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After being perennial contenders, struggling Sharks are testing GM's patience

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

This is when Doug Wilson figures he'll truly find out what the San Jose Sharks are made of.

Locked in a five-game losing streak, occupying unfamiliar territory outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, times are pretty tough for the men in teal and black.

Rather than being completely discouraged by the current rut, the general manager is choosing to look at it as an important opportunity for a franchise that is accustomed to comfortably waltzing into the post-season each year—only to fall short.

"In the past, sometimes things have come too easy," Wilson said this week in an interview. "The one year, in March and April we didn't lose in 20 games. Sometimes it's not all bad to get kicked in the ass. You can't just flip a switch late in the year and say, 'Oh, now we're going to start doing things the right way.'

"If we start doing it right now, good, it will be a blessing."

There is plenty of time left to salvage the season. On Wednesday morning, the Sharks found themselves two points out of eighth place in the bunched-up Western Conference and they still had 38 games left on the schedule.

But there is a growing sense of urgency internally, brought on in part by Wilson's decision to hold a rare meeting in the team's dressing room last week. There was "no filter" on the conversation, according to the GM.

"I limit it to two or three visits a year," said Wilson. "That room is a sanctuary for the coaches and players. To me, they should take it as an insult that I have to come in there.

"But the good thing is it was an honest and very open discussion where they did their own progress reports and I shared what I was seeing."

It has been a strange year for the Sharks, who were a 100-point team five of the last six seasons (falling just short in 2005-06 when they had 99). They are on pace for 88 points this year.

Scoring is down and the goals-against average is up even though the core of the team remains largely intact. Wilson thinks the players have veered away from the style that helped make them successful in the past.

"There's times we didn't stay committed to the structure," he said. "What that means is guys trying to go solo and trying to do too much. We play fast and we play really well when we play a really good team game.

"We're not the only team that goes through it, but you can't afford to rely on your power play or your goaltender to win games."

The latest disappointment came Tuesday when the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied in the third period for a 4-2 victory. It was the kind of game that could have gone either way, but the Leafs seem to be riding the sort of momentum that San Jose is desperate to find.

Wilson's expectations for the Sharks remain high because he thinks the roster is littered with "hockey rats"—players he says love the game so much they'll find a way to get the job done.

Improvement should start with Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, the offensive leaders on the team who are all on pace to see their point totals dip. It could also include the overall commitment to defensive play, which would help goalies Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki.

Wilson thinks the entire squad would do well to follow the lead of rookie forward Logan Couture (who left Tuesday's game with an apparent knee injury) and Ryane Clowe. Those two linemates consistently show everyone else the level of effort that will be required to turn things around.

"That's maybe what the blessing here is—it's been confirmed within our dressing room when I met with the players," said Wilson. "You only have to look as far as how Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe are playing—they play great in our zone and by coming back they've got the puck 90 per cent of the time.

"They're playing the game the right way."

It's time for the rest of the Sharks to join them. The next chance comes Thursday with the Edmonton Oilers in town.


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