APRIL 29, 2009 — ANAHEIM — It’s hard to believe, but yet again the most decadent post-season meal has again been consumed way too early.
I am of course speaking of Shark. That tender, delicious San Jose meal cultivated through many months of regular season games. It seems a dish this perfectly seasoned should not, could not and would not be consumed until at least the Stanley Cup final but alas; it never ends quite that way.
Instead of the proverbial “Save the Best for last”, this tasty culinary main course was yet again treated as an appetizer and devoured with extreme prejudice. The paradox is that the regular season should toughen, not tenderize, the team. It all started in 2004 when the Sharks had its first truly impressive regular season, but lost to a lower seeded team in the Conference finals.
Prior to 2004, the team had twice entered the playoffs as the eighth-seeded team and pulled off shocking first round upsets (1994 vs. Detroit and 2000 vs. St. Louis). The team had a reputation of being a tough team to meet in the post-season. They increased their regular season point totals an unprecedented five straight seasons and appeared destined for greatness. One could only imagine what this team could accomplish in the playoffs should they ever develop and or acquire a significant amount of true world class talent.
Keep in mind the fact that the great Colonel Harland Sanders had 10 herbs and spices which made his chicken delectable, but it wasn’t until he added that 11th spice that his fried chicken became the culinary masterpiece called “Kentucky Fried Chicken”, and thus the legend was born. That 11th spice remains a mystery to this day.
The Head Chef of the Sharks is team President/GM Doug Wilson, who after watching his second seeded Sharks lose in seven games to the sixth seeded Calgary Flames in the 2004 Conference final, went searching for his own 11th spice. Although it seemed so close, little did anyone know just how elusive that mystery spice would be.
When the team acquired Joe Thornton at the 2006 trade deadline, it seemed as though that spice had been added. Not so fast, the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers ravenously feasted on the Sharks in the second round en route to the Stanley Cup final. This was viewed as an aberration and therefore, no need to panic.
The 2006-2007 season brought a second round encounter with the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings put on their bibs and dined heartily on shark fin soup as would a death row inmate on his final meal. Patrick Marleau was held scoreless in the series.
Okay, still no need to panic…Wilson then acquired smooth skating All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell (would he be the 11th spice?) for the 2008 playoff run. Again, the seemingly perfect dish would prove bland, uninteresting and eagerly consumed, this time by the Dallas Stars in six games.
Enough already. Wilson again went to work to again tweak and improve his recipe.
The team entered the 2008-2009 season sans Brian Campbell who had also proved not to be the missing spice. Coach Ron Wilson (no relation) was also given his walking papers. The blueline was then fortified with Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to offset the loss of Campbell. This season also marked the rise of 22 year old Devin Setoguchi who chipped in 31 goals while playing on the top line with San Jose studs Thornton and Marleau. Rookie head Coach Todd McLellan seemed to be living the good life. The strong second line of Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, and Milan Michalek proved more than capable during the regular season as the trio combined for 70 goals to nicely complement the 94 goals scored by the top line. The Sharks finished with the best record in the league. Late in the season, the Sharks even dusted off a relic, when 43 year old 4 time Stanley Cup champ, former playoff MVP and reputed miscreant Claude Lemieux, who came out of retirement and was added to the roster to provide the added grit and experience needed for the stretch run. At long last, the perfect blend.
The Sharks had been knocked out in the second round each of past three seasons, but this time around, they had raced off to the best record in the regular season for the first time in franchise history and won home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
We all know what happens next, this time at the hand of the Anaheim Ducks. The eighth-seeded Ducks did not even clinch a playoff spot until game 80 of the 82 game regular season and were the lowest overall seed in the playoffs, but took the first two games of the series on the road in this opening round series, which they would win in six games.
All the Sharks got for their great season was a first, instead of second round exit. That the Sharks lost in six games was not even the story, the real story is just how thoroughly they were whipped. This failure was the apex of their underachievement.
Shutout 2-0 and 4-0 in games one and four respectively, the Sharks were also outscored 18 – 10 in the series while losing two of three on home ice. Although Marleau did provide overtime heroics in game 5 to stave off elimination, the Joe Thornton line managed only 4 goals (three of which came in game 5) in the six games and were thoroughly outplayed by the Ducks’ top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry. Ryan alone equaled the 4 goal total of the Thornton line.
In an act born of sheer desperation, Joe Thornton tried to prove his toughness by making a pugilistic challenge to Getzlaf at center ice just two seconds into the decisive sixth game. Though the fight was for the most part, a draw, Getzlaf responded with a goal and an assist while Thornton and his linemates were again held scoreless and pointless (figuratively and literally) while ending up on the short end of a 4-1 final score.
There are many theories as to why the Sharks have constantly been appetizers rather than the main course. Some say Joe Thornton although a tremendous talent, is simply too soft to impose his will during the grind of the playoffs. Some say Team Captain Patrick Marleau needs to be shipped out. Whatever the reason, it is likely going to be the most tumultuous off season Doug Wilson has faced to this point. There is seemingly no clear answer. Acquiring a Superstar (Thornton) wasn’t the answer, signing an All Star puck moving defenseman (Brian Campbell) was not the answer, finding an even better one (Dan Boyle) was not the answer, firing head coach Ron Wilson was not the answer. Perhaps the only answer for President/GM Doug Wilson is to take his impressive resume elsewhere and just realize that although agonizingly close, it just will not happen, not in San Jose. When Star players were added to this overachieving team, they immediately became an underachieving team.
No New York Rangers comparisons please, this is an entirely different situation. The Sharks have a great system of player development and the roster is full of young talent but somehow, the better the regular season performance, the worse the post-season. Go figure.
So, that 11th spice continues to remain a mystery for a frustrated Doug Wilson. There shall be no glory for these Sharks and no rewards for their tremendously supportive fan base, but I hear that Marian Gaborik and Ryan Smyth are available this off season.