Monday, July 4, 2011

Sharks toss Loyalty, Hunger, History and Heatley out like Chum

It’s a common and non-controversial belief of mine, one which can be proven factually over in at least a dozen different ways- that the San Jose Sharks, in their dogged pursuit of a Stanley Cup, have modeled their system after the Detroit Red Wings. From coaching to Blueline, I have spent the past 7-8 years thinking of the Sharks as “Mini-wings” – and if they had ever gotten farther through the playoffs than past the Wings in these last two years, I would have probably internally uttered the phrase “And the Student  becomes the master.”

Of course we all know that on paper, even with a President’s Cup in glove, the Sharks cannot have so far been unable to seal the deal. I suspect that it has something to do with not having 100% complete full buy in to the system. If not lack of buy in, it’s a lack of heart, and frankly, of all the other teams I watch, I scrutinize the Sharks, and I can tell you that from my seats (which- when they are in HP Pavilion-are in the rafters) I don’t see a lack of heart on the team.  (Take that JR)

In other words the puzzle pieces are there. Frankly, I suspect that what they need now is the pain, the suffering that comes from getting so close that you spend the next 365+ days doing nothing but pursuing the Stanley Cup. Because that is precisely how the Wings of the 1990s did it. And I have thought of these San Jose Sharks as heading down the same path as my beloved Red(Army)Wings.

But what I see now is a lack of patience, and a pursuit of the short term, perhaps borne of a lack of history and therefore perspective. It began last year when they let Nabby go. Sure they got lucky with Niemi, but that was a HUGE gamble that luckily paid off.

I know you are thinking, Niemi has a Cup, Nabby doesn’t, how could it possibly be a bad trade?  And to that I say, in my opinion, Niemi was an unknown whose true talent would not be experienced until he stopped goaltending for a defensive juggernaut (the 2010 Blackhawks) who made his job relatively easy.

In retrospect, I think the Sharks got lucky because Niemi does indeed seem to have the talent. But I think they gave up something crucial in letting Nabby go: they lost the hunger, loyalty and the history. They tossed away one of their core, one who has suffered and fought and tasted bitter loss, and who still wanted it. They lost a historied statesman who had shown time and time again that he had massive talent and could win clutch games. They tossed away things that cannot come with a new goaltender, things that have to be earned:

Loyalty, Hunger, History.

To me it was the first crack- or break, if you will- from a crucial part of the formula, the one that brings so much success to the Detroit Red Wing Organization. In the late 1990s through several early exits and heart breaking conference and Stanley Cup Final losses, the Wings stayed with their core. Some tinkering or retiring players were moved or let go, but the core stayed solid. Only when the chance to bring a truly phenomenal talent in arose did the Wings depart from the script.

Because they believed in themselves, they believed in each other, they believed in their team, they believed in the Red Wing Organization, the system. Top to bottom, full 100% buy in. And on top of that they were patient. And then they won, and then they kept on winning. Since 1996, almost every 4 years, if not more, a Detroit Red Wing Team wins a Stanley Cup. 20 years of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, more than any team in any professional sport. The system works, and if you don’t buy in you don’t stay.

(I’d like to point out the Sharks have a impressive playoff streak too- second best in the league, as a matter of fact.)

By tossing Nabby, the Sharks showed an impatience, and perhaps fear that they don’t know how to put together a Stanley Cup winning organization.  They show that they don’t either have top to bottom buy in, or that they don’t believe: in themselves, their team mates, their organization.

The Heatley trade reflects this same crack. As does letting Setogucci go. They brought Danny in for grit and hands. He came and played with grit, talent and heart. He bought whole heartedly into the system, or so it seemed. He had chemistry with his tram mates and linesmen, he was a power play dynamo. The guy played his heart out through broken hands, high ankle sprains, groin injuries (all in the playoffs). He brought monstrous points to a team that already had monstrous points. He fit into the system. Honestly, I could be talking about any number of great Detroit Red Wings here. Players who Mr. Holland and Illitch would never let go. Heatley fit so well, I thought of him as core: with Marleau, Thornton, Guci, Clowe, Nabby.

Heatley had 39 goals in a year he played with a “serious groin injury” for cripes sake. This is not a guy you trade away for Marty Havlat.

Heatley and Guci for Burns and Havlat? Sorry this looks insanely “short term” to me. Even if they are as talented as Heater and Gooc, it looks like you are trading away key, crucial, intangibles, things that these new guys cannot bring you: your history, your Hunger, your loyalty, chemistry, buy in.

Sure its unknown, maybe Havlat and Burns have the hunger. Then again, they played for the Wild and that was also a team on paper that should have gone farther than it did in the last 3 years.  Something tells me the Sharks have probably destroyed any chance they had to move on further into the playoffs next year. Sure I could eat these words come Spring ‘12, I just don’t think I will. I don’t think short term gambles on the unknown will pay off. I think the Sharks truly don’t understand what a talented team they had, and they don’t understand the concept of long term payoff. These trades make me sad and disappointed for the Sharks Organization.

Its funny, you would think that this would be fine by me: Sharks taking more after Chicago and performing a mini-implosion than emulating my Red Wing Organization. But here is the thing. Since 2008, the Sharks are the only team that I ever though was truly as talented, deep and worthy- top to bottom- as my Wings. I both dreaded and prayed for a playoff series with the Sharks. I considered the last two Wings-Shark playoff series to be the true Stanley Cup Finals, and I sincerely believed both the Sharks and the Wings could have defeated the ultimate SCF teams if matched up. And I was broken hearted when my Wings lost in both of those series.

Now as it stands, knowing the injury counts, things like Brian Rafalski giving us clutch game winners, all while skating without a ACL for –oh a year- and that my Red Wing Organization would never have considered trading him and in fact are feeling a little lost without him- I know with certainty that the Red Wings continue to be the Winning Organization I will always be in awe and proud of. I am proud to be a Detroit Red Wing Fan. Above all else the RWO is loyal and cohesive. And it pays off year after year after year.

But my heart breaks for the Sharks. Even if I am wrong in thinking that they are making colossal fundamental errors in the management of their organization, and these changes end up taking them further in the Playoffs, I will still believe they traded in long term success for short term gain.

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