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The Sharks, Postseason Frustration and “Choking”

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Since I am, in an extremely rare development, 10-2 in my playoff picks so far (the Habs got me last round), I guess I should keep going.  Going with my simplistic method of choosing the best possession team unless there’s a very good reason not to,  I’ll confidently pick the Rangers and say that there’s essentially nothing to choose between the Blackhawks and Kings, but if you’re one of those compulsive types who just has to bet, I dunno, Los Angeles. I’ll add Berube’s picks when if/when I get ’em.

Meanwhile, I have a long, long quasi-defense of the Sharks and “choking” that will hopefully raise some points of general interest to sports fans…

When the San Jose Sharks blew a 3-0 lead to their downstate rivals in the first round of this year’s playoffs, it was the cruelest blow yet inflicted on the fan base of a perennial contender that can’t get over the hump in the post-season. When a team becomes only the fifth team the history of major North American team sports to lose a 3-game series lead to top off a decade of playoff frustration, it’s hard not just turn to the traditional characterizations of sportswriters. Responding to Sharks forward Logan Couture saying that the loss was “the type of series that will rip your heart out,” Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo’s excellent Puck Daddy blog wrote that this “assumes the team has heart in the first place, which is something it clearly doesn’t. It has panic, doubt, confusion, lack of confidence and delusion by the bushel, but nary a postseason atrium or ventricle.”

At this point, is it fair to call the Sharks “chokers”? It’s not just a sample of one or two series at this point. How can we put them in historical perspective?

On one level, the accusations are understandable. What has happened to the Sharks is, as far as I can tell, historically unique. In the wake of the Sharks’s collapse, the brilliant hockey analytics blogger Tyler Dellow asked on his Twitter feed if any team had been elite for as long as the Sharks without winning a championship, and he concluded that none had. The two closest examples he could come up with were the Joel Quenville – coached Blues of the late nineties and early aughts, and the Senators run that started a couple years later. Neither had runs that were remotely comparable to the Sharks. The Blues had only a 4-year run as an elite team if we define elite as a .600 winning percentage and count one year in which they went .598. They only won their division once (Incidentally, the greatest of those teams, the 114-point 1990-2000 edition, lost in the first round to…a fairly ordinary Sharks team. Coached by current Kings coach Darryl Sutter. WE’RE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS HERE PEOPLE.) The Senators did have six .600 seasons plus a couple close ones — albeit two them after the lockout when the loser point inflated winning percentages — plus a couple solidly above-average ones. But that’s still not quite as long a run as the Sharks, and more importantly they did at least make it to the Stanley Cup finals once. A better choice than the Blues would be the Alain Vigneault Canucks, who had six elite or near-elite teams in a seven-year period. But they still (barring a resurgence next year) have had a shorter run than the Sharks, and they did get to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. You could also throw in the 80s Flyers teams anchored by two exceptional and underrated defensemen in Mark Howe and the late Brad McCrimmon and eventually coached by Mike Keenanbut again they had at most a 5-year run as an elite team and pushed the Gretzky/Messier/Kurri/Coffey/Anderson/I Could Go On Oilers to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Sharks have been one of the strongest teams in the NHL now for 10 years. The only two times since 2002-3 that they’ve been under .600 they were .585 and .594, one of those in a season shortened by a lockout. And they have yet to even appear in the Stanley Cup finals. I think it’s safe to say that since the modern, 16-team playoff format started 35 years ago, no team has accomplished more in the regular season with less playoff success, and I don’t think anyone has really been close. But what does this mean about the franchise?

On a strictly rational level, calling professional teams and athletes “chokers” because of post-season results is stupid. The sample sizes are too small, the role of injuries and sheer luck too great, to make inferences of morality and character based on series losses. But, hey, if we were strictly rational, would we care about postseason results at all? I don’t necessarily object to the term if it applies ot teams that 1)are consistently upset by substantially inferior opponents, or 2)completely overmatched by somewhat superior ones (like the Ron Gardenhire-era Twins against the Yankees.) Do either of these conditions apply to the Sharks?

I’d say no. Let’s take it on a year-by-year basis:

  • 2003-4: As someone inclined to defend the Sharks, it must be admitted that this run started off with two losses to Alberta-based Cinderella teams with a grand total of zero series wins between them since beating the Sharks.   This year, after beating a solid St. Louis team and an excellent Colorado team, the Sharks were beaten by Calgary in the conference finals.  This is a series they probably shouldn’t have lost, but it’s worth remembering that the Flames not only had Jarome Iginla when he was earning his first-ballot Hall of Fame status but Miikka Kiprusoff playing like peak Dominik Hasek (.933 save percentage in the regular season .928 in the playoffs.)  They were always going to be a tough out in the postseason, and they knocked off the two other best teams in the Western Conference before taking the best team in the East to 7 games.  (Plus they actually scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6, which fortunately as a Flames fan I’m not bitter about at all.)
  • 2004-5: Go fuck yourself, NHL owners!
  • 2005-6: This time, the Sharks blew a 2-0 lead and were beaten in six games by most recent Oilers playoff team after quickly dispatching Nashville in the conference quarter-finals.   But –remember, this was the year they had the extraordinary Chris Pronger to anchor their defense — Edmonton was a better team than you think.  They just squeaked into the playoffs, but this was due in large measure to the dreadful goaltending they were receiving from the likes of Jussi Markkanen and Mike Morrison.  Trading late in the season for the competent-plus Dwayne Roloson, they became a very solid team.  Probably a series San Jose should have been expected to win, but not a disgrace.
  • 2006-7: This year, they lost in 6 games in the conference semi-finals to a 113-point Red Wings team, one of them in overtime. 
  • 2007-8: After a 7-game squeaker against the Flames, they lost a tough six games to a Stars with a similar goal differential.  Two of the losses (as well as one win) were in single overtime, and the Game 6 loss was in quadruple OT.  This series, both in theory and practice, was a coin flip.
  • 2008-9:  On paper, their worst loss, as the best team of this run (117 points) was beaten soundly in 6 by a 91-point Anaheim team.  But it’s worth remembering that this Anaheim team, two years removed from a Stanley Cup and featuring both Pronger and fellow Hall of Fame caliber defenseman Scott Niedermayer as well as three burgeoning stars in Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan, was more talented than the point total would indicate.
  • 2009-10:  After beating the Avs in 6 and the Red Wings in 5, they were beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Black Hawks.  (No loss was by more than 2 goals, one was in overtime.)  No choke here.
  • 2010-11: After victories over LA and Detroit (the latter, admittedly, pushed to 7 games despite a 3-0 lead), beaten in 5 by a Canucks team that was the first since the Scotty Bowman Canadiens to lead the league in both goals for and goals against.  We can quibble about whether Vancouver was the team of historic quality this would indicate — their possession numbers weren’t quite as eye-popping as the goal differential — but they were certainly a championship-quality team.  And the Sharks were eliminated on a fluke goal in double OT.
  • 2011-12: A bit of an off year (“only” 96 points, 7th in Fenwick close) and lost 5 games to a Blues team that was 43-15-11 under Ken Hitchcock and were the best possession team in the league.  A San Jose win would have been a significant upset, frankly.
  • 2012-13:  Got their revenge by sweeping the Canucks, but lost a 7-game heatbreaker to the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings.

That brings us to another 7-game loss to the Kings this year.  How much should we ding the Sharks because this one involved blowing a 3-0 lead?  Not much, I don’t think.  These kinds of losses are, as Dellow observes, likely to become more common as competitive balance increases.  As has been widely noted, the last team to lose a series after going up 3-0, the 2009-10 Bruins, won the Stanley Cup the next year.  After blowing a 3 game lead to the Red Sox in 2004, the Yankees made the playoffs 4 out of 5 years and won 103 games and a World Series in the last of those.   Admittedly, the Penguins showed some decline after blowing a 3-game lead to the Isles in 1975, but I don’t think any elaborate physiological explanation is required for why a team whose three leading scorers were Ron Shock, Syl Apps and Jean Pronovost failed to become a contender to rival Guy Lafleur’s Canadiens.  A 7-game loss is a 7-game loss whether you do it from in front or behind.

In addition to the biggest factor — luck in a short series — it seems to me that the issue for the Sharks is just that the playoffs reward the best team in a given year rather than consistent quality.  Looking back at the last decade, I see only 3 true upsets when the Sharks were eliminated — Calgary, Edmonton, and Anaheim in 2008-9 — and none of those was particularly egregious.  They’ve beaten a number of quality teams during this run too, and lost some series that could have gone their way with a couple bounces.  Their star players get a bad rap — Patrick Marleau has actually increased his points-per-game in the tighter checking and tougher competition of the postseason, and for San Jose Joe Thornton has been within a reasonable range of his regular season performance.

If there’s anything missing from the Sharks, it’s not “heart” or “guts” so much as the lack of the truly world-class defenseman — the Pronger, the Nik Lidstrom, the Duncan Keith, the Zedeno Chara, the Drew Doughty — recent championship teams generally tend to have if they don’t become the exceptions-that-prove-the-rule having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  But this isn’t really a problem that can be solved.  It’s essentially impossible to ID who will rise to this level before the fact, and you have to get very lucky (and have plenty of cap room) to acquire one once they’re established. 

Their window may be closing, but for the Sharks to blame their best players and deal off core talent would be a terrible idea that generally ends badly.  They’re still a very strong team, and next year could be the postseason where they could get lucky; Thornton wouldn’t be the first star to be written off and then lead a team to a ring.   And, at worst, the consistent excellent the Sharks have displayed over the last decade is a damned impressive accomplishment in itself.  They don’t merit the “choker” label.

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