Nobody wants to be the San Jose Sharks on another empty spring day in Northern California, Los Tiburones holding exit interviews even before the Cinco de Mayo parade rolls past San Pedro Square.
The Sharks are the best regular-season team in the National Hockey League since the lockout nine seasons ago. They’ve finished out of the top five in three of the past nine regular seasons and never deeper than 12th.
It’s the post-season that counts, of course, and there the Sharks have reached just two conference finals and no Stanley Cups in 22 years, exiting Wednesday night in the first round for the third time in the past nine seasons.
They choke seemingly every year in a unique fashion, this time a historic 3-0 series lead blown to the Los Angeles Kings. Last time, a Game 7 stunner to the Kings again, a series stretched out by San Jose after the Sharks had dropped Games 1 and 2.
The journey differs, yet the destination stays the same. The annual banquet of springtime pain felt by Sharks fans is like a cooler at the ice cream shop — 31 flavours, all of them ice cold.
So, who would want to be a Sharks fan today? Well, every hockey fan in Canada, for starters.
Somehow, the NHL’s most efficient franchise just can’t win in the post-season. It’s a quandary that dominated hockey talk shows again on Thursday, and a question that simply cannot have one definitive answer.
But this organization is a sight better than anything we’ve got up north, even if we can’t quite put our finger on what it is that ails the Men in Teal.
Is it goaltending?
When Sharks GM Doug Wilson decided after a conference final loss to Chicago in 2010 that Evgeni Nabokov wasn’t enough goaltender to get the Sharks over the top, he signed Chicago defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a four-year, $14-million Group II offer sheet. The Blackhawks matched on Hjalmarsson, but then Chicago couldn’t afford unrestricted free agent Niemi, who was scooped up by the Sharks that September. Wily.
Is it the aging leadership duo of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau?
Well, Thornton and Marleau have finished among the Sharks top three regular-season scorers in every season since the lockout year, but to say Wilson hasn’t supported the Marleau-Thornton entry is absurd. Look down a roster that includes Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, Tommy Wingels… The defence is big and good, and includes a veteran power-play specialist in Dan Boyle (a free agent come July 1) and an Olympic-calibre 27-year-old in Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Is it scouting? Not a chance. San Jose has had two top-10 picks in the past 10 drafts and nabbed Couture at No. 9 and Devin Setoguchi at No. 8. The Sharks’ amateur scouting staff has stolen later picks like Pavelski (205th overall), Vlasic (35th), Jason Demers (186th) and Hertl at No. 17.
How have the pro acquisitions been? Well, Niemi was a Vezina candidate last season. Wilson traded for Burns and he has thrived in San Jose. The Dan Boyle deal with Tampa was one of the great acts of larceny in the past decade among NHL horse traders.
That the Sharks have never bought out a contract — say that slowly, Maple Leafs fans: never… bought… out… a… contract — speaks to the percentage of decisions that pans out in San Jose. Sure, they once let a third-string goalie named Miikka Kiprusoff get away, but that’s a rare miss, and everybody has a skeleton in their closet.
What everybody doesn’t have — listen up, Canada — is a playoff attendance record of 15 of last 16 seasons. And it’s not like Wilson has stood on the same style either.
Sensing that the league had sped up, San Jose gave up some size for some speed this season. Worked well all season, but not in the playoffs — again.
Head coach Todd McLellan has pedigree as an export from the Detroit assembly line of coaches and GMs. The building is full every night of every season in San Jose, with Canadian legend Neil Young a regular.
So we’ve reached the point in this column where we are expected to offer a solution to San Jose Syndrome. You may notice, we’ve procrastinated on that.
That is, simply, because we do not have one.
Thornton is still one of the elite passers in the game. Marleau is still a top-three forward. The Sharks’ pipeline continues to pump out good-to-great players. The goaltending is more than strong enough. The coach is a damned good one, and there isn’t a GM whose work we hold in higher regard in the entire NHL.
There also isn’t a hockey ops department on any Canadian team you would swap out for the Sharks’ hockey ops, roster for roster. Not one.
So, what’s wrong in San Jose?
Other than the empty trophy case? Absolutely nothing.