TORONTO — Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the San Jose Sharks defenceman and Canadian Olympian, was asked on Thursday morning what his team needed to do to reverse a slump and climb back into the NHL playoff race.
“Score,” he said. “Not allow five goals.”
The man has a point. Heading into a game with the disastrously bad Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, followed by one on Friday against the surging Ottawa Senators, the Sharks had given up 11 goals in two losses to Winnipeg and Chicago, and in so doing had seen their chances for a post-season spot dim that much further. San Jose entered Thursday six points back of the L.A. Kings for the final slot in the Pacific Division, and five points behind Calgary in the Western Conference wild-card race, with just 12 games remaining.
“We know we pretty much have to win all of our games,” said forward Logan Couture. Asked about the team’s struggles so far, he was also blunt: “Losing sucks.”
“We have to turn things around, and quickly,” head coach Todd McClelland said. He said he had one word for the way his team needed to play: “Desperate.”
But as the Sharks try to scratch and claw and kick their way back into the playoff hunt, it could well be that they are simply suffering death spasms. This has been a rough season for San Jose, and if they fail to close the needed ground, it would mark the first time out of the playoffs in 11 seasons, and only the second time in 17 years. The question isn’t whether we are witnessing the end of a dynasty, since the Sharks never won anything with all those good teams, but it could definitely be the end of something. For a decade, San Jose has been consistently disappointing in the playoffs. Now they might not even be that.
What they are not is boring. The drama began in the off-season, after another embarrassing first-round playoff loss to the seventh-seeded L.A. Kings, a series in which the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead. General manager Doug Wilson talked of embarking on a rebuild, but kept the core of the roster intact, while stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy and making him one of four alternate captains. From the outset, it seemed a rather odd motivational tool, particularly since Thornton was entering the first year of a three-year, US$20-million contract. The apparent slight of Thornton, a 35-year-old who still leads the team in points per game and whose underlying numbers show that he reliably makes his teammates much better when they play alongside him, burbled under the surface until this past week, when Wilson told season-ticket holders that the decision to remove the captaincy was because Thornton cared too much and that pressure sometimes caused him to lash out. Thorton, told of Wilson’s remarks, said the GM should “shut his mouth,” which probably qualifies as lashing out. Wilson now says the air has been cleared, and Thornton wants to move on. But these are not the things you want your team talking about when you are, to use the coach’s word, desperate.
“Obviously, there have been some distractions over the last little bit,” McClelland said on Thursday morning. But such was the risk that management took in parking the blame for the team’s postseason failure, even implicitly, at Thornton’s feet. No one would have been too shocked if Wilson had decided in the summer that 10 years of postseason futility — the Sharks won the Pacific five times in that stretch, but have never made it to a Stanley Cup final — were enough to justify blowing up the core of the team built around Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Couture. Nor would a strategy of keeping everything intact have been all that surprising; a vote of confidence wouldn’t have been the worst thing for a team that finished second in the tough West and was a game away from beating the eventual champions in that first-round loss. Instead, a roster that remained largely the same was given what came off like a vote of non-confidence. Several months later, Thornton doesn’t sound like someone who is at peace with the decision that management made to demote him.
He spoke in clichés on Thursday — backs against the wall, one win at a time, that kind of thing — and said that though the Sharks are not used to scrambling for a playoff spot at this point in March, it was just a matter of fighting back into the right position.
“I just know we gotta win a lot of games,” he said. The Maple Leafs, with a lineup shot through with youngsters due to trades, injuries and suspension, looked ready to provide just the type of opposition that San Jose needed. The Senators, riding a ridiculous hot streak, would be just the kind of team that the Sharks don’t need to face.
But San Jose has no time left to contemplate its fate. The runway for this team, and this roster, grows short.