SAN JOSE – The San Jose Sharks are a lesser hockey team than the Los Angeles Kings. They showed that to be true last year, losing in seven games in the second round. An exclamation point was added this year in embarrassingly historic fashion.
As currently constructed, there’s no reason to think it will be any different next season, either. The Sharks simply aren’t in the discussion anymore when it comes to the league’s elite teams. Those reputations are earned in the playoffs, and it’s been three years since the Sharks have appeared in the NHL’s final four.
“We can’t keep what we have, or at least keep the same approach. Something has to change,” Todd McLellan said on Friday. “It’s two years in a row losing to that team, and it’s a very good team, too. Let me make that very clear.
“But, it’s two years in a row losing to them. And, in fact, when we thought we had improved our group – which I believe we did – we got a weaker performance (in 2014) than we got the year prior.”
The head coach’s frustration level was just as evident two days after the season ended as it was a few minutes after the Game 7 defeat. Perhaps irking him even more is that, in his view, the Sharks had the talent to get past the Kings - or at least put up a better fight than they did late in the series.
“Did we have the skill level and personnel to correct the mistakes we were making? Of course we did. We proved that throughout the year,” McLellan said. “But, we weren’t capable of doing it. We didn’t get it done. It’s as simple as that.”
The head coach took responsibility for the latest disappointment, but also seems to be suggesting that there is something fundamentally wrong with the team’s core, and maybe even its locker room leadership. That includes captain Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, often singled out among Sharks detractors if only based on their tenure, but Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Dan Boyle and Antti Niemi all failed to play up to their capabilities as the Kings took over the first round series.
For his part, general manager Doug Wilson recognized it, too, as his club scored just two goals over the final three games.
“With all due respect to James Sheppard and Matty Irwin, they can’t be your only goal scorers the last three games,” he said.
When it comes to the team’s core group, indications are there that something has to - and will - change. But, who will depart?
Thornton and Marleau just signed three-year contract extensions with no-trade clauses. It’s doubtful they will go, even if that’s the direction Wilson wanted to take.
Couture’s affordable five-year, $30 million contract is about to kick in. The 25-year-old is still the future face of the franchise. He’s not going anywhere. Same with cornerstone defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who proved in the playoffs to be the team’s most indispensible player when he got hurt in Game 5.
What about the other main guys, though?
The 37-year-old Boyle seems unlikely to be retained. One of the best defensemen in Sharks franchise history, but who struggled after a head injury, Boyle will assuredly get a multi-year deal from another NHL club. That is something the Sharks don’t seem willing to offer, and that hole will have to be filled by more than 2013 first round draft pick Mirco Mueller, if he's ready to make the jump.
A goaltending change could be in the cards. Niemi’s regular season numbers were respectable, but he developed a bad habit of letting in goals that he should have routinely stopped, and his postseason performance was abysmal. Alex Stalock hasn’t proven yet that he can be an NHL starter, but he will turn 27 years old this summer, making him not your typical second-year player. If the Sharks can find a taker for Niemi, who has one year left on his contract at $3.8 million, they could bring in a decent veteran backup while penciling in Stalock as the starter.
The more intriguing options are up front in Pavelski and Burns, both of whom are under contract for the next several years at reasonable prices and are in the prime of their careers.
Pavelski is coming off of a 41-goal season, third in the NHL. If there were ever a time to sell high on the 29-year-old, this would be it, as the majority of Pavelski’s goals came on the wing of Thornton. His five-year, $30 million contract extension (that includes a limited no-trade clause) kicks in this summer, and the Wisconsin native could get a huge return if he became available.
As for Burns, who just completed his first full NHL season as a forward, his streaky play carried over into the playoffs. There aren’t many players in the game like the six-foot-five, 230-pound 29-year-old, who can take games over with his physicality and shot when he’s playing well. He also brings with him the option of returning to the blue line, where he didn’t work out in San Jose. Maybe he could fit in somewhere in the Eastern Conference, where teams typically play a less structured style. He’s set to make $5.67 million for the next three years.
Wilson values centers more than wingers, and if he could get one in return for Pavelski or Burns to anchor the third line, perhaps he’d be tempted to make that move. Or, maybe he can pry away a top defenseman from another club to fill the void Boyle will likely leave.
It’s an important offseason for Wilson, assuming his job is safe. He knows he’s in the crosshairs of a fan base that is fed up with the Sharks’ annual flameouts.
“What needs to be done for this organization is what’s right for the organization. Nobody is bigger than this organization. ... We now have some very critical decisions to make,” Wilson said.
“They will be made, but again, it’ll be what’s right for this organization. This organization, this ownership group and our fans deserve that.”