San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson has either fully lost his marbles or he's a genius at driving up player value. On Tuesday, he publicly announced that the Sharks are committed to a full rebuild this offseason:
"We now become a tomorrow team. So when you spell that out, it does create a response. Now a tomorrow team, is it one year, two years? Time will tell on how our young players handle the responsibility given to them but also making sure we don't give it to them too soon."
Wilson may as well have slapped a "For Sale" sticker on Joe Thornton's forehead and parked him on his front lawn. Hitting the big red rebuild button after a 111 point regular season (good for 5th in the entire league) is certainly ballsy. It's also really dumb.
THE SHARKS ARE AN ELITE NHL CLUB
When your on ice results put you in the company of the Los Angeles Kings, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins, St. Louis and the New York Rangers, you're probably doing something right. We're talking about the elite teams in both conferences. That success in the underlying numbers has translated into perennial dominance in the regular season standings, and multiple conference finals appearances in the last decade.
And who is driving those tremendous on ice results?
Joe Thornton, at 34 is still the best all-around player on the Sharks roster and a bonafide workhorse, number one center. Patrick Marleau, at 34, is still their 4th most productive scorer. The other guys approaching their early 30's, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski, are both effective possession drivers and quality scorers. In short, the San Jose Sharks are really good, precisely because of the players Doug Wilson is likely to trade away. Despite being on the decline, all of these guys are likely to continue to be really good for 2 or 3 more years. They have a fantastic core of both productive veterans and up and coming players like Couture and Hertl. That mix, along with a few minor off-season tweaks on defense would practically guarantee a strong Cup window for the next few years.
Sitting atop the league in multiple metrics, the Sharks have decided their window has somehow closed. Why? Because they've been embarrassed by playoff failures. The public perception, and now apparently the internal perspective of management, is that this group simply can't win in the post-season. Forget the fact that they've gone further in the playoffs almost every year than 90% of the league. They've been labeled as chokers because they can't seem to win hockey's big prize.
THE CHOKER LABEL IS BOGUS
There are few over-used cliches that I despise more than "clutch" or "choker" to refer to both individual players and teams. It is an obvious crutch used, like so many other sports cliches, in place of real, honest analysis. Look no further than the Los Angeles Kings' players Jeff Carter and Marion Gaborik. Uber-talented scorers, who before arriving in LA we're labeled as lazy, or selfish. Jeff "high and wide" Carter was derided in Philly for never showing up in the playoffs. Yet suddenly, both guys are Stanley Cup champions and key pieces in those Cup runs. Did they magically change as players late in their respective careers? Did they suddenly become that much better on the ice? Absolutely not. Both players are objectively in their declining years as NHL players, year by year, moving further from their most productive seasons. But that won't stop the NHL's talking heads from telling you otherwise.
Every time we hear about what's wrong with the San Jose Sharks, we get similarly unsatisfying, and ultimately stupid intangibles like clutchiness, grit, and determination. We hear about how Joe Thornton, despite being year in and year out a dominant NHL player, doesn't have the "right stuff" or a winning mentality. Forget all that garbage. It's bullshit peddled by snake oil salesmen turned broadcasters and hockey columnists. It is folks reaching for safe, satisfying explanations for the big frenzy of chaos, fortune, and drama that is the NHL playoffs.
THE ONLY WAY A "REBUILD" MAKES SENSE
To give up on a Cup window when you are so close to the summit of the NHL is foolhardy. If Doug Wilson wants to trade away his best players and commit to a decade of mediocrity and high draft picks, then he's either a reactionary manager or he's folding to pressure from his ownership and the public perception. This isn't about doing whats best for the organization long-term, because there is no guarantee that the team eclipses where they are now. (See any of the floundering young teams at the bottom of the NHL standings.) Or as dedicated Sharks blog Fear the Fin so delicately put it...
If the Sharks trade Thornton and Marleau they certainly won't choke in the playoffs. Because they won't make the playoffs.— Fear The Fin (@fearthefin) May 16, 2014
Blowing up a team this good is almost invariably a bad idea. The only way this makes sense from Doug Wilson's perspective is if he's doing this to drive up his own players value. Announcing a rebuild this close to the draft is going to have potential suitors for guys like Thornton or Marleau clamoring for Wilson's attention. If Wilson takes advantage of the proverbial feeding frenzy to get an astronomical return that makes his team better now as well as into the future, then this is a master-stroke of playing the market. Anything short of such an outlandish return will be a disaster for the Sharks organization and their fanbase. If Wilson is true to his word and commits to building around young center Tomas Hert, its going to be an arduous journey back to relevancy and to the playoffs.
And it likely won't be Doug Wilson calling the shots when the Sharks find their way back into contention.
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Andrew Devitt is an avid stat nerd and passionate Flyers fan living in Horsham, PA. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewski89.