When Did It All Go Wrong For The San Jose Sharks?

The San Jose Sharks had made the playoffs 21 times in 28 seasons between 1991 and 2019. That statistic alone tells a story about a team that never took a break from competing. Fast forward to the current day and the Sharks have yet to make an appearance since 2019, heading for a franchise-record fourth-straight miss. So, where did it all go wrong in San Jose? The truth is the current product on the ice is a result of so much more than aging players who played passed their prime.

It’s easy to forget the whirlwind of changes and transitions the Sharks have undergone stemming from their nearly 20-season stretch of contention. So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and revisit the string of changes throughout Sharks’ history that I’ve observed made this team who they are today.

Poor Drafting During the Sharks’ Contending Years

Part of the reason San Jose was able to continually retool on the fly was shrewd drafting between the late ’90s to 2010s. I was surprised myself when I dug into the full list of draft picks of the decade-long tenure of Doug Wilson, Jr. as the director of scouting between 2012-2022. During that span, San Jose produced just three top-six talents, all in the first round. To add insult to injury, one of those top-six players is now centering the Ottawa Senators’ top line, a repercussion of the Erik Karlsson trade. No disrespect, but Kevin Labanc is not a top-six threat.

Despite striking gold with Timo Meier, Thomas Hertl, and Josh Norris, the majority of Wilson, Jr.’s selections haven’t panned out. The Sharks are now feeling the impact of those several years of predominantly failed drafts, selections masked by a scarcity positive impact players. Gone are the days of the Sharks’ notorious late-round draft hits, aka Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski, Christian Ehrhoff, and Steve Bernier, who were all drafted in the fourth round or later.

Ryan Merkley San Jose Sharks
Ryan Merkley, Sharks’ 2018 first-round draft pick (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Thankfully, it appears as if Wilson, Jr. left with a bang by heading the drafts of Thomas Bordeleau, Tristen Robins, and William Eklund between 2020-21. Only time will tell if the trio can alter the course of the Sharks’ franchise. Nonetheless, the shoddy yield by their former director of scouting has brought you the current results on the ice.

The Departure of Accountability

Let’s replace the term “accountability” with the name “Joe Pavelski” because the two are synonymous when it comes to Sharks’ hockey. We were all well aware that losing a leader and then-40-goal scorer would be felt on the score sheet. Yet, we didn’t know to what extent and how exactly those leadership qualities would manifest themselves in the aftermath. Well, now we know.

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Little did the Sharks know the loss of their former captain would ignite a much deeper problem than scoring production. Let’s be honest, this team’s dreadful habits and inconsistent play began when the Pavelski era ended. The accountability that held this team together game by game left with “Captain America.” Today, coaches and players echo the same sentiment of self-inflicted wounds as the source of their struggles like an old song on repeat. They appear to acknowledge the problems, but have little or no resolution for them.

These are the same self-inflicted mistakes that would not have been acceptable in the Pavelski era. When unforced turnovers, lackluster backcheck, and dreadful puck management reared their ugly heads, the former captain nipped it in the bud with his vocal locker room presence. This team will continue to shoot themselves in the foot until a leader arises that holds this team accountable for their mistakes.

The Erik Karlsson Trade

This is a point I will elaborate in great detail in an upcoming piece. Yet, I can’t help but give you a teaser considering the numerous ways the Karlsson trade impacted the Sharks’ present and future assets. Those evident impacts are a large reason the NHL media is salivating over any chance the game-changing defenseman could be moved.

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson
Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

At first glance, it looked like a favorable steal for team teal. Four seasons later, the trade was the worst possible occurrence for this franchise. Who knew that the Karlsson trade and successive re-signing of their prized defenseman would be the Jenga piece that sent the entire franchise crashing down? The bottom line is the same pieces they shipped off in the deal are precisely the talented forwards lacking in the Sharks’ lineup in Josh Norris and Tim Stutzle. Though I hope the Sharks retain his services, there’s no denying the trade sent this franchise into a downward spiral financially and personnel-wise.

Is There Any Hope for the Sharks’ Sinking Ship?

The short answer is, obviously not this season. As it stands, the Sharks are likened to a once beautiful ship that has long since withered and rotted with time. The frame has a promising glow, but its innards are lined with holes in the hull while the captain sits quietly in his cabin as if there’s not a care in the world.

However, general manager Mike Grier has some valuable options at his disposal to right this sinking ship. He may sell off the valuable parts of this vessel to help buy a bigger, better ship, aka trade the right players and contracts for immediate and future assets that accelerate the team’s rebuilding process. Or he can scrap the entire boat for one lump sum and self-construct it from the bottom up, trading anything of value and using the return to build anew over the next several years. Either way, the Sharks are nearing the ocean floor. So, the good news is there’s nowhere to go but up. Even if it means hoisting those shattered remains from the bottom of the sea.

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