Three hundred and twenty-nine days ago, Patrick Marleau fired a backhand shot that deflected past Jonathan Quick in overtime to give the Sharks a 3-0 lead on the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since that fleeting moment of euphoria, the Sharks organization has done pretty much everything wrong.
They reverted to their previous, flawed line combinations for Game 4, came out flat for Game 5, overreacted to Antti Niemi's admittedly considerable struggles in the series by starting an untested Alex Stalock in Game 6, picked pointless fights at the end of that loss that resulted in Logan Couture playing through Game 7 with a broken hand, overreacted again to what was ultimately the equivalent of flipping tails four times in a row by announcing an ill-defined "rebuild" after the series ended, doubled down on their plan even when it became clear they wouldn't be able to move their pair of 35-year-old stars, let their best puck-moving defenseman walk in free agency and replaced him by moving one of the league's best power forwards to a position he isn't nearly as good at, addressed outstanding depth issues by signing goons and calling it a day, alienated the best player in franchise history by stripping him of the captaincy and implicitly scapegoating him for their playoff collapse, rushed their top prospect to the NHL, burning a year of his entry-level contract while regularly refusing to play him over an inferior veteran, and continued to ignore glaring issues with the construction of their defense and bottom six all season long.
Given the litany of mistakes this franchise has made over the past ten months and change, compounded by sub-par seasons from Marleau, Tomas Hertl and pretty much everyone else not named Joe, it's a wonder they were still somewhat in the playoff hunt as late as mid-March. They can largely thank the Pacific Division being terrible this year for that. But after a devastating 5-2 loss in their biggest game of the season tonight in Winnipeg, a game that was over almost as soon as it started courtesy three quick first period goals by Adam Lowry, Mark Scheifele and Andrew Ladd, those postseason hopes are all but quashed. Despite facing a Jets team without its two best centers and best defenseman and starting one of the worst goalies in the NHL, a fully healthy Sharks side looked completely overmatched in the first twenty minutes and failed to mount enough of an attack over the remainder of the game to ever appear to have any chance at bridging the gap.
But all this was by design, supposedly. The 2014-15 Sharks' playoff odds didn't crumble tonight so much as they did last offseason when management threw in the towel on a team that needed a historic collapse fueled by the loss of its top defenseman to lose to the eventual champions. The "one step backward" general manager Doug Wilson referred to as the first phase of his master plan last summer has been taken, as the Sharks will now almost certainly miss the playoffs this season for the first time in over a decade. Two steps forward are hopefully what come next, though it's exceedingly difficult to see how this management group and coaching staff is capable of executing that part of the plan successfully.
- As poorly as the Sharks played in the first period, this shouldn't have been 3-0 after twenty minutes. Niemi unquestionably deserves a lot of the blame for this loss, particularly those first two rather embarrassing goals against. Dating back to Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks have been let down by their starting goaltender in big games too many times to count.
- At the same time, the inexplicable defense pairing of Hannan and Burns weren't helping things. Fine, bring Hannan and his "veteran presence" in for Mirco Mueller; I don't agree with the decision but I can at least see the logic in it. But pairing him with Burns, another blueliner who struggles to move the puck and is clueless in his own zone, then frequently sending that tandem out for defensive zone faceoffs? That I don't understand.
- McLellan just can't seem to leave well enough alone. It would have been easy enough to just swap Mueller on the third pair with Hannan and continue using the Irwin-Burns pair as an offensive zone-only partnership. Instead we got Hannan-Burns on the ice for three goals against and the worst possession numbers on the blueline. Wilson and ownership are far more responsible for this mess than McLellan but it also won't be too heartbreaking for me when he's inevitably scapegoated after the Sharks play out the string.
- This Jets team is really, legitimately good; if they can get healthy and Michael Hutchinson can channel his pre-All-Star break form they could very easily win a round or two. Of course they'll have to make it to the dance first and as much as they deserve to qualify for the postseason over a team like Calgary it won't be easy.
- Blake Wheeler is the kind of dominant power forward who can take over games in so many ways, bringing a dimension of speed through the neutral zone in addition to physical dominance down low. It's a shame the Sharks don't have anyone on their roster like that.
- If the Flyers win tonight, the Sharks will be just one point ahead of 23rd place in the NHL. Dropping there would give them a 6% chance at Connor McDavid and, failing that, the 8th overall pick. Unfortunately 8th overall more or less misses the cutoff for the truly elite talent available at the top of this draft but this whole season sure would be easier to stomach if the Sharks can get a top-10 pick out of it. Hopefully the rest of this road trip is as brutal as it looks to be.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Blake Wheeler
2nd Star: Mark Scheifele
3rd Star: Ondrej Pavelec