The San Jose Sharks, Vince Lombardi and Strange Decisions

The San Jose Sharks have made plenty of ‘hard to understand’ decisions this season. In that spirit, I will attempt to deconstruct a recent decision, one that most fans probably did not even notice, and see what can be learned from it. As I went through the process, one question kept cropping up, most famously asked by legendary coach Vince Lombardi: What the hell’s going on out here?

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The Background

The Sharks have struggled this year. It has been clear for some time that the Sharks’ playoff hopes were roughly comparable to those of Harold Lloyd famously clinging to a clock in the movie classic Safety Last. Even with the odds against them, Sharks players and Head Coach Todd McLellan have been very clear throughout. Though they do not control their playoff fate, they will continue to push for the playoffs as long as they continue to have at least an outside chance. The overriding theme: every point is precious.

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On Thursday this past week, the Sharks headed to Detroit. While a road game against one of hockey’s better teams would seem a particularly difficult match-up, the Wings had issues of their own – two in particular. Pavel Datsyuk was out and goalie Jimmy Howard, while healthy enough to start, had been slumping since returning from a recent injury. The game started and Howard’s problems took all of 19 seconds to expose. A routine point shot from Marc-Edouard Vlasic got past Howard and the Sharks led 1-0. It would be a short night for Howard, who was pulled after the first period. The Sharks would go on to win and like Harold Lloyd, continue to hang on.

The Triggering Event

Late in the Detroit game came the triggering event. Sharks rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller left the game with an injury. It was quickly apparent that Mueller would miss a chunk of time. Injuries are unfortunate, but not unusual. The Sharks were down to 6 healthy defenseman, 1 less than most teams choose to carry.

The Situation

Following the Thursday game in Detroit, the Sharks had a day off on Friday. On Saturday, they had a day game against the Flyers in Philadelphia, followed by a Sunday game in Pittsburgh to end their road trip.

The next move is the General Manager equivalent of the $100 question on ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’.

With back-to-back games coming over the weekend, the obvious choice is to call up a healthy 7th defenseman to join the team on Friday. Doug Wilson has probably made that sort of phone call a few hundred times in his role as Sharks General Manager.

At a minimum, the 7th defenseman is insurance in case someone gets sick or injured on game day and needs to be a late scratch. Or as a Boy Scout might summarize it: be prepared.

In the case of the Sharks, there was a second reason. One of the Sharks defensemen is 36-year-old Scott Hannan. The Sharks have tried to avoid rolling out the team’s oldest player for back-to-back games. The team needs 7 defenseman on the roster to do that.

What we have established so far: a team trying to hang on to their playoff hopes has a pair of very good reasons to call up a 7th defenseman on Friday.

Huh? What? Huh?

The Sharks did nothing.

They decided to roll into the Flyers rink on Saturday with 6 defensemen, taking an unnecessary risk. During the game, the issues started to compound. Top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic went down with an injury early in the game. Scott Hannan took a hit to the head late in the game, the sort one might expect to be followed by concussion protocol testing, and was unable to finish the game. He also had a cut under the eye and was dripping blood on his way to the locker room. The Sharks did manage a win, and got the 2 precious points.

Vlasic San Jose Sharks
Injuries to Marc-Edouard Vlasic (above) and Mirco Mueller exposed questionable work by Sharks management. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

It was clear sometime Saturday, perhaps during the game, that Vlasic’s injury would prevent him from playing Sunday. Hannan, in whatever state he was in, would be expected to play on Sunday.

Even with Hannan slated to play on Sunday, San Jose was down to 5 blueliners. The Sharks had two defensemen in Worcester that would seem to be call-up candidates. Having lost both Mueller and Vlasic in the last two games to injuries, calling up 2 replacements would not be out of the question. Given that Hannan had taken a head shot the day before and sometimes the effects can linger, there was perhaps added potential for him to be a late scratch — an added reason to consider calling up 2 players.

Of the two players likely to be considered to get called up, Matt Tennyson was the only one to have played for San Jose. He split his time this season between Worcester and San Jose, recording 8 NHL points in 27 games and an even rating. Taylor Fedun, like Tennyson, appears to be having a strong season in Worcester. However, Fedun had yet to play a regular season game for the Sharks and only had 4 NHL games in his career. With the Sharks players and coaches talking about how every point was critical, experience would seem to matter. Tennyson would seem the obvious choice if only one player would get the call. The Sharks called-up Fedun, not Tennyson.

Earlier in the article, I mentioned having that extra player was insurance in case someone was sick or injured and needed to be scratched. Ironically, sick and injured both factored into Sunday’s game, albeit unrelated to the Sharks defensemen issues. Sharks’ goalie Antti Niemi, the scheduled starter, took ill and did not play. Injuries, including one from Saturday, resulted in the Penguins icing only 5 defenseman. Stuff happens. Linesman Steve Barton left early in the game, likely feeling some lingering effects after having been hit in the face by an errant stick during a game on Saturday. Broadcaster Brian Engblom needed stitches after getting hit by a puck during the game. The Boy Scouts were right.

The Questions and The Question

The game itself was a good one. The Sharks, needing every possible point, lost in a shoot out. The Penguins only scored twice, both early on. Both Hannan and Fedun were involved in those scores. The Penguins first goal came at even strength when Hannan was unable to clear a rebound. The second goal came on a power play following a hooking call on Fedun. Fedun was less than five shifts into his first game with San Jose when that call happened.

It is easy to criticize with hindsight, but the Shark moves that followed the injury to Mirco Mueller were baffling in real-time. Day after day, Todd McLellan and Shark players have repeated the theme: every point is precious. Management is not on the same page. When an issue came up needing prompt management attention, management took a nap. ‘Be prepared’ was on hiatus.

The nominal actions needed were as straightforward as it gets for a team needing to win every game. But those actions did not happen, leaving behind a bunch of questions. Why not call up a 7th defenseman on Friday so the team is prepared if someone is unable to go on Saturday? Why not call up a 7th defenseman so there is an option for Scott Hannan to skip the back-to-back game? When it finally became clear San Jose would need to add at least one defenseman for the critical game on Sunday, why call up the one that had zero game experience with the team?

A common and easily handled situation resulted in strange decisions from Sharks management. This small episode — and the dysfunction it exposes — sheds some light on the bigger picture. Shark fans know it has been nearly a year of strange decisions, most with far greater implications than this one. Which brings us back to Vince Lombardi: What the hell’s going on out here?