Have the Kings Finally Closed San Jose's Window?

Sharks GM Doug Wilson made his first candid remarks about his plans for the future since the Kings' historic 0-3 comeback, and uh, they were something. Let's talk about it.

If you're a fan of the San Jose Sharks, you might be forgiven for rolling your eyes automatically the moment you hear the word "window" come up in a conversation. Pundits have been talking about their window closing for years; when the St. Louis Blues won four straight against them to eliminate the Sharks in 5 games in the 1st round of the 2011-12 playoffs, the window was supposedly closed. The Sharks responded by reeling off an 8-game point streak (not losing a single game in regulation until a 2-1 loss to the Ducks in game number nine) to start the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, en route to a 25-16-7 record. They started their playoff run by sweeping the Vancouver Canucks (causing a somewhat-disastrous overreaction of their own), before taking the defending champion Kings to 7 games. Though the Sharks ultimately couldn't win that series, they put up a hell of a fight. The feeling around the Sharks had undoubtedly changed once again. Few were talking about major changes coming out of that series, and indeed none were made.

The Sharks appeared to pay off the patience shown by their management and fans alike, once again starting the 2013-14 season on a tear. They won their first six games in a row before finally losing in a shootout to Dallas, not losing in regulation until a hilarious last-second loss to the Boston Bruins in game number ten. Obviously that kind of pace was unsustainable, but the Sharks still ended up finishing with an impressive 111 points, their highest total since their 113 point season in 2009-10. It wasn't enough to finish first in the Pacific, however, as the Anaheim Ducks rode an incredible shooting percentage to their 2nd straight division title. That left the Sharks in a most unenviable situation: a first round rematch with the Los Angeles Kings.

It is not hyperbole to call Sharks-Kings the most anticipated series of the first round, with probably only Blackhawks-Blues even coming close. Prior to the series starting, not a single person on earth would have been shocked to hear the Kings were going to win it in 7 games once again; these two teams were simply too close, by almost every metric available, to think it wouldn't come down to a total coin flip again. The Kings were the better puck possession team and the better even strength team, but the Sharks had more scoring and had a bigger gap on special teams (their power play percentage was stymied by an amazingly low shooting %, one of the ways the Sharks almost certainly would have bounced back next season with no changes at all). Losing in seven games in the first round would have been disappointing for a Cup-contending team, certainly, but it was an unavoidable possibility when you're simply playing another Cup-contending team. It wouldn't have been classified as a choke, that much was for sure.

The Sharks got out to a 3-0 series lead in almost shocking fashion, utterly dominating the Kings in the two games in the tank and then winning a far closer game at Staples on literally their first shot attempt of overtime. Of course, I don't have to tell you what happened next: the Sharks lost four straight, becoming the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead. Again, losing in seven to the Kings wouldn't have been surprising, but the manner in which they lost in seven certainly does change things, at least perception-wise. Sharks coach Todd McLellan famously declared that his team was nowhere near as close to the Kings this time as they were in last year's seven-game loss, and after some speculation that his job could be in jeopardy, the Sharks confirmed today that both McLellan and General Manager Doug Wilson would be retained.

However, that's not all that came out about the Sharks today. Far from it.

In the immediate aftermath of that devastating loss, Fear the Fin declared that the Sharks couldn't afford to overreact to their historic collapse. Today, Doug Wilson appeared to state that he planned on doing exactly that. His comments were lengthy, so let's break them down point-by-point and analyze how that will affect the lineup the Sharks will ice next season, starting with his most definitive remarks. All of his plans seemed to come from a desire to get "younger, harder, and more aggressive", and while those sound like good things on paper, in practice his moves could be a disaster.

  • Dan Boyle and Martin Havlat will both not return to the Sharks next season: This would perhaps be the lone positive for the Sharks to come out of Wilson's remarks today. Both Boyle and Havlat are aging players who are certainly not worth what they were paid last season. Dan Boyle carried a $6.67 million dollar cap hit before his contract expired at the end of this season, which was an awfully high price to pay for a 37-year-old (38 in July) defenseman. Boyle had a 53.0% Corsi at evens this season, which would be good on a lot of teams but was a -1.0% Corsi rel on the Sharks. He did still put up 36 points in 75 games, certainly not terrible, but combined with his middling advanced stats and the continued passage of time, not worth close to what he was being paid. If Boyle had been willing to come back at some bargain basement price (like, $2 million or so maybe? I've also read in a few places that it's actually the term that's the issue here, as Boyle is looking for at least a 2-year deal and Wilson is unwilling to go above 1) I could see the Sharks being interested; the fact that they're not even considering bringing him back would suggest he's looking for significantly more money than that. Havlat, on the other hand, is simply old and injured all the time, and barely got back into the San Jose lineup even once he was finally healthy. With one year left on his contract at a $5 million dollar cap hit, it was obviously time to part ways (either by way of compliance buyout or trade, if they can actually find anyone willing to take that contract) and spend the money elsewhere. Both these moves are fine.
  • Brent Burns will move back from forward to defenseman: This move, on the other hand, is not so fine. Though Burns was a former all star at the position when he was originally acquired by the Sharks from the Minnesota Wild, he was simply better at forward than he was on D. In his last season as a defenseman (2011-12), Burns put up decent numbers in both the underlying and traditional variety: he was a 53.3% Corsi player at evens (+2.4% Corsi rel) and had 11 goals and 26 assists for 37 points in 81 games. Certainly nothing elite, but nothing bad either. On the other hand, after being moved to forward in the 2012-13 season, Burns was immediately one of their most effective players. He scored 9 goals and 11 assists in 30 games, along with a 55.5% Corsi at evens (+4.3% Corsi rel), then followed it up with an even better year in 13-14 (57.1% 5v5 Corsi, +4.6% Corsi rel, 22 goals & 26 assists in 69 games). He was a classic power forward who caused tons of matchup problems and havoc for opposing defensemen. Simply put, Burns is far closer to an elite performer at forward than he is on defense, and moving him back there immediately weakens their forward depth (which was, perhaps, the best forward unit in the entire NHL last year). Still, you could almost defend this move on its own in a vacuum; sure, he's better at forward than he is on D, but the Sharks are amazingly strong at forward. Their lack of defensive depth, on the other hand, is pretty certainly their biggest weakness. So maybe even if Burns isn't nearly as good there, it might still make some kind of sense on a more macro level? You could argue that, I guess, though I'd still disagree with you. But it's not occurring in a vacuum; rather, it's occurring on the same day that Doug Wilson talked about taking that aforementioned forward depth and gutting it on an unprecedented level, which naturally segues into....
  • They will likely trade one of Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau. Or maybe even both. No, really. This was, in fact, the main headline in the article that inspired this piece in the first place. Doug Wilson talked cryptically, kind of, but it was not at all a stretch for the article's author to claim they would likely be on the move; Wilson talked specifically about moving older players who didn't play well in that series, and other than Niemi (who is a fine starting goaltender, especially given his price point) and Brad Stuart (who, to be fair, should absolutely not be on this team and moving him on would be another positive) it's tough to see who else he could have been talking about. He also talked repeatedly about getting younger, and both Marelau & Thornton are about to turn 35. But here's the thing about Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau: whatever you may think about their playoff performances (and oh yeah by the way Patrick Marleau is a 0.41 goals-per-game and 0.7 points-per-game player in 147 playoff games, so to claim he doesn't show up in the playoffs is utter nonsense), clutchiness, heart, grit, or whatever other stupid narratives you choose to believe in, they're still elite players in the NHL. Thornton's 5v5 Corsi rels for the past three seasons: +5.8%, +4.5%, and +6.8% (yes, he had his best season in three years this past season) while scoring 0.91 points-per-game. Marleau's 5v5 Corsi rels for the past three seasons are nowhere near as impressive: +2.9%, +2.7%, and -0.6%. But he still scored 0.38 goals-per-game over the last three seasons, and had a 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage above 7% in his last two full seasons (not counting the lockout year). Both years he drove on-ice shooting percentage above his team's average: 7.9% compared to 7.5% in 2013-14, and 7.1% compared to 6.6% in 2011-12. It's not difficult to see why he would be a driver of on-ice shooting percentage for his teammates; simply put, covering Patrick Marleau opens up time and space for whoever he's on the ice with. Trading either one of these two, nevermind both, would be a disaster on many levels./

What would the Sharks' forward unit look like in 2014-15 without Brent Burns and one (or both) of Thornton or Marleau? Calling it a weak group would perhaps be an overstatement- they would still ice the likes of Logan Couture, Matt Nieto, Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski, etc- but it would undoubtedly look far inferior to the Sharks teams we're all so used to seeing. Part of the reason why trading Thornton or Marleau would be such a bad idea is that it would likely be impossible to get anything resembling equal value for them, for a number of different reasons; first and foremost, no matter how great they are, they're still 35-year-old players making over $6.5 million for each of the next three seasons. It is likely any trade involving either one of them will involve either the Sharks retaining salary or taking back a bad contract (perhaps even both). The other major factor is a rather simple one: simply put, selling low is never a good idea. The perceived value of both players around the rest of the league has almost certainly never been lower than it is right now. Fair or not, they were the two biggest pieces of a Sharks team that blew a 3-0 series lead, affirming all of the most negative narratives that's dogged both of them throughout most of their (Hall of Fame-caliber) careers.

Perhaps the Sharks could get something good back for them in futures; high picks or good prospects, maybe. If they're lucky. But forwards who can step in next season and replace their production and underlying numbers? Fat chance.

Let's project out a Sharks lineup without all three of them, assume they get nothing back to help today, and even give them a couple of UFA forward signings (one high-profile, one depth). What do you get? Well, something like this:


Um, ouch. Obviously this is an extreme example, assuming both no help for today via trade and no prospects making the team. It's unlikely to be quite that terrible. But jesus, even adding one or two more decent players to that group, that's an amazingly far cry from the Sharks teams we're all used to seeing. It shows just how quickly removing Thornton, Marleau, and Burns would take them from a Cup contender to a team that might not even make the playoffs in the Pacific. Who would they be better than in this division with that forward group? Certainly not the Kings. Probably not the Ducks. Maybe not even the Canucks or the Coyotes.

So here's the rub, folks. The Sharks have had, by modern NHL standards, an amazingly long run as a truly elite club. Even with Thornton and Marleau about to hit 35, neither player has shown any sign of slowing down just yet; given their style of play and their production at 34, it is quite a stretch to say you expect them to suddenly fall off a cliff at 35. That window we all love to talk about should have remained open in 2014-15; as Fear the Fin outlined in their article right after their collapse against the Kings, the only thing that could conceivably close it immediately would be an overreaction to that loss of epic proportions.

Today, Doug Wilson basically said "yeah, that epic overreaction? pencil us in for one of those." In effect, the Los Angeles Kings may have finally shut the window on the Sharks' Cup aspirations, once and for all, with a little help from Wilson and (presumably) severe pressure coming from his ownership above him to do something. After years of wondering how and when the Sharks would finally implode for good, it appears that question may have been answered. Good news for the Kings and the rest of the Pacific; terrible news for the Sharks and their fans. If this is finally the end for one of the most consistent regular season teams in National Hockey League history, at least no one could accuse them of going out with a whimper instead of a bang.