May 16, 2009
Do the math... 117 is less than 0
Sharks' early playoff exit is no surprise, explains Dennis Bernstein.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- If you're a hockey fan in Northern California, you should have seen it coming. If you're sitting in Gilroy with a Patrick Marleau jersey hanging in your closet, you should have known better. If you've made road trips from Cupertino to Anaheim to witness your beloved Team Teal play a road playoff game, you can't be shocked. If you've held season tickets in the Shark Tank for the past decade, this can't be a surprise.

The San Jose Sharks set statistical records and won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best team, but it was them and not their opponents, the Anaheim Ducks who played like an eight seed in their Western Conference quarter final series.

With Stanley Cup winners Rob Blake and Dan Boyle augmenting the back line and Marleau and Joe Thornton leading a crew of deep and talented forwards, Sharks’ fans finally believed they had the team to dethrone the defending Stanley Cup Detroit Red Wings. They had a major upgrade behind the bench as well with hard working former Wings’ assistant Todd McLellan replacing the smug and inefficient Ron Wilson.

With McLellan coming directly from the winning culture in Hockeytown, he would be the chosen one to eliminate those years of underachieving.

Not exactly.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Sharks improved their regular season record, arcing from 99 points in the 2005-’06 season to an eye popping 117.

While that’s good news by the South Bay and most fans around the league would trade franchises straight up, the far worse news is that those four years saw the Sharks fail to advance past the second round of the playoffs with this elimination being the worst. On the morning of April 28, they stand no better than the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues or Columbus Blue Jackets.

Truth be told, the Ducks were a .500 team for most of the season and had major chemistry challenges by virtue of GM Bob Murray’s wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline. While the Sharks were settled as Game 1 approached, Anaheim backers had major concerns about a team that only started to gel the last 15 games of the regular season. Both sides came to find that while talent and chemistry is important, it’s more important to have winning players.

One can make the caser the Ducks were arguably the best number eight seed since the post season tournament went to a field of sixteen. With that said, the Ducks became only the fifth team to upset the NHL’s best regular season team in the first round since the Expansion Era began defined as the 1967-68 season. In the Ducks’ muted post game celebration, we talked to Teemu Selanne and Ryan Whitney and neither of them considered the triumph an upset of major proportions.

"We’re not your typical number eight," the Finnish Flash said at the time, while the recent acquisition from Pittsburgh chimed in: "No one in this room thought this was an upset."

But the guys in the other room, well, upset wouldn’t start to describe their emotions as they prepared for their short trek back to Silicon Valley for the last time this season. Boyle, one of the few in the room that is a proud owner of a Cup ring, ran the gamut of emotions. His look was one of bewilderment, anger and sadness rolled into one as he expressed his thoughts on where it went wrong.

"They were the better team to a man. Their goalie was better than ours, their defense was better than ours and their forwards were better than ours. We had a lot of chances in six games but we missed a lot of opportunities to put the puck in the net. They executed better than we did. We had a great regular season but a very disappointing playoff," Boyle conveyed while only failing to assess the performance of San Jose’s equipment managers.

Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, decisively outplayed in the Anaheim net by relative unknown Jonas Hiller, refused to take responsibility for the loss and preferred to turn to stating the obvious.

"The bottom line is they were a better team than us. We battled, we fought but losing the first two games at home, that was the key. I hate to go back to last year but it’s the same thing, against Dallas we went down 2-0. You lose two games and you go down and it's hard," the Russian netminder reasoned.

How about taking a responsibility for not stealing a game or two for your team like the great ones do?

Rob Blake sat on his stool and didn’t offer up much, but that’s not to be expected in the role of mercenary. As Sharks’ fans painfully learned, that’s what mercenaries do; do the job, don’t get emotionally involved and cash the check. After an awful 2007-08 season in Los Angeles, Blake had the great benefit of extracting a $5 million, one-year deal from GM Doug Wilson in the hope of bringing leadership and championship experience in the room. With his season ended and at 38 years of age, the only remaining motivation for Blake is the possibility of finding another NHL general manager who doesn’t recognize that his days as a game changer are long gone.

Most noticeable by his absence was Thornton, again a failure in the post-season and facing the reality that there may be nothing he can do at this point to eliminate the tag of playoff non-performer. He even tried to get in Ryan Getzlaf’s face at the start of Game 5 and all it got for him was a punch in the face at the opening faceoff of the elimination game. He was vastly outplayed by Getzlaf in crunch time and that advantage was a deciding factor in the series.

The emotion of the moment and the burden of his non-performance in the playoffs proved too much for the normally affable Thornton as he chose to dress in a restricted section of the locker room and avoided the media who were ready with the obvious questions. But for all the flaming that both Sharks and non-Sharks fans will rain down on Thornton, you can’t say he doesn’t care. If anything, he cares too much about his flawed legacy in the game and that might be the prime cause of his strife and apprehension in the second season.

I'm not so sure about their captain.

Marleau emerged from the dressing area in the visitor’s locker room looking as if his team just lost a meaningless home game to Phoenix in January. His face was devoid of emotion; he wasn’t angry or sad, never raised his tone of voice above a hush and had few answers but many clichés regarding the demise of the team he leads.

"We needed to a better job in putting the pucks in the back of the net. We let opportunities slip away and you have to rise when they happen. It’s disappointing and that’s all I can say," using words that will never mistake him for Mark Messier or Steve Yzerman.

While he scored both game winners for San Jose, he was nowhere to be found in Game 6, mustering up only one shot while taking a hooking penalty that led to the Ducks’ opening goal. Marleau is certainly dignified and respectful but shouldn’t your leader either be enraged or depressed at such a grand failure?

So as an excruciatingly long post season for the San Jose organization and its fan base starts, what remedies can there be for an organization that drafts and develops players as good as any but fails more spectacularly than any?

The players offered up nothing; when we posed the question to Marleau about change, without blinking he offered, "It’s not up to me."

No, Patrick but it was up to you at the start of the series, wasn’t it?

We’ll suggest some solutions but one of them won’t be a shake up of management. From GM Wilson on down to the stick boy, the San Jose organization has class and although this loss is the most devastating in franchise history, it was handled with their heads up. This includes the coach; as McLellan was out-coached and outfoxed at every turn by the Ducks’ Randy Carlyle, especially with his line combinations. It’s best served for McLellan if he juxtaposes this failure with his success with Detroit to find a thread (other than bringing in winning players) to winning with this team. But the fans and the organization know there’s no time left for classy losers.

Say no to imports

Wilson’s continuing experiment with aged veterans should be shut down. The past-his-prime 38 year old Blake was in it for the money, a game but finished Jeremy Roenick will ride into the sunset without a Cup and a 42 year old Lemieux can only tell stories about how he won games for the Devils, Canadiens and Avs. These days you’ve got to be able to lead and play, not recant ghosts of greatness past.

Competition is always healthy

If you’d tried to name the last time Nabokov stole a game for the Sharks in the playoffs in net, you probably still thinking. With his inability to outplay Hiller, he now stands with Mikka Kiprusoff as a nominee for most overrated goaltender in the NHL. It now appears that this goaltender is simply a function of the team and system for which he plays and not a superior talent. GM Wilson needs to bring in a strong number two goalie (or even another number one in a Marleau deal) to reduce his regular season load to 50. Perhaps less regular season stress would bring better post season success because something has to change.

Neither one of us wants to say goodbye

This is the biggest move; it’s got to be either Marleau or Thornton who goes in the summer time. Both players are 28 years old and while in their hockey primes, team chemistry AND performance has to be better in the playoffs. These two players combined body of work proves they can’t carry the load in this scenario.

For those who have seen enough of Jumbo Joe’s failures and want to vote him off the island, the dollar and cent reality is that he has two years left on a deal that pays him $7.2 million a year. The remaining length and number of his him harder to deal than Marleau. Patrick has only one year left on his deal at $6.3 million and a bigger issue than contract status is the fact that he’s ill-suited for the “C”. His lack of fire and personality is not what this team needs in the room before they stride down the corridor to face an elimination game.

This team doesn’t take his lead by his play on the ice, so there’s time for a stronger voice (Shane Doan via trade?) in the room. To keep him and ask him to step down from the captaincy would cause further embarrassment and force him deeper into a shell, so a fresh start in a new city is best for all parties. If Thornton is the one to stay, he’s shouldn’t be given the burden of carrying the C either, give it to someone that’s come up through the ranks or proven themselves in the second season.

The Sharks still have a lot going for them; they’re presently the best run and most successful franchise in the Bay Area. They possess a fiercely loyal fan base that packs their arena despite getting no post season payoff since the lockout. The question remains how does this organization keep the passion level at its highest.

What can the organization pitch the ticket buying public next season, a 120 point season? Why not an undefeated regular season? While the Sharks are a testament to the benefits of wise drafting and great player development, the NHL’s end game is about championship banners and not President Trophies.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The 4th Period Magazine and a Columnist for

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