SAN JOSE – The rage in Doug Wilson’s voice and in his eyes was palpable just 48 hours after last season’s playoff loss to the Kings. The comments he uttered that day nearly one year ago kicked off a summer media tour in which the general manager endorsed the Todd McLellan-led coaching staff, but seemingly targeted the core group in the dressing room for failing – again – to win the games that mattered most.
Everyone entered the 2014-15 season a little uncomfortable, especially after Joe Thornton was removed as captain, and that was fine with Wilson.
In the months that followed, though, the Sharks came together and kept their heads above water. After beating the Kings, Ducks and Blackhawks in succession to close out January, San Jose was 27-17-6, in fifth place in the Western Conference and on pace for a 98-point season. The playoffs, an expectation even during a year in transition, looked likely.
Then the wheels fell off. The Sharks went just 3-8-2 in February, including eight straight home losses, and never recovered. A 2-1 defeat in the Stadium Series game against the Kings on Feb. 21 knocked them from playoff position for good, and five nights later, they responded by jumping all over the Detroit Red Wings and then going nearly 30 minutes with just one shot on goal in what was eventually a disheartening 3-2 loss.
Things had to change after the playoff miss, and it started with McLellan and his staff on Monday. Although the so-called “mutual decision” seems to have been initiated by McLellan, Wilson wasn’t begging him to stay, either, as evidenced by the housecleaning of McLellan’s staff.
Wilson and McLellan, who seemed to be on different pages for the last 12 months, both agreed without any animosity in their voices that it was time for the organization to go in a different direction.
Wilson said: “He shared some things with me that he felt. I think he wanted to know if I concurred with what he felt. I have great respect for Todd. You don’t always have to agree. In fact, the GM and coach should not always agree. There should always be healthy discussions. But, it was always very respectful and always one goal, what was best for the organization.”
For better or for worse, Wilson has stuck to the plan he publicly laid out last summer. Younger players and rookies were given a chance. None of the young assets or high draft picks were traded for a rental player. The new leadership structure, with four rotating alternates, was put in place.
Whether those are the correct steps is debatable, of course, after the poor results. But, Wilson did what he said he would do, with ownership’s apparent blessing.
What didn’t transpire perhaps to the necessary degree was the “clean slate, no equity” approach that Wilson was preaching in August. When Patrick Marleau was mired in lengthy scoring slumps, for example, he was still getting major power play minutes.
“Good teams play hard for each other,” Wilson said. “Drop the puck and you are there for me. I think our group, they really care. I think they’ve looked at some ways of taking care of some of the other things.
“But, that responsibility is shared by everybody. Meritocracy of ice time, for example. Making sure that you earn your ice time. Making sure teammates hold each other accountable. That goes from me to the coaches to the players. We have to do a better job of that. We certainly do.”
The 12-year general manager expected the team to struggle out of the gate, with the hope of coming together late. Instead, the reverse happened.
“You’d think we would have been distracted the first 50 games of the year, and we weren’t,” Wilson said. “There was no distraction, and we played extremely well. We’re sitting in second place, trending at a 100-point pace having the record that we did. I think they did a very good job of being focused on playing extremely well.
“The question is, why did we not maintain it, and why did we lose eight in a row [at home] in February?”
That’s something that will have to be solved by the new coaching staff, and it won’t be easy. The serious concerns about the state of the franchise remain, with or without McLellan behind the bench.
The general manager is confident. It’s a strikingly different tone than this time last year.
“Did we think we were a good enough team to make the playoffs? Yes, we do. We showed that the first 50 games. We didn’t finish through and follow that up.
“Do we expect to be a playoff team next year? Yes, we do. Do we expect to be a team that’s trending up? Yes, we do.”