“[We want to be] tenacious, highly competitive, in your face — a team that’s fast and hard to play against. That’s what you see when you watch the playoffs, that’s what wins in this league, and that’s what we hope to be.”
That was what Mike Grier said during his first press conference as general manager of the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have since made a lot of moves to try to shore up the bottom-six with NHL-caliber players. Free agency has seen the team swap out Jonathan Dahlen and Rudulfs Balcers for Oskar Lindblom, Luke Kunin, Steven Lorentz and Nico Sturm. Young players like Scott Reedy, Thomas Bordeleau and Noah Gregor, who had promising ends to the 2021-22 season and seemed like sure bets to be on the opening night roster are now going to have to fight for their lives in training camp this fall.
So what have we learned from Grier’s first offseason? The rookie GM is taking a “depth overall” approach to team building. There are many ways to build a team and he wants a competitive team that can “play all four lines” of hockey. This is a bit of a different approach from what we’ve seen from long-time GM, Doug Wilson, who took a bit more of a “Stars and Scrubs” approach to team-building.
Both styles can work, as we’ve seen in recent years.
The “Stars and Scrubs” approach is having a core of difference-makers at the top and hope that you find enough cheap, quality talent to fill in the holes. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a lot of resources tied up in the top-tier talent of Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The hope is that this core is so special they can help cover up some of the weaker spots on the roster and that free agents will take a discount to come and play for a chance to win a Cup. This also helps when a player out-performs their contract and that money can be used elsewhere (hi, Brayden Point and your three-year, $6.75 million deal).
This was the approach the Sharks were using as the collapse began a few seasons ago. The team had $47.25 million tied up in Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Martin Jones. That’s 58 percent of the then $81.5 million salary cap in six players. Players like Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc (prior to his large extension) were being counted on to easily outperform their entry-level and RFA contracts, while young and cheap players would fill out the roster (remember Danil Yurtaykin and Lean Bergman?).
This, of course, didn’t work and the 2019-20 season was the start of the end, as the Sharks went 29-36-5, head coach Pete DeBoer was fired, the season was brought to an early end due to the pandemic and the team didn’t qualify for the postseason bubble. With an aging roster, shallow prospect pool and no wiggle room in cap space, San Jose looked to be on the demise.
But you know this. This isn’t to say that Doug Wilson’s approach was wrong or short-sighted, it just didn’t work. If the Sharks had won a cup in 2016 or 2019 — as close as they’ve gotten in recent memory — we wouldn’t care if the Sharks were in their current state, as long as there was that sweet Championship swag to fall back on.
Fast forward to last winter, when Doug Wilson took a leave of absence and eventually stepped down from his role with the club in April. After a lengthy search, Mike Grier was tabbed to turn around the franchise.
While Grier did mention that “there might be a few bumps in the road ahead, and maybe we need to step back a little to go forward,” he clearly doesn’t want to burn things down in an Arizona Coyotes-type of situation. So Grier is trying a different approach of adding NHL-caliber players to the bottom of the roster. Oskar Lindblom, Luke Kunin, Nico Sturm and Steven Lorentz have over 750 combined NHL games played. They know what their roles are and the idea is to provide stability to a bottom-six that has been missing since the days of the Thornton, Sorenson and Labanc third line.
We’ve seen this model work as recently as the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues. That team could run out four quality lines and had depth scoring. The roster boasted 15 players with over 20 points during the regular season, with Ryan O’Reilly’s 77 points leading the way. That’s the lowest total of a Stanley Cup-winning team’s leading-scorer since the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks when Jonathan Toews posted just 66 points (Patrick Kane would have surpassed 77 points if not for injury, as he totaled 64 points in 61 games).
Are the 2022-23 Sharks going to become the Blues and shock the world by winning a Cup? Probably not — unless Kappo Kahkonen rises up to become the league’s best goaltender for a season (hopefully without the tantrums), Erik Karlsson returns to Norris form, Timo Meier is a Hart candidate, William Eklund is a Calder candidate and the newly-assembled bottom-six becomes a consistent producer.
But won’t somebody please think of the children? Players like William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Scott Reedy and Jasper Weatherby all showed flashes of quality last season, but with a deeper bottom-six, these players have a much tougher road to the opening night roster than they did four weeks ago. With the expectation of William Eklund, expect all of these players to start the season with the San Jose Barracuda.
As tough as it will be to not watch the future of the organization playing with the mother club every night, Mike Grier wants those young stars to be absolutely ready for the NHL by having to earn their job. Over the past few seasons, it was much easier for players to make the bottom of the roster, since the Sharks didn’t have a wealth of NHL-quality players, and both previous coaching staffs were reluctant to give young players any reps in the top-six. The expectation now is that players like Bordeleau, Reedy and Weatherby are to not only produce points with what should be a much improved ‘Cuda roster, but also play in all situations and prepare to be every night NHL players, so that when they are ready, there’s no yo-yoing between clubs.
Mike Grier has been forthright with his plan: he wants the team to be competitive, not just against other teams, but within the organization. He’s banking on a more complete team making up for the lack of superstar talent in the organization.
Will this work? We shall see.