The San Jose Sharks and the Greatest Risk of All

It was 25 years ago. I was on the phone with a business partner who managed a group of 50 people. He was telling me that senior management had come down on him for, get this, working the group too hard. Senior management was concerned that overworking these people would result in burnout and ultimately be self-defeating. The response from the chastised manager was priceless. “We’re working hard because we want to win.”

Infecting the Culture

Last summer, after watching the San Jose Sharks management make questionable decision after questionable decision, I mumbled something to myself along the lines of, ‘Wow, the LA Kings didn’t just eliminate the Sharks from this year’s playoffs, but next year’s too.” That is really impressive: in one series, they managed to knock a team out of the playoffs, twice. Perhaps it won’t stop at twice.

The Sharks organization has always wanted to win. The organization put considerable effort into winning. year after year, the teams have been good. The teams that have eliminated the Sharks in recent years have been really good teams. Of the teams that ended the Sharks season since 2010, two have won the Cup and 3rd went to the Cup Finals. Since 2011, the Kings are 10-2 in playoff series and are rightfully considered the best team in hockey over that stretch. The Sharks and Kings have played 20 playoff games covering 3 series in that time, each team winning 10 games. The Sharks have been near the top of the league, just not at the top of the league. Competitive with elite teams, but not better. The negativity hurled at the Sharks was not because they produced bad teams, but because they had failed to meet very lofty expectations. Consider this, they have made the playoffs 10 straight years — and are considered underachievers.

Over the summer prior to the start of the 2014-2015 season, the Sharks decided they wanted to make a bunch of changes, with an emphasis on the culture. And wow did it change!

Todd McLellan Sharks
Todd McLellan’s job is under intense scrutiny (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

This season, the team got comfortable with losing. At least elements of the organization did, and that sort of infection can spread across all levels. Accepting losing is the greatest risk of all for a professional sports team. The Sharks made so many questionable choices that the players, staff and certainly the fans had to be asking, “are we trying to lose”?

I have defended the signings and contributions of John Scott and Scott Hannan. I’ll also acknowledge that neither represented a major answer to a critical problem, such as how to replace departed defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart. The way the organization addressed major issues was positively bizarre. Insulting the top players, stripping away the captaincy and going without a one. Making no noteworthy trades or acquisitions. Re-signing agitator Mike Brown to a 2 year deal at $1.2millon per year. Rushing players to the big club that weren’t close to NHL ready and putting Brent Burns on defense. It was one head-scratcher after another.

Recently, I dissected a strange decision by management surrounding a player injury. It was a straightforward situation that called for prompt action, recall a player from the minors. For a team supposedly trying to stay relevant while sitting on the fringe of a playoff chase, having a sense of urgency matters. Instead, there was a nonchalant response from management. Even the simplest decision leads back to the question “are we trying to lose?”.

 This Is Not a Step Back

It is one thing to take a step backwards, which is what General Manager Doug Wilson said would happen this season, it is another to undermine your team. This doesn’t sit right. Doug Wilson is not some hockey fool. He sees Brent Burns making mistakes on defense. He did not suddenly forgot how to recall a player from the minors. By any objective measure (such as 10 consecutive playoff appearances) Wilson has been good at his job. At least until this season.

Wilson is smart and competitive. His refusal to improve this team around the trade deadline is instructive. It is hard to imagine he could see the playoffs within reach and decide they were just not worth pursuing. The financial payback of getting into the playoffs would be hugely positive. It would also help the concurrent drive for season ticket renewals, a greater challenge than it has been in very a long time. With all the young players on the roster, having them participate in a tight chase for a playoff spot and perhaps playing in a Stanley Cup playoff series, maybe 2, would help their development. Wilson passed up a win-win-win scenario – win on the ice, win for business, win in player development.

doug wilson nhl
Doug Wilson has has made moves that have led to losing  (Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE)

Turning down things like win-win-win scenarios makes it clear that losing was acceptable, perhaps even preferable. Once people sense that losing is acceptable, even if it is intended to temporary, it finds its way into the culture and is very difficult to remove. Tanking anywhere in an organization carries unintended consequences.

Wilson also spoke of players needing to earn their keep all over again (‘no equity’ was the term he used). But the Sharks did not live up to this, either. Defenseman Brenden Dillon is the poster child for this. He has struggled since coming over in a trade of equals early in the season (Jason Demers was shipped out). But he does not sit out games. Matt Tennyson has been better than Dillon, yet he has only played 1/3 of the games this season.

Both Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan have a lengthy history of being good at what they do. One can reasonably argue there are better GMs and better coaches. However, one can not reasonably argue that Wilson and McLellan were bad at their jobs — until this year. I have trouble believing both became bad without ‘help’.

Infections, Cures and Patient Zero

(Icon SMI)
The Shark players have needed to overcome more than just their opponents, they have to overcome their management. (Icon SMI)

Is it possible that this season can be explained by some bizarre scheme concocted by the management team? Example: did they decide to make this season a grand experiment in facing adversity? Face adversity, then identify the individuals that battle it effectively, then make them your new core. Concurrently, cut bait with those unable to handle adversity. Perhaps a bit Machiavellian, but this sort of ‘test’ is not unheard of in Silicon Valley’s business culture. I can not completely dismiss this sort of thing, especially given the anger floating around the Shark Tank after last season. Still, it is hard to imagine that key staff would commit to a plan of this nature.

“We’re working hard because we want to win.” That call from 25 years ago still resonates with me because that is how winners approach their challenges. Organizations can never lose that drive to win. Once an infection of ‘accepting losing’ hits a part of an organization, it can spread to other parts. It is contagious. The more it spreads, the harder it is to cure. Some mentally tough players, such as Joe Pavelski, are immune. Not everyone is as strong as Joe Pavelski.

For the Sharks, the infection has made its way into the world of Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson. I know McLellan hates to lose and I hate making the case that he is infected. But he is. McLellan is a powerful person and this infection has left him powerless to make changes for the better – both changes nominally within his authority and changes where he has influence, if not direct authority. To McLellan’s credit, he works hard to keep the contagion from getting to the players. Meanwhile, Wilson seems powerless to stop a plan that is clearly failing. Since Wilson has considerable authority to make changes, the infection of ‘accepting losing’ seems to have hit him particularly hard.

Two people with lengthy track records of success became powerless in the face of an infected culture that is now ‘accepting losing’.

How do you cure the infection of ‘accepting losing’? The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure holds true here. Never let it infect your operation in the first place. The initial infection can not happen or spread, if there is no starting point, if there is no ‘patient zero‘. But since it has gotten into the Sharks organization, the cure has to be driven from the top. The owner needs to step in and put a stop to this. He is perhaps the only one equipped to rid the organization of this infection. Therein, however, lies the difficult truth: patient zero is the owner.