The San Jose Sharks are among the winners so far this off-season and that was a must for a team that was a second-round loser for a third consecutive spring.
For most NHL clubs, averaging more than 100 points in the regular season and reaching the second round every year would be gravy. But the Sharks have loftier standards and were not impressed with how their season ended at the hands of the Dallas Stars.
“We played five good playoff games out of 13,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “That’s not acceptable. We decided to make some changes.”
Say hello Todd McLellan, Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.
“We’ve added four people and every one of them has won a Stanley Cup,” said Wilson.
The message couldn’t be any more clear than being slapped on the head with a two-by-four. Yes, the Sharks have a talented roster led by the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo but the group needed a little push to get over the hump.
Blake won a Cup with Colorado in 2001, Boyle and Lukowich with Tampa Bay in 2004 and McLellan sipped champagne last month. They’ve been there. They know what it takes.
“You can’t just sit there and hope something changes from a natural evolution,” said Wilson. “We tried to address some things we think will make us even a better hockey team.”
Wilson had actually tried to acquire Boyle at the trade deadline last season before the talented puck-moving defenceman signed a $40-million, six-year contract extension to stay in Tampa. Or so he thought. New ownership in Tampa had other ideas and asked him to waive his no-trade clause last week. Boyle took matters into his own hands and identified San Jose as one of his preferred destinations.
Wilson was more than happy to oblige – sending defenceman Matt Carle, prospect Ty Wishart and first-and fourth-round draft choices in 2009 to Tampa last Friday in exchange for Boyle and Lukowich.
In the aftermath of the deal, six teams from the East contacted Wilson and thanked him for getting Boyle out of their conference. He wasn’t fun to play against.
Boyle fills the void of the departed Brian Campbell, who signed a $57.12-million, eight-year deal in Chicago and left via free agency. San Jose’s blue-line now consists of Boyle, Blake, Lukowich, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Christian Ehrhoff, Douglas Murray and Kyle McLaren – the kind of depth Detroit and Anaheim have rode to success in recent years.
Before making the player moves, Wilson first had to make a coaching change, relieving veteran Ron Wilson after five-plus years.
“It was a very difficult decision,” said the GM. “Ron and his staff worked very hard and did an outstanding job with us. But sometimes the class needs another professor – and the professor needs another class.
“And you don’t let anybody off the hook. I told the players, ‘We’re making a coaching change but you better look in the mirror.’ Because we had some players that didn’t play enough good games in the playoffs.”
Wilson tempers his criticism of the players with the belief that other great teams had these similar growing pains before finally winning.
“It’s not really much unlike what Detroit had gone through,” he said. “This was the first time Detroit had gone to the final in six years. I talked to (Wings GM) Kenny Holland about this before, what is it that gets your players back on top of doing the things they need to do to be successful.”
Before this era’s Red Wings team got back on top, there were playoff pitfalls – including a second-round loss to Calgary in 2004 and another first-round loss to Edmonton in ’06. Wilson hopes his team will have learned from their playoff experiences – nine rounds’ worth in the last four seasons.
“It’s a process that when you take a step back and look at it historically, you understand it,” said Wilson. “And we’re not an old team. We’ve gathered that experience and we’ve got guys that are very hungry and determined.
“Sometimes you just need to adjust your approach a little bit and that in fact is what we did.”
The off-season moves should not be confused with Wilson losing faith in his core.
“We believe in our players a lot – and we think they’re just coming into their prime,” he said. “You’re looking to add specific types of players. We’ve tried to get Danny Boyle before. We tried to get Rob Blake before. This is very consistent.
“We’ve never altered our plan, we’ve let our group grow and evolve and we’re very proud of our players. But we also look at if there’s something we can do to make our team better.”
Wilson, a former star defenceman himself, has a good relationship with his players. He believes in this core and its ability to get it done.
When forward Ryane Clowe blew out his knee last season, that trust was apparent. Wilson and Clowe shook hands on a two-year contract extension that should be finalized shortly. Clowe’s word was enough. So was Wilson’s.
There are other examples, such as Brian Boucher turning down bigger contracts in Russia to return as the backup to Evgeni Nabokov next season. Jeremy Roenick, almost retired a year ago, also wanted back and signed a one-year deal.
The chemistry is there, and so is the talent. But not the championships. Not even a Cup final appearance. And until that happens, the media criticism will only grow sharper for a roster that looks so good on paper.
“I’m proud of where we are at,” said Wilson. “There’s 27 teams that would like to be where we’re at the last three years. But where we are trying to get to is to be one of the teams that raises the Cup. And we want to do it every year.”