The San Jose Sharks have been a model franchise. Stable and successful. In the larger picture, there is much the franchise has done right. But as old faces age out, the San Jose Sharks future is beginning to face uncertainty.
San Jose Sharks At 30
On the downside, the franchise has not claimed a Stanley Cup. Nor has there been much sunshine this season or the one before. In this, the team’s 30th year of existence, things are changing.
The Sharks are facing numerous questions – and at more levels – than anytime since perhaps the earliest days of the franchise.
We start with team owner Hasso Plattner. The 77-year-old resident of Germany has given no signs he is considering parting with the team. This is not surprising, Plattner operates mostly out of the public view.
Few are complaining about Plattner. He lets his management team run the operation. In an era of meddling ownership, Plattner has put his imprint on the organization from behind the scenes. However, the Sharks appear headed for at least a few seasons before they can seriously challenge for a Stanley Cup.
It is reasonable to ask, is this what Plattner wants to do with his time?
There are issues that can use ownership involvement. This includes new development around the San Jose Sharks venue, SAP Center.
For a long while, the Shark Tank, as it is affectionately known to most locals, had minimal competition for major Bay Area events. The lone indoor venue of similar size which competed for events was the arena in Oakland (it has operated under a variety of names) and was built in 1966. The Shark Tank had all sorts of advantages over the Oakland venue. But in 2019, the palatial Chase Center opened in San Francisco and became the region’s marquee venue.
What are the Sharks’ long-term plans for SAP Center?
First some basics. The city owns the building, but Sharks Sports & Entertainment (SSE) manages it. The contract signed in 2015 runs through 2025 and is renewable annually thereafter through 2040.
The Sharks home on Santa Clara Street, a few blocks from the city’s downtown core, is currently surrounded by a modest level of development. But a massive development project (led by Google, but involves quite a bit more) is coming, something the team views with more than just wariness.
Indeed, the team’s recent letter to the fan base states, “despite continued requests by Sharks Sports & Entertainment (SSE) to modify the project in a way that would not jeopardize the future of SAP Center, none of our requested modifications have been incorporated into the project documents. … We are still analyzing the project documents, but believe the City and Google are headed down a path that will be even more devastating for the future of the arena than we originally projected.”
Local government approvals for the project can come within a month. The team says it can not support the proposals as they exist. An exasperated Jonathan Becher, President of SSE, weighed in on just how problematic the management views important aspects of the project, saying at one point, “that’s why we’re, frankly, screaming so loud and making such a big deal…”
Is the team is ready to explore alternatives? They’ve made no such statement or threat, but have noted it is something they might need to consider. And they are only locked in for another four years.
Whether the SAP Center is the right place for the Sharks to call home beyond 2025 is a question the organization needs to consider. The sort of thing one might expect an owner, one living in the community, to actively participate in.
The Hockey Executive
We wrote at length about Doug Wilson, the team’s long-standing general manager. Wilson’s future is in the hands of Plattner and Plattner isn’t the sort who drops hints publicly. After making playoffs in 14 of 15 seasons, the Sharks missed badly last season and are on pace to a similarly bad season in 2021.
After more success than most top hockey executives ever accomplish, Wilson has steered the team into rocky waters. With too many overpriced longer-term contracts, too few high draft picks and a modest pipeline, Wilson isn’t in a position to steer the team into contenders anytime soon.
Rebuilding seems the obvious next phase. Wilson has never rebuilt a team. Prior to the start of the season, I wrote that Wilson was at a fork in the road and instead of taking a direction, he hedged his bets. The result is a 2021 season which might have accelerated the rebuild, but most didn’t.
The question is essentially this: is Wilson the right person to take the Sharks to their next phase?
The hockey team itself is changing and the pace of change is going to accelerate, perhaps abruptly. The top three-point producers in franchise history are Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Pavelski and Thornton play elsewhere. Marleau, who is likely in his final NHL season, and even more likely in his last as a Shark, is one of just six players remaining from the 2016 Stanley Cup Final team. The list also includes Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture. The two others, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones, have seen massive meltdowns in their game and sport among the NHL’s worst contracts.
The new generation of players expected to lead the team are falling short and most won’t be missed if they were moved. Even the coaching staff fits into the “easy to replace” category.
Prior to the start of the season, Wilson said the “bones” of the team were good. But the on-ice product isn’t fooling anyone. A lot of things can happen and at this point, it is hard to imagine any player is untouchable, even ones with ‘no-move clauses’.
Turning Points for the San Jose Sharks
To everything there is a season, turn turn turn. Whether you know that line from The Byrds song or from Ecclesiastes, there’s no denying this applies to the Sharks, and at multiple levels.
Stability remains for the moment, but new directions at almost every level are in play, something which has rarely happened in Sharks Territory. How the organization handles these changes will impact how the franchise functions in the coming years.
One area of certainty is the San Jose Barracuda. The AHL squad has a new building under construction. SAP Center has been an awkward home for the AHL club, using a massive (and operationally expensive) building for minor attendance. The new and smaller home represents a smart change.
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