The Road to Abilene and The San Jose Sharks

Photo courtesy of FlickrThere is an old video about human nature which centres around a small group’s miserable road trip to Abilene, Texas. The video shows the road trip plan coming together in a dysfunctional environment, leading to a result that frustrates everyone. The group all went to Abilene, even though no one wanted to go to there.

The San Jose Sharks have an interesting offseason ahead of them. There is a question that needs to get answered: “What are the Sharks trying to accomplish this offseason?” Understanding the objective is the core requirement for putting together a good plan.

To the extent Sharks management has publicly attempted to answer that question over the past few weeks, it comes across as dysfunctional. Dysfunction is something that characterized the past year.

Sharks owner Hasso Plattner recently commented on his expectations. He indicated that he expects this team to bring home a Stanley Cup within the next 10 years. Long-term thinking? Perhaps. But he also put down a marker, stating he expected the Sharks to make the playoffs next season.

Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson has spoken about rebuilding this team. While Wilson tends to find euphemisms for ‘rebuild’, it is clear what he means. New Head Coach Peter DeBoer was succinct in his expectation for this coming season, “The expectation is to win right now”.

So the Sharks are a team expecting to be in a rebuild process, make the playoffs, not seriously contend for a Stanley Cup and win right now. On a test, it is equivalent to the answer: ‘all of the above’.

What is the Plan?

A plan put together in a dysfunctional environment is likely to result in everyone being frustrated down the road. It does not have to be that way for the Sharks.

The Sharks have more flexibility than most teams. Most of their players can be readily traded if desired, certain players have considerable value. Age-wise, the players are pretty spread out. There are no long-term deals on the roster for big money that make the salary cap an issue. The team has cap room now, a healthy amount of money coming off the cap after next season and a lot more coming off the cap the following year.

What the Sharks do not have: an abundance of young players with top pedigrees. The entire Sharks organization (not just the big club) has just one player, under age 30, picked in the top half of round one: Logan Couture. Couture, while a very good player, is hardly the sort of player that carries a franchise. Further, Couture is the best of the Sharks younger players (mid 20’s or younger) by a good bit.

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Peter DeBoer (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

In addition to Couture, the Sharks carry five other players who either are (or were) very good players. Aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both 36 next season, and they carry the two highest payroll numbers on the team. Brent Burns is the team’s best athlete, Joe Pavelski the best all-around player. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a superb defenseman. If any of these players were to hit the trade market, with perhaps the exception of Marleau, there would be no shortage of teams willing to pony up significant assets. Only Couture and Vlasic are under 30.

Hasso Plattner
Sharks owner Hasso Plattner

The questions are many: What near-term sacrifices would the Sharks be willing to make to improve for the longer term? Would they take risks to become a Cup contender this year or next? Are there popular players who can be traded, risking negative reactions from an already antsy fan base? Based on recent comments by management, these questions have no clear answers.

The Sharks are a season removed from posting 111 points (fourth best in the league) and a seven-game series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champs. They are two months removed from a season that featured the largest point drop in the league and a team that was not close to a playoff appearance. The reality is they can be a good and competitive team, or they can aggressively rebuild. Sure, they can try to do both. That would be the trickiest road of all, with a good chance of accomplishing ‘none of the above’.

The Sharks need a direction. ‘All of the above’ is not a direction. Set a course and go. Last season did have a course, however unpopular or misguided it may have seemed to a large portion of the fan base. It was about rebuilding.

Perhaps a course does exist for this offseason, but it has not been narrowed down for the public. What has been shared with the public is dysfunction. If this is really the situation, the likely result is a metaphorical road trip to Abilene this summer. And for those who saw the Abilene video, you know that isn’t a place you want to go in summer.