ST. LOUIS -- Where do the Sharks go from here -- except into another summer of angst, dissatisfaction and psychotherapeutic murmuring?
After the fastest playoff elimination in Sharks history, Saturday night's Game 5 loss to the St. Louis Blues, the postseason scrutiny will begin at the very top. As well it should.
Specifically, the magnifying glass will first be focused on Doug Wilson, the Sharks' general manager and vice president. The secondary scrutiny will be on Todd McLellan, hired as the Sharks' head coach by Wilson in 2008.
Wilson made several bold trades last offseason then made a couple more during the season. None had the expected result of turning the Sharks into a better team. So, will either man lose his job after such a disappointing season?
Not likely. McLellan's coaching status depends on Wilson. And there is no way Wilson would fire McLellan. The two are joined at the philosophical hockey hip. They may not always agree on every personnel move. But they agree on how the game should be played. If Wilson was ordered by ownership to fire McLellan, Wilson might quit himself.
So if you assume Wilson stays, then you must assume McLellan stays. And it would seem Wilson's status is safe for a rather quirky reason: It is not actually clear who does his performance review.
After Greg Jamison stepped down as the team's CEO two years ago, the Sharks' chain of command became murky. There is no CEO. There is no team president. There are six executive vice presidents, including Wilson, who are listed alphabetically in the team directory. Presumably, those six vice presidents all report to ownership -- but to whom, exactly? Questions about the power structure are met with zipped lips.
This much, we know: There are 11 people in the Sharks' ownership group. The general feeling is that two of the 11 owners -- venture capitalist Kevin Compton and former VeriSign CEO Stratton Sclavos -- have louder voices than the others. Compton is seen most often around the rink. Sclavos was the driving force in a layoff-strewn downsizing of Sharks business-side personnel last summer.
However, while Compton and Sclavos are presumably brilliant businessmen, neither man has a hockey background. Wilson has been their No. 1 tutor in the sport.
Let's pretend, then, that Compton and Sclavos are infuriated by what happened this season and want to dump Wilson. Where would they go to hire his replacement? How would they start the search? Who would they even consult? And as low-profile names, would they desire the media scrutiny that would accompany such a change?
Sharks fans are indigestive because over the past eight seasons, the team has reached the conference finals three times but never pushed through to the Stanley Cup. But that still puts the Sharks in a better place than the vast majority of NHL teams. Under Wilson's stewardship since 2003, the Sharks have accumulated the second-best regular-season record in the NHL. They've also won more playoff games than any team except the Red Wings.
Not that Wilson deserves a free pass after such a bumpy, ugly season. Over the past several years, he has traded away high draft picks for veterans to try to get the Sharks over the hump, leaving a shallow pool of young prospects who might come up and spark a Sharks revival. The fans and owners deserve an explanation. Wilson must sit down with Compton/Sclavos and explain the game plan going forward. And it needs to be more than just standing pat with minor tweaks while hoping that better roster chemistry develops in 2012-13.
But in formulating that new game plan, Wilson faces his toughest dilemma.
From a pure hockey standpoint, the smartest Sharks solution would be a maximum reboot and rebuild. Older players would go out the door. They would be traded for draft picks or young prospects. Over a few years, a new core of Sharks would be developed into winners. By 2017 or so, they'd be back among the league's four or five best teams.
But from a business standpoint, the Sharks owners would surely not stomach such a thing. A roster reboot would almost surely guarantee three or more losing seasons, with no playoff appearances. It would mean empty seats at HP Pavilion. Maybe a lot of them.
Talk all you want about a Stanley Cup shortfall. Sharks fans have witnessed 13 playoff teams over the past 14 seasons. But the one time there were no playoffs, season ticket sales fell by several thousand the following season. This isn't Toronto, where the Leafs can continually miss the playoffs and still fill every seat.
In terms of the bottom line, Wilson has surely pleased his owners. He's stayed within budget. Every ticket at HP Pavilion is sold. All those home playoff games -- even if it was only two this spring -- mean extra cash. So when Wilson brings team ownership his blueprint for the next few years, he isn't likely to advocate a massive rebuild that will result in massive financial losses.
Wilson doesn't think like that, anyway. He thinks the best teams don't rebuild. They make adjustments and reload. Wilson might have a plan to break up more of the team's core -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture -- and make a major deal to refashion and reframe the team back into a Cup contender.
Will the fans buy that idea? For Wilson and McLellan's sake, it's more important right now that the Sharks owners do.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.