Perhaps no one made the point more clearly than San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher. When asked about a rebuild, Becher responded, “I’ll reiterate what Doug (general manager Doug Wilson) has said. Our owner, Doug, myself, that’s not something we want to live through. It’d be hard for me to sell a three-year season ticket plan to somebody that says we plan not to be good for the next three to four years. It just doesn’t feel right to me and I think it would be hard in this market.”
On this front, Becher isn’t lying. It is hard to sell tickets to the fan base of a rebuilding team. But we have to be honest here. No one chooses a rebuild because it is the easy way to sell tickets. A team chooses to rebuild because it is the right longer-term choice for the organization.
For the San Jose Sharks, a rebuild is the right choice. We’ve covered this in recent articles, explaining why the Sharks are unlikely to be highly competitive in the next few seasons. And if they can’t be highly competitive, they should pick a target date when they can be and build towards that. In my prior pieces, I offered up what a plan might look like with a target date of 2025 as a return to serious contender status.
The San Jose Sharks Brass
It is worth noting who comprises the Sharks leadership and how responsibility is divided. The owner is Hasso Plattner. A resident of Germany, Plattner is a “behind the scenes” owner who trusts his staff to make the right calls. His communications with both the hockey media and the Sharks fan base are few and far between. Plattner, who founded SAP, is 77 and among the wealthiest of NHL owners. He first bought a share of the team in 2002, became the team’s majority owner in 2010, and the full owner in 2013.
Becher is the team president, but it is more helpful to view him as the person in charge of the business side of the operation. Selling tickets and dealing with venue issues (including the new venue being built for the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL) are among the things on his plate.
Meanwhile, Doug Wilson is in charge of the hockey side of the operation. The hockey decisions are his to make or delegate. Wilson has been in charge of the hockey side of the business since 2003. He has a long history with Plattner.
To Do or Not To Do
It was Shakespeare who authored the phrase “to be or not to be.” For the Sharks, the question is “to do or not to do?” In prior pieces, I described processes and approaches for a rebuild. If there is a recurring theme, it is about now versus later. The organization needs to optimize for later and we’ve detailed an approach.
I’ll offer one example here of what to do, and one of what not to do.
On the “to do” list is collecting draft picks in return for taking on bad contracts. I previously mentioned Zach Parise, Milan Lucic and James Neal. But there are more players to consider. Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks is rumored in trade talks while Andrew Ladd’s deal with the New York Islanders is a liability for a very competitive team. Between these five players, (none of them are the players they once were), there are another 12 NHL seasons under contract and well over 70 million dollars in highly inefficient cap space.
A few seasons back, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a first-round draft pick to offload $6.25 million of cap space when they traded Patrick Marleau to the Carolina Hurricanes. If the Sharks can find a way to tap into these sorts of situations (whether by acquiring the players or by accepting a portion of salary cap hit in a multi-team trade) and collect draft capital, they can potentially add several high draft picks
On the “not to do” list, is a buyout. A buyout creates a longer-term problem while improving shorter-term potential. Goalie Martin Jones is often cited as a buyout candidate, He has three seasons left on his contract. The Sharks can buy him out, but this impacts the team’s salary cap for six seasons, not three. A rebuild avoids decisions that turn a three-year problem into a six-year problem. If the goal is selling tickets in 2021, then a Jones buyout makes sense and the team can be better in 2021-22 because of it. But this is the wrong goal.
San Jose Sharks Reality
The reality is pretty clear. The team has delivered back-to-back seasons which, prorated to a full 82 game season, would have the Sharks finishing in the low to mid-70 point range. It usually takes a point total in the mid-’90s to capture a playoff spot. This is nowhere close to a playoff team. There is talent, but much of it is declining. Currently, the Sharks have roughly $71 million in salary cap allocated to 15 players. About two-thirds of this cap hit is allocated to six players who will be 30 or older come the start of training camp. Several of the six have declined much faster than expected.
Elsewhere, the prospect system has just two first-round draft picks in it (both late in the round) and is generally regarded among the weaker ones in the league (The Athletic had the team’s prospect pool ranked 22nd, Elite Prospects 20th). Help from the prospect pool may come, but it isn’t likely to have a substantial impact for another few seasons.
It is not a pretty picture. The reality of the past two seasons resonates loudly and clearly. Sure, there is some nuance in this and perhaps this team can be better than it has shown. But there is not ‘25 more points in 82 games’ worth of nuance.
The headline to this article accuses the Sharks management of being disingenuous. It is a big claim, but I stand by it. The thing is, I’m not quite sure who they are lying to. Are they lying to the fans or are they lying to themselves? An ad featuring a goal from 2019 makes the case for both. Neither is good. The owner shouldn’t allow either.
The Blame Game?
This issue facing the Sharks isn’t a blame game, but an acceptance of today’s unfortunate reality.
This is a team that is no longer competitive. One can come up with scenarios where the Sharks become competitive, but these scenarios are littered with the word ‘if’, and in many cases, the ‘if’ is unlikely. Even then, competitive isn’t Stanley Cup competitive. It is more along the lines of get into the playoffs and hope competitive. When a team’s success is based on a whole lot ‘if’ statements panning out, the team is on the wrong path.
The team got to this point by taking a variety of risks, each of which was defensible. However, the expected rewards haven’t been there. Such things happen in sports, in business and in life. When this happens, it is appropriate to abandon the plan which didn’t work and move to a plan which can.
No doubt, Becher is right about season ticket sales. But there is another way to lose a fan base. It is to be dishonest with them, then deliver an extended period of mediocrity led by an overpaid and aging roster. This is the path Becher’s comment indicates the Sharks are taking. It is a path to nowhere. It needs to stop. Now.
The Sharks are not a mess, at least not yet. But they can quickly become one if they fail to make the necessary choices.
By nature, Wilson is highly competitive. Playing the long game via a rebuild is not in his nature. But 2021-22 can’t be another season of what this past season was. A season where the Sharks tried a middle-ground approach, wasting time and giving up opportunity.
It is often said that an organization’s leader has few decisions to make and those few decisions are bigger and critical. Plattner, the Sharks owner, is there, now. He needs to push back on Becher and Wilson and edict a rebuild. Specifically, with Wilson, the owner should give him the choice to either accept the rebuild challenge or find another job.
This is Plattner’s decision to make. After all, he owns the team. To make the right decision, he needs to be honest. To himself, to his staff and to his fan base. And if he fails to make the rebuild decision, he’ll not just own the team, he’ll own the mess as well. In every conceivable way.