It's August 12th and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are still members of the San Jose Sharks.
Whether or not that was part of Doug Wilson's grand rebuilding plan all along is ultimately unknowable. What we do know is that, in the early days of the 2014 offseason and immediate aftermath of San Jose's playoff collapse against the Kings, the team's general manager said things like this:
"It's the rebuild, and 'the rebuild' is a term that we haven't used a lot recently or probably in a long time. Historically, every team in the league that has had success has probably gone through that phase. We did start it a year ago. We used that terminology, 'reset-refresh.' It really was a form of rebuild. We know that we haven't accomplished what we want to accomplish."
"The rebuild is committed to. The players that fit for now and the future, their growth is going to be the primary thing. … Remember where we’re trying to get to. It’s not about here, it’s about there."
"I don’t want to put a name on you, but [if] you’re a guy that hasn’t won, had a long career, you want to go win. You might say, ‘this doesn’t fit for me.’ I may go to the next guy who has won a Cup. He says, ‘I’ve won a Cup, I want to be here, I want to be part of it. That’s an interesting part of my process, and I may want to be a coach in the future.’ I may want to have him because he just fits."
And also this:
"My conversations with [Thornton and Marleau] will stay between me and them, but I also have other [veterans]. ... It's all the veteran guys. If a guy's 31 or 32 or 33, and we're going to rebuild, does it fit for them? It might not. ... The rebuild is going to take place regardless. We're committed to it and whatever things we need to do to get to that point."
It's difficult to reconcile most of those comments with what the Sharks have actually accomplished this offseason. They did move out Brad Stuart and Marty Havlat in the second phase of a commendable effort to dump underperforming, overpaid veterans like Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe before them. But Thornton and Marleau are still here and as long as that remains the case it's hard to argue the Sharks are truly "rebuilding" in the conventional sense of the term.
Doug Wilson isn't an idiot. He knows how blustering about an overhaul of the team's core followed by an offseason of relative inaction looks on paper. That's probably why he began backtracking on the rebuild talk in a July interview with the Mercury News' David Pollak. Head coach Todd McLellan chimed in today in an interview with NHL.com.
"We want to reset the hierarchy and culture in the organization, and that's really where the term rebuild came from," McLellan said. "We feel we have a tremendous talent pool. We feel the players that are with our organization are part of the solution and not the problem now. As a staff, we talked about the ability to push and win as much as we can while we get younger, while we adjust the roles a little bit and give some of the younger players more responsibility. The term or the word used like that can be confusing at times. I think a lot of people, especially in the media, immediately went to, 'Well, they're going to trade Thornton and Marleau.' That's not the case. We believe that those two are part of the solution, not part of the problem. That got a lot of play media-wise. That's not what we were about."
In other words, we weren't saying rebuild, we were saying boo-urns.
It's easy to guess at what happened here although we'll probably never find out the actual details. ESPN's Pierre LeBrun and CBC's Elliotte Friedman, two of the most plugged-in insiders in the business, both reported the Sharks were serious about trading their captain earlier in the offseason with LeBrun reporting that the Dallas Stars attempted to acquire him only to have Thornton nix the trade while Friedman told a Vancouver radio station the team was publicly stating their intent to rebuild in an effort to "try to get Joe Thornton to go." Thornton clearly never did go, exercising the full no-movement clause in his contract. Presumably, Wilson realized at that point it was going to be tough to sell this summer as a rebuild.
Regardless of what transpired, I personally don't care about the inconsistencies between the team's stance earlier in the offseason and their message now. It's still a little confusing that Wilson apparently believed he could get Thornton to waive his no-movement clause months after negotiating a contract extension but it's also understandable that with training camp a month away the team is shifting gears a bit, at least in terms of the message they're broadcasting through the media, to avoid further alienating their best player.
What's frustrating to me is that there's a clear understanding here by the organization that any sort of rebuild in San Jose isn't possibly going to resemble the Los Angeles and Chicago-style rebuilds Wilson alluded to earlier in the offseason as long as Thornton is in teal. This is absolutely true. As long as Thornton and Marleau are Sharks and as long as they remain legitimate star forwards in the NHL the team isn't going to be anywhere near bad enough to net a significant draft pick (not to mention it leaves the team without whatever return Thornton or Marleau would have fetched on the trade market).
The response to that development shouldn't have been to sign John Scott and call it a day. It should have been to take advantage of the team's ample cap space to capitalize on perhaps their best chance yet to win a Stanley Cup. It should have been to sign someone like Radim Vrbata to replace Brent Burns' minutes up front with Burns back on the blueline. It should have been to sell Christian Ehrhoff on the benefits of piling up points on the Sharks' power play on a one-year deal before cashing in with another team next summer.
I'm fine with the Sharks walking back their plans of rebuilding in interviews with the media. I just wish they had walked back their plans of rebuilding when they were constructing their roster for the coming season. This is still a good team, very likely a playoff team, possibly a home-ice playoff team and maybe a team capable of winning a round or two. But this isn't a team that has a very good shot of knocking out the Kings or Blackhawks in a playoff series and that falls squarely on the shoulders of Doug Wilson for spending the offseason trying to fit a square contender peg into a round rebuild hole rather than improving the team when he finally had the resources to do so.
If the Sharks aren't rebuilding in the conventional sense and aren't doing everything they can to win a championship, all they're really accomplishing is wasting what is in all likelihood one of the last years of elite play from Thornton and Marleau. That isn't a solution to anything.