When the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tomorrow, it will mark the first time since 2003 that the tournament has been held without the San Jose Sharks being one of its 16 participants. Despite the Sharks' failure to ever make it all the way to the Final, qualifying for ten consecutive postseasons was an impressive accomplishment in its own right. Just look at this year's Los Angeles Kings or Boston Bruins to see how difficult it is to make the playoffs year in and year out; you generally need a lot of things to go your way in addition to being a good hockey team. Making the playoffs for ten straight years is definitely something the organization should take a moment to be proud of.
All right, moment's over. Now it's time to point fingers and assign blame, which is more or less all that's been going on in San Jose since the events of April 30th, 2014. The reasons the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade are more nuanced than "Doug Wilson screwed up," although it's pretty obvious he did, or "It was by design because rebuild," although that's certainly a valid interpretation too. In truth, a lot of seemingly minor moves, individual disappointing seasons and plain old bad luck added up to a team that was one of the best in the NHL last season becoming mediocre. Let's look at some of the reasons for the Sharks' demise.
Breakout 2013-14 performers took big steps back
It goes without saying that Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto didn't have the sophomore seasons most in San Jose were hoping for. After scoring 15 goals in 37 games during his injury-shortened rookie year, Hertl was unable to match that total in more than twice as many games this season. And while Nieto built on the two-way prowess he displayed against the Kings last April, he wasn't able to carry his offensive momentum from that series forward and largely settled into a third line role.
It wasn't just the rookies who were unable to repeat their brilliant 2013-14 seasons, however. Marc-Edouard Vlasic was arguably the Sharks' MVP last season, finishing with the third-best on-ice shot differential among defensemen in the league and substantially improving the underlying numbers of every Shark he shared the ice with while taking on the toughest defensive assignments. Vlasic wasn't nearly as dominant this season, either in relation to the rest of the league or in his impact on teammates. Perhaps the player who most suffered from Vlasic falling back down to earth a bit was regular partner Justin Braun whose possession numbers were better than only rookie Mirco Mueller and over-the-hill Scott Hannan among Sharks defenders after being sterling a year ago.
Of course, no drop in performance by a player who was excellent in 2013-14 had a bigger impact on the Sharks' free-fall in the standings than the subject of our next section...
Goaltending was sub-par but not for the reason you might expect
After being one of the best backups in the NHL in 2013-14, Alex Stalock was one of the worst this season. It's not sexy, it's not headline-grabbing, it's not Doug Wilson's fault, it's not Joe Thornton's fault, it's not Todd McLellan's fault and, hell, it's not even Alex Stalock's fault, but the 27-year-old Minnesota native going from stopping 93.2% of the shots he faced last season to just 90.2% this year was probably the single biggest individual performance drop that contributed to the Sharks' fall. Had Stalock maintained his performance from last season, the Sharks would have allowed 16 fewer goals which is worth about five to six points in the standings. But it was patently unfair to expect Stalock to do that, given how ridiculous his numbers were in backup duty last season and how mediocre his performance had been during his time in the AHL.
Antti Niemi has been a rather convenient scapegoat throughout his Sharks career and sometimes he has legitimately deserved to be. If he had been average or even slightly below average in the 2011 playoffs rather than straight-up awful, the Sharks likely would have at least a Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for their ten-year postseason streak. If he hadn't posted a .849 SV%, including particularly terrible performances in Games 4 and 5, over his final three appearances of last year's series against the Kings, the Sharks likely move on.
But it's difficult to pin this season on Niemi. The 31-year-old Finn has compiled a .914 SV% on the 11,000-plus regular season and playoff shots he's faced in his career. He went .914 this season, while carrying a $3.8 million cap hit. That's about what you should reasonably expect from Niemi, based on his personal career numbers and the general performances of goalies in that pay range. Niemi is roughly a league-average starter and he posted roughly league-average starter numbers this season. Should the Sharks look to upgrade on him this summer? Sure. But he wasn't the main reason for their disappointing campaign and the grass isn't always greener.
The penalty kill, and defensive play as a whole, was dreadful
Larry Robinson coached his final game in the NHL on Saturday and was initially brought into the organization back in 2012 to fix the Sharks' penalty kill, among other things. He promptly led the team to back-to-back 6th-place finishes in penalty kill efficiency before taking on more of a subdued rule on the coaching staff this season. That may or may not have been the reason for San Jose's PK cratering to 25th, killing off just 78.5% of opposing power plays, though it certainly seemed like the team employed a less aggressive approach in the defensive zone than the two seasons prior.
The Sharks' struggles down a man were emblematic of their overall defensive issues on the season. At 5-on-5, only eight teams in the league were worse at suppressing shot attempts than San Jose and, unsurprisingly, only two of those clubs made the playoffs. Moving Brent Burns back to defense hurt the Sharks primarily because they lost the services of a top-three power forward in the NHL but it was also a detriment because Burns, despite his production from the point, never really did figure out defensive-zone positioning or how to execute a low-risk breakout pass. Among the 128 defensemen who played at least 1000 5-on-5 minutes this season, only 27 were worse at suppressing shot attempts than Burns. Combine that with Scott Hannan and Mirco Mueller, players at opposite ends of their careers who shouldn't have been in the NHL this season, getting regular minutes along with a dearth of competent defensive forwards and it's of little surprise the Sharks weren't very good in their own end.
Even-strength scoring, and forward depth in general, was lacking
Speaking of the team's dearth of competent two-way forwards and the decision to move Burns from forward to defense, both played a factor in the Sharks being a bottom-10 team at 5-on-5 offense after finishing 7th in that category (despite a slew of key injuries) in 2013-14. They averaged three fewer shots on goal per 60 minutes at even-strength and saw their 5-on-5 shooting percentage drop by half a percentage point. None of the Sharks' forwards averaged two points per 60 5-on-5 minutes this season after five of them did in 13-14, with a sixth in Marleau scoring at a 1.97 points per 60 clip.
Some of the drop can be attributed to bad luck; a career 10.5% 5-on-5 shooter in Marleau scoring on just 5.8% of his 5-on-5 shots was an anomaly and he should be expected to bounce back next season, although it's also worth noting the 35-year-old had his worst season in terms of even-strength shot generation since 2007-08. But other players simply regressed from unsustainably productive seasons. Joe Pavelski continued to make a killing on the power play but his 5-on-5 SH% fell from 16% in 13-14 to a more reasonable 10% this year. Tommy Wingels' conversion rate also normalized. With Burns, who had finished 15th in the league in 5-on-5 goals per 60 the prior year without an inflated shooting percentage, no longer up front, Hertl and Nieto failing to build on their rookie seasons, and the bottom six constantly being in flux and underwhelming until late in the year, the Sharks just couldn't find enough goals in their lineup at even-strength.
Leading up to last year's playoffs, Doug Wilson stated teams that go deep generally excel at penalty killing, goals against and 5-on-5 scoring. In 2014-15, the Sharks were bad at all three.
Joe Thornton is a bad leader
Despite a frustrating and entirely-avoidable season of disappointment, it isn't entirely doom and gloom for the franchise going forward. The team's play after the trade deadline, a span during which they posted the 5th-best score-adjusted possession numbers in the league, provides a glimmer of hope for the future. Chris Tierney showed signs of being the impact third-line center the Sharks desperately need since they refuse to use Pavelski in that role and blueliners Matt Irwin and Taylor Fedun (although both are pending UFAs) acquitted themselves well in Vlasic's absence.
A quick fix, while still developing a framework for a post-Thornton core, isn't out of the question. Moving Burns back to forward, a position he's clearly better suited for, would be a start, followed by using the team's oodles of cap space on a legitimate two-way defenseman in free agency like Mike Green, Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, Andrej Sekera or Jeff Petry. Retaining Irwin and Fedun and signing a depth forward or two to ensure top prospects Nikolay Goldobin and Mueller along with Goodrow start next season with the Barracuda and hopefully benefit from AHL time the way Tierney clearly did would both help the Sharks compete in the here and now and set them up better for the future than rushing unready prospects to the big leagues. If they're able to do all that, acquire a decent goaltender and get bounce-back seasons from at least some of Marleau, Hertl, Nieto and Braun, the Sharks' stay outside the playoffs should be a short one.
But that's a tall order and it's unclear if returning to contention is even the goal in San Jose. Regardless, the team has unequivocally taken the step back Wilson promised they would. Whether he's the person to guide them through their subsequent steps forward is very much in doubt.