Road to Recovery: How the Sharks Are Rebuilding

What is a Rebuild?

To be honest everyone has their own idea of what a rebuild should involve. It could be trading away core players, acquiring draft picks, making the team younger, or hiring new staff which gives the team a newer look or in a sense “rebuilding” it. Essentially a team does a combination of all of these things but one thing that is absolutely not required in a rebuild is losing. A team does not have to lose in order to rebuild. The Detroit Red Wings are a prime example of this. They built a team that was meant to succeed in the playoffs off of a number of players such as Steve Yzerman, Brenden Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov. When it came time to rebuild the Red Wings did not have to begin losing due to players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. Now these players are starting to age but it looks as if the Red Wings are ready to rebuild on the fly again with players such as Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist. Make no mistake the Red Wings did all the same things every other rebuilding team does. The only difference is that good drafting and development coaching kept the team winning giving the illusion of no rebuild taking place, or a “winning rebuild.”

“Historically, every team in the League that has had success has probably gone through that phase. We did start it a year ago. We used that terminology, ‘reset-refresh.’ It really was a form of rebuild. We know that we haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish.”  Doug Wilson referring to the rebuild in San Jose. June 17th, 2014.

The San Jose Sharks have been rebuilding for two seasons now. Yes you read that correctly it is not a typo or an exaggerated opinion, that is a fact. Under Doug Wilson the San Jose Sharks have been in rebuild mode since the 2013 season. Let me explain why this is true. In the past two seasons the San Jose Sharks have lost a total of three top-six forwards and three top-four defensemen. None of these positions have been replaced via trades, or via free agents. Of these six players, five were over the age of 30. This is the very definition of rebuilding. So despite the constant criticism that Doug Wilson receives for not rebuilding he is doing that very thing and has been doing so for two seasons now.

The Winning Rebuild

Let’s go back to the beginning of the 2013 season and take a look at the key players from that year. To begin the season the Sharks had seven top-six forwards. I say seven because the team moved these players around. This is a common trend among top NHL teams in the league to have a seventh guy who plays on the third line with the ability to play on the top two lines. The top seven forwards to begin the season were; Joe Thornton, TJ Galiardi, Joe Pavelski, Marty Havlat, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau. At the same time the Sharks top-four on defense were Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart, and Brent Burns. Despite getting out to a fast start the Sharks had a terrible second month and only stayed in the playoff race thanks to the stellar play of Antti Niemi earning him a Vezina nomination for the season.

It quickly became apparent that the San Jose Sharks window had closed, especially after being dismantled the year prior by the St Louis. Blues. So Doug Wilson began to rebuild the team or as he put it “reset and refresh.” In March of 2013 the Sharks converted Brent Burns to forward to help create more offense. It worked, but it also created a hole in the Sharks top-four on defense. Douglas Murray filled this hole in the top-four as he previously held the position over the past few seasons. It would not matter as Murray would be traded a week before the trade deadline creating a hole in the top-four again. Ryane Clowe was traded at the deadline as well. The Sharks went on to lose to the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs that year and later traded TJ Galiardi in the summer.

(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)
Tommy Wingels has earned more ice time on the top two lines over the past two seasons.

The San Jose Sharks began the 2014 season with the same top-six forwards they had at the end of the 2013 season; Thornton, Burns, Pavelski, Couture, Marleau and Havlat. Unfortunately, Havlat was injured for half of the season and eventually lost his ability to play in the top-six. The Sharks also began the season with only three true top-four defensemen in Boyle, Vlasic and Stuart. The Sharks would again lose to the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs, this time in the first round. During the summer the team lost Marty Havlat, Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart. In a mere two seasons the Sharks lost three top-six forwards in Clowe, Galiardi and Havlat as well as three top-four defensemen in Stuart, Boyle and Murray five of which were over the age of 30. This does not even include the Sharks letting go of other older players such as Michal Handzus and Scott Gomez.

Rebuilding From Within

There is no guideline to rebuild a team and that is why the drama going on in San Jose has so many fans both confused and angry. The Sharks traded away or chose to not resign six players who were considered the core of the team in the past two seasons. If that is not a rebuild I am not sure what is. The Sharks also did not replace any of these positions via trade or free agency. Instead all six positions have been replaced by players within the system. Matt Nieto, Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels have all proved they have the ability to play on the top two lines which replaces Clowe, Galiardi and Havlat. This still leaves Couture, Thorton, Marleau and Pavelski for a total of seven top-six forwards entering the 2015 season. Vlasic is now the leader of the defense while Brent Burns will be filling his old role on the back-end. Justin Braun and Jason Demers have shown that they are capable enough to play top-four minutes which replaces Boyle, Stuart and Murray.

(Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports)
Jason Demers (26) has already played 280 NHL games and has been a regular in the lineup since 2010.

There is a difference between what someone says and what someone does. What Doug Wilson has done in two years is get rid of eight players over the age of 30 while only signing three new players over the age of 30 in Hannan, Torres and Scott. At the same time the San Jose Sharks have managed to replace core positions within the lineup. Just like the Detroit Red Wings the San Jose Sharks are rebuilding but losing is not part of the formula. Good drafting and development coaching has kept the team competitive on the ice, which has deceived us into thinking there is no rebuild taking place in San Jose. Doug Wilson may receive criticism for not signing veteran players and making a few poor signings but he doesn’t receive any praise for helping the Sharks make the playoffs while they are rebuilding.

All teams rebuild but some teams do not lose when they do.  The “winning rebuild” is nothing new as it worked for the Red Wings and Devils after the late 90’s. It also worked for the Montreal Canadiens who managed to win five or more Stanley Cups in three consecutive decades. Because of this “winning rebuild” it is tough to clarify what type of team the Sharks truly are. Well Doug Wilson probably said it best, “we are a tomorrow team.” All this means is that the Sharks are still competitive but no longer a favorite for the Stanley Cup. After one or two years they may be back to that level which is why Sharks fans need to calm down and take a breath.