It is time to play the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks blame game. Who is responsible for the abysmal season? Or are the issues less specific? We’ll look into it all and point fingers. We’ll start with five broad categories.
• The Youth
• The Veterans
• Head coaches Peter DeBoer and Bob Boughner
• General manager Doug Wilson
• Something Else
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame: Youth
In the end, the youth are the youth. These are players who’ll nominally fill lower-line or third-pair roles early in their NHL careers. It is up to these players to help these lower-tier groups hold their own in the NHL. And on occasion, provide some game-changing energy.
It is up to the coaches and management to provide sufficient talent and coach it up.
I didn’t sense a shortage of energy or effort. What was lacking was talent and skill. Can I blame the players for not overachieving? Not really. They seemed to play more of an individual game, indicating they hadn’t digested the team’s system. The Sharks used a lot of younger players who either weren’t ready or were not that talented to begin with. And they didn’t deliver. This season’s failure isn’t on the young players.
Blame the Youth: 0%
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame: Veterans
The Sharks have four players who’ve worn the ‘C’ as a team captain. Add to that core such veterans as Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Tomas Hertl. One would think leadership wouldn’t be an issue.
It was. The ability for veterans to rally the team was severely limited. There was one segment of the season when leadership mattered the most. This was the segment in December covering the early weeks in the tenure of interim head coach Bob Boughner. During this time, the Sharks found ways to lose one winnable game after another. Veteran-led teams are supposed to find ways to win close games. That isn’t what happened.
Plenty of commentary suggested the loss of Joe Pavelski was critical. His absence, coupled with some of the bigger contracts handed out to newer Sharks, reportedly led to bickering among teammates and a lack of cohesiveness. Sorry, but as good as Joe Pavelski was (as a player and leader), this was a Sharks team with plenty of talent and veteran leaders. To the extent Pavelski’s absence is blamed, the blame is misplaced. Instead, this is a condemnation of current players who couldn’t provide the leadership.
But there’s more to this part of the story.
The Sharks have a history of playing well enough to make the playoffs. Playing in a weak division, perhaps there was a belief the team could step on the gas at some point and make a run. If anything, the team’s November success proved misleading. That month, the team’s confidence came from winning games, many in overtime, while playing average hockey with an extremely favourable schedule. When the schedule toughened, the team had no response.
This was a team that needed to grind out wins but was without a grinding mentality. It is fair to attribute this to the veterans and it adds to the blame.
Did the Sharks veterans believe they could simply show up this season, battle their way through and find a way to 100 points? They’d done it year after year and despite slumps at various times, the team always found a way. Was this an overconfident group, assuming past performances are indicative of future results? I believe this, too. Between this and the lack of cohesion, the veterans merit a sizable share of the blame
Blame the Veterans: 25%
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame: Two Coaches
The first Sharks coach this season, Peter DeBoer, was a disaster. There were fixable issues he didn’t fix and he did little to develop the youth. DeBoer did less with more while repeating mistakes from season’s past. A coach is supposed to give his team the best chance to win and DeBoer failed on this front, game after game.
For a team designed to win from the blue line, his pairings were questionable. He had three highly successful pairings from 2018-19 and didn’t bother to use them. Once again, he went with the poorly conceived five-defenceman rotation. His decisions with the netminders were devastating (citing concerns I first noted in November 2018, repeated in November 2019; The Athletic and 31 Thoughts have caught on more recently).
Some might suggest DeBoer left with a salvageable record (15-16-2). But most of the wins came in November, a combination of good fortune and perhaps the easiest month of hockey the Sharks have ever had. Not only did it feature a weaker than the typical slate of opponents, but of the 15 games total, 11 were at home; 14 were in California and one took place nearby in Arizona. For a team that often flies over to 10,000 miles in a month, this was as easy as it could ever get.
After DeBoer was axed in December, interim head coach Boughner corrected some of DeBoer’s mistakes, notably in goal. He also upped the forecheck intensity and got the team to focus more on their defensive structure. The Sharks were more competitive, but not enough to turn the ship around. Boughner didn’t have the magic, but this season’s blame does not lie with Boughner.
Blame Coach 1: 40%
Blame Coach 2: 0%
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame: General Manager
Sharks general manager, Doug Wilson deserves blame for the roster. But he deserves credit for what he did in prior seasons and this season’s roster was a reflection of taking big shots in recent seasons. That it had little chemistry and the talent pool coming from the pipeline was modest – this is on Wilson.
Wilson took a risk and it didn’t work. But the risk was last season while the price paid was this season. Yes, the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks were worse than Wilson had reason to expect. And no doubt, he understood this roster was decidedly weaker than the prior seasons. Just based on the talent differential from the 2018-19 team, it was easy to imagine a meaningful drop-off – one which might take them out of the playoffs. But not a drop-off that would drop them to last place in the Pacific Division. The roster Wilson assembled was meaningfully better than the results it achieved.
One has a sense that if the Sharks had won the Stanley Cup in 2019, the 2019-20 season would be viewed as a disappointment, rather than a fiasco. Wilson did assemble a Cup-worthy team last season, but it didn’t win the big prize. The outflow of talent from the prior season’s squad was inevitable, the salary cap did not allow sufficient room for retaining everyone. This season, up against a tight cap, he assembled a fringe playoff team. The team he assembled didn’t play to the level of talent.
Blame the General Manager: 10%
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame, Something Else: Fatigue
What if something else was responsible for this meltdown of a season? There’s one item that leaps to mind and it isn’t trivial. The Sharks played an enormous amount of hockey in the prior four seasons. Two Sharks players led the entire league in meaningful ice time at their respective positions, Burns and goalie Martin Jones.
In all, the team played 64 playoff games in the four seasons under DeBoer. And they paid an enormous physical price. Series such as the ones against the Anaheim Ducks (2018), the Vegas Golden Knights (2018 and 2019) and the St. Louis Blues (2019) were particularly physical.
Did the long and physical seasons take a toll? I suspect it played a large role. The Sharks have several high-mileage players who take on a heavy workload. This makes it difficult to sustain excellence, especially with repeated lengthy seasons and short offseasons.
The team looked less than fresh early in the season. This isn’t to excuse other issues. It’s fair to say Erik Karlsson’s game likely suffered from his groin surgery recovery. But his mental errors early in the season can’t be attributed to that.
What has been common in recent seasons is the team slumping in March. This happened in two of the last three seasons, and the slumps were severe. Fatigue, both mental and physical, find a way onto a team. The Sharks looked like a team still recovering from the prior season when the puck dropped for the new season in October.
Some will dismiss this issue, but it’s quite real. An NHL season takes an enormous toll, even on highly conditioned athletes. The Sharks played into May three of the last four seasons, resulting in less recovery time. They’ve played roughly 80% of another full season, just in playoff games, embedded into the prior four seasons. It is an issue.
On top of all this, the team was coached by a person who believed in riding his best players instead of balancing the load.
We’ve seen fatigue play a role before, just not at the start of the season. This season, it happened at the start.
As Indiana Jones (no relation to the Sharks netminder) once said, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” For the Sharks, it too, was the mileage.
Blame Fatigue: 25%
Assigning San Jose Sharks Blame, Something else: Injuries and Puck Luck
There is a temptation to say injuries played a role. Or perhaps bad puck luck. But these were not meaningful factors, at least up until the time when the Sharks were already done from playoff contention in mid-January. Injuries and trades were factors in the final month before the COVID-19 stoppage. But these merely took an out of contention team with a mediocre record and turned it into a team that lacked depth and put up a bad record.
Blame Injuries and Puck Luck: 0%
San Jose Sharks Blame Assigned
Perhaps surprisingly, the blame gets spread around a good bit. The young players escape blame and the general manager gets only a little bit. The first coach gets the biggest chunk, he got much too little out of his team.
The veteran players are the ones who need to hold a team together and they didn’t, they own a major chunk of the blame. At least they seem to recognize the issue. Whether they believe it or understand how to correct it is a different issue.
The long-term effects of several lengthy seasons also played a meaningful role, including some notably overworked players. This led to a season where the team played tired from the start.
The youth, injuries and puck luck deserve none of the blame.
Assigning blame is not much fun, but it is a necessary step in getting things right for determining the team’s next steps. We’ll get into those in the near future, including the key race this team faces.
If the Sharks falter next season, the blame will look different. Most of the factors prominent in this season’s finger-pointing can be changed. The general manager has a chance to revamp the roster. The youth will have higher expectations, given many had NHL playing time this season. There will be a new full-time coach, meaning the coaching choice is both on the new coach and the general manager. A fatigue factor, so prevalent in this year’s blame, will be absent from next season. And the team’s leaders, the veterans with impressive (in some cases Hall of Fame) resumes have to find a way to improve the culture.
Much will need to change if the Sharks are to make an abrupt turn, something Wilson expects. Understanding what went wrong is the place to start.
Main Photo: GLENDALE, ARIZONA – JANUARY 14: Coaches (top L-R) Mike Ricci, head coach Bob Boughner and Roy Sommer of the San Jose Sharks watch from the bench during the third period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 14, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 6-3. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)