SAN JOSE, Calif. – The players packed up their lockers, took their exit physicals and departed for the summer far earlier than the San Jose Sharks had the previous two seasons.
A first-round playoff exit after two straight runs to the Western Conference final has left general manager Doug Wilson to figure out what went wrong during an inconsistent season in which a talented team rarely seemed to fire on all cylinders.
“The frustration is that we did not have a good year. We were chasing it at times,” Wilson said Tuesday. “We’re going to look at all aspects of our team. There are four or five other top teams going through what we’re going through, but I don’t even care about them.”
The Sharks said their goodbyes three days after being eliminated in five games by the St. Louis Blues during a topsy-turvy first round of the Western Conference playoffs. San Jose had the same fate as Detroit, Chicago and Vancouver as the only teams to make the Western Conference final the past three years all got bounced in the first round.
That has raised what seem like annual questions in San Jose about whether the window of opportunity for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Co. to win the Stanley Cup with the Sharks is closing.
“You want high expectations,” Thornton said. “You want to be known as a team that can win every year. The reality we have is we have a chance to win every year. You embrace that and you want it, but unfortunately we just couldn’t get it done this year.”
Wilson now is trying to figure out why. He met with coach Todd McLellan’s staff and the players on Tuesday as part of that evaluation. He will then meet with the ownership group to present a plan for moving forward.
Wilson would not commit to McLellan returning for a fifth season as coach until after that is completed, although McLellan said he expects to be back.
“We’ll go through the process of reviewing everything,” Wilson said. “That’s our process to see what’s right for this organization. I believe in Todd. Todd has been to the Final Four (here). He’s won a Cup in Detroit. I think he knows this game. But there are some things where we will all sit down and where we have to get better. We don’t believe in excuses and there are some things that have to be fixed for us to be successful.”
One of the most obvious areas for improvement was a penalty-kill unit that ranked second-worst in the league in the regular season and allowed six goals in 18 chances to the Blues.
It was also a major problem in 2010-11 and only got worse despite efforts to revamp it with personnel and approach.
“Our penalty-killing was awful,” Wilson said. “It’s been last in the league the last two years and that impacts you in the big way. There’s the special teams differential, but it also makes you less aggressive because you can’t afford to take any penalties. So that’s an area that we certainly have to address.”
Wilson tried to address it by acquiring proven penalty killers in Dominic Moore and Daniel Winnik before the trade deadline. While there were signs of improvement late in the regular season, the team reverted in the final two games of the regular season and against the Blues.
“The penalty kill is on me. We work on it as a unit, the players try to implement what we do,” McLellan said. “It worked well for us for two years, extremely well, and it’s fallen off for two years. It’s obvious that some changes need to be made there and we’ll look at every avenue possible, whether it’s systematic, how we use players. That’s on the coach.”
There will also be the questions of personnel. The team’s top six forwards, top four defencemen and goalie Antti Niemi are all under contract for next season. Unless Wilson decides to deal one of his major pieces, most of the changes will be on the edges as the Sharks seek better penalty killing, more depth and consistency.
The team has six potential unrestricted free agents in forwards Winnik, Moore, Brad Winchester and Torrey Mitchell, and defencemen Jim Vandermeer and Colin White.
Five more Sharks can be restricted free agents, including three young players that Wilson and McLellan highlighted for their contributions in forwards Tommy Wingels and Andrew Desjardins, and defenceman Justin Braun. Forwards TJ Galiardi and Benn Ferriero are also potential restricted free agents.
While there is uncertainty this off-season with the collective bargaining agreement expiring in September, the Sharks also could make changes through trades or free agency. They were linked to a possible deal with Columbus star forward Rick Nash before the deadline that could be rekindled this summer.
“Win or lose, you never come back the same way,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “That’s not up to me to make those decisions, but I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of new faces. I can only speak for myself. I want to be here. The fire’s still burning. I want to win badly.”
Notes: F Logan Couture will have surgery on his left shoulder to fix a problem that has been nagging him for two years. … Wilson said Moore did not make the trip for Game 5 in St. Louis because of family reasons.