SANTA CRUZ, August 2, 2013 — It is tough being San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. Sure, he was a stellar defenseman in the league for years and has acquitted himself nicely as a hockey executive. It is true he keeps himself in incredible physical shape (people say he looks as if he could jump right back in and play) and has surrounded himself with a talented hockey operations staff.
The difficulty for Wilson is that he is charged with winning a championship in San Jose. In many ways, he stepped into an ideal situation. The Sharks have cultivated a rabid and forgiving fan base, also located in an area where hockey is an afterthought at best so there is no civic expectation of greatness. Ownership has given Wilson all the money he needs to go after free agents and sign the key players he already has. The Sharks remain a frustrating hockey conundrum, annually poised for glory yet never achieving it.
When the Sharks entered the National Hockey League in 1991, they became the second team located in California. The Los Angeles Kings, who had toiled in obscurity and been somewhat of a league-wide joke until Wayne Gretzky arrived in 1988, were quickly establishing themselves among the NHL elite. The Sharks managed to be reasonably competitive throughout that inaugural season, winning seventeen games and selling heaps of merchandise in the process.
Fast forward to today. The Sharks are no longer the fresh expansion team with the cute mascot. They have assembled a club that has been expected to win the Stanley Cup. They have put together impressive regular season records for over a decade now and, just as systematically, they have fizzled out in the playoffs. Nobody seems to know what the problem is. Wilson frantically moves pieces in and out while trying to keep his core, which he believes is capable of winning the cup, together as the ever-loyal Sharks fan base grows increasingly impatient.
Perhaps the worst part of it all for Doug Wilson is that, since he took over as general manager, the hated Anaheim Ducks and the long-suffering Los Angeles Kings have both won Stanley Cups. Now the Sharks are the only California team without a championship and the pressure continues to mount. The Ducks have gone in to a bit of a rebuild but the Kings came close to repeating as Stanley Cup champions last season. Throw the new NHL realignment in to the mix and the road does not get easier for San Jose.
Is goaltending the weak link? Antti Niemi has played well enough since coming over from Chicago. Some believe there is no core of consistent leadership on the team. The Sharks veterans, while highly skilled, fit more as role players than captains or motivators. Recent NHL champions have strong leaders. Chicago has Jonathan Toews, the Boston Bruins have Zdeno Chara and so on. As dominant as he can be on the ice, it is difficult to imagine Sharks forward Joe Thornton rallying the troops in the locker room.
San Jose has a good mix of veterans who can still contribute and young talent eager to establish themselves. Their goaltending is above average and the players seem willing to buy in to the way head coach Todd McLellan wants them to play. There is little more tweaking Doug Wilson can do with this group. The time is now for the Sharks and everybody knows it. If San Jose is not hosting a Stanley Cup parade in the next two seasons, expect this team to be blown up in spectacular fashion.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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