We’ve reached the final piece in our review of the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks and it is time to tie it all together, then take a peak at the key issues facing the team in the near future. For the Sharks, this was the season that didn’t. The team didn’t play well. Their leaders didn’t perform to their contracts. Their youth didn’t give them the quality of play the team needed. The coach who started the season didn’t solve any of the team’s major issues and, as a result, didn’t keep his job.
The power play didn’t deliver. And in a season where the Sharks have the league’s third worst record, the team didn’t have the one benefit of a truly bad season, a high first-round draft pick. Because in a season didn’ts, they did trade that draft pick away.
It is perhaps fitting the season didn’t end the usual way.
The Few Good Stories
There were good stories this season, some with twist endings. Barclay Goodrow emerged and was easily the team’s most improved player. He was traded. So was Brenden Dillon, who also had a strong season.
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks goalies were miserable in the season’s first two months. But after getting a shot at the starting role, Aaron Dell quickly proved he was a solid NHL goalie. After mostly sitting for a couple of months, Martin Jones returned to the nets late in the season and showed he is still a capable netminder. His last eight starts were impressive. Not that many Sharks fans noticed. Numerous fans had already wandered elsewhere due to the lost season. Whether Jones just needed the reset or new goalie coach Evgeni Nabokov worked a miracle, that is less clear. But the Sharks might be better in goal than feared.
Also on the positive side was interim coach Bob Boughner, who took the reins in December. One wouldn’t conclude Boughner was a positive by the team’s poor record during his tenure. Yet, the team actually played pretty well under his guidance. Yes, the record suffered from all sorts of wounds, some self-inflicted. In the first few weeks, the team blew leads late in games. As the season continued, the Sharks lost top players in a variety of ways: injuries, trades and even a suspension. By season’s end, nearly half of the Sharks came from players recently promoted from the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda (the Barracuda, like the Sharks, were at the bottom of the Pacific Division at the time their season was stopped). And while the Sharks record was poor in the last month, the games were consistently competitive. Even with the diminished roster, almost all of the losses were by one goal.
While I’ve expressed skepticism that Boughner is the man for the Sharks job in the longer term, he did substantially better than his record indicates.
The State of the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks
There were plenty of bad stories during the season and the time to assess blame for the season is coming soon (I will offer my assessment shortly). The reality of the season is stark. Instead of looking back, we’ll assess the current state of the team.
The Sharks remain tight to the salary cap. Only modest cap relief is coming as a few lesser contracts come off the books. Melker Karlsson, Aaron Dell and the buyout dollars associated with Paul Martin among them. Of course, these players will need replacing. An inexplicably large pay bump for Radim Simek, who re-signed in March, takes up a chunk of this space.
Among the great unknowns are the ramifications of COVID-19. What is clear, league revenues will take a major hit. And since player’s salaries are based on a revenue sharing formula, the pain will get shared. Expect some of that pain to get reflected in the salary cap.
As there won’t be the usual growth in the salary cap, it’ll be especially painful to teams who recently signed several players to large contracts and are close to the current cap. This describes the Sharks. General Manager Doug Wilson signed six players to long-term deals in the past two years. They six combine for nearly 60% of the salary cap – all six players have a minimum of four more years remaining on their contracts. The normal growth in cap space usually allows team to sign large deals and still find ways to add pieces. The new reality changes the equation. While the Sharks are not alone with this issue, they are clearly among the teams which face the toughest challenge.
Against this backdrop, the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks turn to the future. The team needs to explore whether keeping all their longer deals in place makes sense. They can attempt trades, but selling now would be selling low. Another avenue will open up. Within sight is the expansion draft for the new Seattle franchise. The Sharks have several major contracts which they will be happy to have Seattle take on. And while the new franchise probably won’t want a problematic contract, the Sharks are in the odd position where they can probably only expose problematic contracts to an expansion draft.
The Sharks have the potential to redo their roster in a short time frame. But this likely requires more than one offseason. And it still requires meaningful contributions from the team’s prospects.
It is worth asking, will the legends, Patrick Marleau (currently with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but likely to return to San Jose if he chooses to continue on) and Joe Thornton, return for another season in teal? The duo may have a limited on-ice impact at this point in their careers, but they are still NHL level players and their popularity is a selling point for a team in need of sales.
The Blame Game
There will be fingers pointed in every direction for the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks failings. And while placing blame isn’t fun, it must be done. Unless one understands the source of the problem, the team is unlikely to make good decisions going forward. We’ll cover this in an upcoming piece.
Once the problems are understood, the question is, where do the Sharks go from here? In the management article, I described the Sharks as too good to be a bad team, but not good enough to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
This team is in ‘tweener’ territory; the great middle, with no low-risk path upward. One almost certain ramification of COVID-19 is the team’s salary cap will remain squeezed. With precious little cap space, they won’t be able to attract a top quality free agent. What is certain, the team is not “one middle-tier player away” from being highly competitive again. To become highly competitive, they’ll need broad improvement from within, and hit just the right notes with new personnel.
This team underwent a considerable talent downgrade in the last 12 months. It is also a team where key veterans have had significant injury histories (the three Sharks traded at the deadline missed zero games due to injury this season), while others are aging into the downside of their careers.
Looking at the personnel, it is fair to ask if the team needs to move in the other direction. Downgrading the team in order to reset for the future is a defensible strategy. But it carries its own risks.
The Sharks dilemma is nicely summed up by the late Yogi Berra, who once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
The Sharks, led by Wilson, need to take a long hard look at where they are. Understand what went wrong and what needs to go right to return to contention. They need to be honest with themselves. For example, do they have the right coaches when it comes to getting the most out of the younger players? Do they have the right netminders, understanding they both rallied this season? With all the pricey deals on the books, who will they target to lose in the expansion draft?
These are all part of mapping out an approach to the future. The questions are harder this season than they’ve been in a long time. The one thing which seems certain, the Sharks have arrived at that fork in the road.