Over the last decade, almost no NHL team can say it has iced a legitimate Stanley Cup contender as regularly as the San Jose Sharks. Of the league’s other 29 member clubs, exactly one—the redoubtable Detroit Red Wings—can claim to have played as many postseason games as Silicon Valley’s favourite hockey team.
Yet, somehow, the Sharks have never advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Year after year, the team has fallen short in the first or second or third round, and along the way it has understandably picked up the reputation of a playoff choker.
There’s always a tendency to exaggerate the most recent cut as the deepest, but it isn’t hyperbole to say that San Jose’s seven-game loss to Los Angeles, sealed by a 5-1 defeat Wednesday night, is the most painful of the bunch.
Todd McLellan, whose postgame press conference was streamed on CBC.ca, didn’t hesitate when asked if this was the low point for the San Jose franchise.
"Yep," he said. "Low point since I’ve been here…this is as low as it’s been for me, and for the players that have been together for the six years that I’ve been here. That’s an easy one to answer."
Logan Couture agreed with his coach: "Every year you lose is pretty low, but this one is the type of series that will rip your heart out. It hurts. It’s going to be a long summer thinking about this one and what we let slip away."
The sense of disbelief clearly evident in the postgame interviews the Sharks players gave was easily understandable, given the rarity of losing a series after posting a 3-0 lead.
Sportsnet’s Tyler Dellow argues persuasively that we will see this sort of collapse more frequently in coming years—and as it has now happened twice in the last five playoffs, it’s hard not to think that we are there already—but even so, this is a brutal blow.
As bad as this defeat was, though, it wouldn’t sting nearly as badly if not for San Jose’s repeated inability to push through to the final. Of the eight teams to experience at least 75 games of playoff action over the last decade, the Sharks are the only club not to at least put in one appearance in the final series:
|Teams with 75-plus playoff games since 2003-04|
|Team||Playoff Games||Stanley Cups||Stanley Cup Final Appearances|
|Detroit Red Wings||128||1||2|
|San Jose Sharks||113||0||0|
The modern NHL isn’t like the days of the Original Six; it’s possible for a team to consistently do smart things and be run in a competent fashion but still fall short of winning it all. In a 30-team league, it is perhaps a little unfair to boil a franchise’s efforts down to the binary answer to a single question: Did it win the Stanley Cup?
On the other hand, on the hockey operations side, these teams are not constructed to be pretty good year in and year out; they are built to win the Cup, and on some level, the only way to judge success or failure is to go back to that one yes-or-no question.
That’s the trouble for the Sharks. Blessed with success and cursed by failure at the same time, the team’s ownership and management must somehow determine what changes need to be made while at the same time not jettisoning the parts of the club that have helped it run up those 100-plus postseason games.
McLellan’s future is bound to be hotly debated in the coming weeks. He brought a championship pedigree to the organization when he joined it, having won the Calder Cup as an AHL head coach in 2003 and been an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit for the Red Wings’ 2008 Cup win, but he’s never been able to guide the Sharks past the third round.
"I’m in charge," McLellan said Wednesday night. "I’m responsible for the group that performs on the ice." It was a statement that had the same ring to it as Captain Needa’s last line in The Empire Strikes Back.
There’s also a great potential for change at key sections of the roster.
The defence wasn’t nearly good enough, particularly after Marc-Edouard Vlasic went down to injury. Dan Boyle, who has a cap hit of $6.67 million—the highest among Sharks defencemen (Vlasic, with a hit of $4.25 million, is second)—may well be gone. San Jose is also committed to goaltender Antti Niemi for only one more season.
Up front, there are fewer options, and core pieces like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have multiyear deals and no-move clauses. Martin Havlat was mentioned as a potential buyout candidate last year so frequently that NHL.com actually ran a wire story from The Canadian Press explaining that he couldn’t be bought out when he underwent offseason surgery—he’ll be a candidate for that kind of treatment this summer, too.
But the details of the offseason can be determined in the coming days and weeks. For now, this series is simply the culmination of years of playoff disaster, a debacle that will become shorthand for the franchise’s postseason impotence. As Couture said, it’s going to be a long summer for San Jose.