This past summer the San Jose Sharks were the center of NHL speculation. How will they regroup from such a devastating playoff exit? Will the GM be fired? Will the coach? Will veterans be traded away? Will their playoff streak continue? After it was clear that GM Doug Wilson would remain in place, the leader of hockey operations referred to his club as a “tomorrow team.”
Was Wilson being serious by making such a statement? Or perhaps he was posturing to simply generate more dialogue in the trade market? Offseason moves like buying out Martin Havlat and trading Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle were moves to get younger. However, re-signing Scott Hannan and Mike Brown as well as signing John Scott were the antithesis of getting younger.
Primary Focus on the Present? Or the Future?
Thus far during the regular season, personnel decisions on the ice haven’t made things any clearer. Some indicate a focus on the future while others are win now moves. Clearly the decision to move Brent Burns back to defense and keep him there despite the team’s even strength scoring problem is a move for the future. Similar future moves were playing defenseman Mirco Mueller immediately out of the WHL this season. The 19-year-old rookie defender played the majority of the games early on in the season before becoming a healthy scratch. Playing opportunities to young forwards like Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow, Tye McGinn, and Chris Tierney can also be a sign of being a “tomorrow” team. However Goodrow, McGinn, and Tierney have all at one point or another been healthy scratches in favor of Scott in the lineup. And in recent weeks Hannan has been playing significantly more often than either Mueller or Matt Irwin on the blue-line. If the primary goal isn’t to compete and win the Stanley Cup this season, then there is little reason for Mueller and Irwin to be sitting while Hannan stays in the lineup. Veterans playing over developing players are win now type choices.
Furthermore, backup goaltender Alex Stalock has been a highly regarded goaltender since being drafted back in 2005. While never lighting up the lower levels in terms of save percentage, the word around the organization was that Stalock is the type of goaltender who makes the big save. Now despite posting a solid NHL career save percentage of .925 in a small sample of 28 starts, Stalock hasn’t been given a chance to prove he can handle No. 1 duties. Even though he has had a better save percentage basically all season than Antti Niemi, Stalock has been given just a third of the amount of starts. This season he has just 10 starts versus Niemi’s 31. Now at the very beginning of the season it appeared the Sharks were going to go with a 50-50 split between the two as they each rotated starts the first six games of the season. Each netminder started three games. However, even before Stalock missed time with a knee injury his ice time was decreased despite no drop in performance to speak of. Niemi is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. If there were ever a time to see what the team had in Stalock it would be now. Yes playing Niemi is still important, particularly showcasing him for a potential deadline trade but what was so wrong with continuing the platoon from early October throughout the rest of the year? If the thought process is Niemi gives the team a better chance to win right now, then fine. However, that doesn’t match up with the “tomorrow” team talk and unwillingness to see if Burns back at forward could spark the team again.
The last six plus months have simply been a chaotic limbo of indecision. This franchise would be far better off committing one way or another. Either make a push to win now while you still have the most beloved player in franchise history and a future hall of famer leading the way, or cut bait with as many veterans as you can, stockpile for the future, and let all the worthy kids play. The Sharks as currently put together (floundering around the bottom of the playoff picture) are not going to win the Stanley Cup this year. And if they are not going to make the necessary alterations to improve the current squad then they would be better served to miss the playoffs entirely. The playoff streak is nice and all but at the end of the day, if the future is the primary concern then missing the playoffs and getting a higher draft selection is more important. If the Sharks are a “tomorrow” team, Mueller and McGinn should be in the lineup every night, and Stalock should be getting at minimum a 50-50 split. Otherwise, this team is stuck in the middle with no clear direction and that isn’t helping anybody. There is simply little value to Niemi, Hannan, and Scott playing as much as they currently are.