Canucks were the better team, 2012 the Blues were the better team and in 2014 the Kings were the better team. It’s not Thornton’s fault that the team around him is inferior to the teams knocking them out of the playoffs. He is every bit as good of a player as the opponent’s top centers. During that 2012 series with the Blues, Thornton was the best player on the ice, period. But I guess in Doug’s mind, it was probably still Joe’s fault they lost. That’s just an educated guess. The reason the teams beating San Jose in the playoffs are better on paper is because of better depth and goaltending, not because of significantly better top players. The current Sharks’ top power-play unit is arguably the best five players any team could assemble for their top unit. It is not the top talent that isn’t good enough, it is the lack of being able to roll four quality lines. That is on Wilson and time and time again, the decisions costing the Sharks are Wilson decisions.
Wilson Looks Bad, Capital B, A, D, BAD
Stripping Thornton of the captaincy this past offseason was a Wilson decision. Moving Brent Burns back to defense? A Wilson decision. Furthermore, colleague Paul Gackle of the Gackle Report pointed out to me recently that the Sharks had just 12 forwards for an oddly long stretch. Very possible that Wilson wanted to get his offseason signing John Scott into the lineup more regularly. Head coach Todd McLellan can’t do a whole lot of mixing and matching with his forward lines when the GM doesn’t recall a 13th forward.
While yours truly has been very critical of McLellan over the years and particularly this season, how much freedom is he allowed? Typically one thinks of captaincy decisions as a coaching decision. You know, the man who is in charge of things and running the team on a daily basis, not the guy up in the booth, making infrequent appearances in the dressing room. Wilson claims he doesn’t tell McLellan how to set his lineup but given that the reports of tension between the two are making more and more sense by the minute, that is difficult to believe.
GM Doug Wilson, like 49ers’ owner Jed York, looks very, very bad right now. Being at odds with the franchise’s best player, as well as the highly thought of head coach is not a good look.