Friday, April 24, 2009

Two deals that went wrong for San Jose

On May 4, 2004, the San Jose Sharks clinched their first ever trip to the Western Conference Final by defeating the Colorado Avalanche 3-1. The Sharks made it unnecessarily hard by squandering two straight overtime games to the Avs after compiling a 3-0 series lead, but they wouldn’t allow Colorado a historic comeback to make history of their own. It may be true that San Jose would go belly up against the Calgary Flames in the Conference Final, shooting only 37 times in Games 5 and 6 (scoring just once), but it appeared that San Jose had finally joined the NHL’s elite with their 2004 run.

Then, that summer, the Sharks decided that Vincent Damphousse and his declining stats were enough of a reason to let him walk as an unrestricted free agent, with Damphousse signing with Colorado that off-season. Damphousse wouldn’t play another game in the NHL as the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, but it still didn’t change the fact the Sharks didn’t think their scoring leader for the 2004 playoffs deserved another shot, even at just 36.

San Jose still figured to be safe with its young talent appearing to emerge in the previous season’s playoffs, but a terrible start to the 2005-06 season precipitated the need for change. On November 30, 2005, the Sharks dealt Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart to the Boston Bruins for Bruin captain Joe Thornton, a deal which essentially meant that the Sharks made a mistake in letting Damphousse walk. Thornton would deliver initially, leading the Sharks from 13th in the West all the way to 5th by season’s end, setting up a playoff date with the Nashville Predators in Round One. San Jose would easily dispose of the Predators before falling to the Cinderella Edmonton Oilers in Round Two; and since then the Sharks have failed to reach the Conference Final despite posting good regular season totals. Now, with San Jose on the brink of yet another remarkable failure- down 3-1 in the first round to the Anaheim Ducks despite being President’s Trophy winners- an explanation is needed for the Sharks’ troubling post-season play (as it truly appears to be a team effort). I just may have the answer, even if it’s out of left field.

That answer is the Sharks made two critical inter-related mistakes in letting go of Damphousse and the triumvirate that went to Boston for Thornton. No, it’s not another edition of “Joe Thornton isn’t a great leader” argument, because Thornton isn’t a captain (Patrick Marleau is the captain of San Jose)- rather, it’s that both of those moves seemed to remove intangibles that allowed San Jose to be competitive in the post-season.

In the case of Damphousse, the case is easy because it’s clear his leadership was missed in 2005-06, which was apparent long before Thornton came around. As good as players like Marleau, Alyn McCauley (back when he actually played) and Nils Ekman were, none of them held the same leadership pedigree as Damphousse did. He was only one of three Sharks on the 2004 playoff team that had a Cup ring (Mike Ricci- also let go after 2004- and Scott Parker are the other two), he had been an elite player his whole career and the fact that he led the Sharks in playoff scoring meant that he still could play at an elite level at that stage of his career. The incoming salary cap probably meant that he was a goner anyway, but it appears that San Jose has yet to really replace his auxiliary leadership. One would think Rob Blake- who has the same credentials as Damphousse (elite player, Cup winner)- would be the perfect replacement, but with the Sharks being where they are now, it doesn’t appear that Blake’s influence is having any noticeable effect.

The losses of Stuart, Sturm and Primeau most likely did not cause a drop-off in leadership but perhaps created a void in chemistry. This argument is pure speculation, because statistically, the Sharks are better without the trio and- even combined- there are few who would think they’re equal in value to Thornton (tellingly, the Bruins have only stuck with Sturm- Primeau and Stuart are both gone). There’s also reason to believe that the Sharks are deeper without the trio than they were with them, especially considering that the forward corps (at least) remains consistent with the 2003-04 version- a skilled bunch with a workmanlike mentality. However, when you look at the type of player that each of them were, you’ll start to see their possible value, especially in the playoffs.

Sturm is often compared to Thornton, not just because he was traded for him- he is essentially the “poor man’s Thornton”, in that he is big and skilled (perfect for the playoffs) but nets half the production. He did appear to have remarkable chemistry with Marleau, perhaps because on that line he would not be the focal point of the attack- Marleau would be. With Sturm, the Sharks would have a clear No. 1 centre (Marleau) instead of duelling centres competing for ice time and the switch to this dynamic may be affecting the play of both Marleau and Thornton, who now need to share ice time whereas in San Jose and Boston (respectively) they did not have to.

Primeau’s role on the team encapsulates many of the responsibilities that players like Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe fit into now- checking. Clowe and Pavelski are more of two way players than Primeau is, but by 2004, Primeau would be recognized as one of the better checking line centres in the league. Not only that, but Primeau had experience in the playoffs, being the Buffalo Sabres’ third-line centre when the Sabres went on their run to the Cup Final in 1999. He provided stability and leadership to the lower part of the depth chart, an ingredient that appears to be solely lacking on the current team given that the Ducks are just outworking the Sharks in every capacity. If there ever was a spot where veteran leadership is needed, it is on the third lines, because checking one of the most valuable parts of the game. Claude Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick were signed to provide that stability, but it appears that neither are doing their job (at least on a grander scale- individually Roenick has worked hard, at least).

Lastly, losing Stuart changed the dynamics of the defence. It was a long process that started with Stuart that led to this year but no longer is San Jose’s blueline one that is dominated by big men- it’s dominated by finesse types like Dan Boyle and Marc-Edward Vlasic. Douglas Murray has the size capable of replicating the success of Stuart and Kyle McLaren, but so far has failed to live up to that billing. It`s this lack of size on the blueline that is most hurting San Jose in the series, as the Sharks seem to be having difficulty containing the likes of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, not to mention their own inability to match up well against Chris Pronger. It is also imperative that an element of size is present along the blueline to win- witness Stuart and his own contributions to Detroit’s Cup win in 2008.

Would the Sharks be better if they kept Damphousse and those three players and not traded for Thornton? Probably not, especially considering that on paper at least the moves the Sharks did make are considerable upgrades and would be moves any hockey GM is likely to make. However, one has to wonder why the supposedly-weaker 2004 playoff team can achieve the heights the current team is incapable of reaching, and one can only conclude that it had to have been the personnel, even if that personnel looks weaker than the current version. Of course, the possibility remains that San Jose’s 2004 adventure might have been a fluke, but we can never know if that is truly the case since we never got to see that team make another run. It is also true that this year’s team can go on a remarkable run and render all this speculation moot, but until that happens, the Sharks’ fanbase is going to demand an answer for all their woes, because the team has unfairly teased them for far too long.


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