SAN JOSE — Two embarrassing losses amid a wretched start to the season that recalled the franchise’s rough early days were enough for Mike Grier to meet with Sharks players as a group Monday for a one-way address to show his dissatisfaction with them lapsing into being uncompetitive.
But their 0-10-1 record and recent defeats of 10-1 to the Vancouver Canucks and 10-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins also had Grier taking accountability for the debacle that has reached historic proportions. The Sharks weren’t supposed to be any good, and everyone knew that. An understanding that this would be another bad season.
Not this bad. Not 10 goals against bad, particularly in back-to-back gruesome efforts. Not so bad where they’ve only scored 12 goals in 11 games and already have a differential of minus-43.
“We kind of expected some pain as we go through this kind of situation,” Grier said, referring to San Jose’s rebuild as he met with media members for 45 minutes. “The last two games in particular, it hasn’t been good enough. The compete, the effort, it’s not good enough. It’s unacceptable. From my standpoint. From the players’ standpoint.
“It’s something that can’t happen. It’s something that we’re going to work to correct. Starting with me. Everyone’s got to be better. I got to be better. The coaches got to be better. The players have to be better. Everyone has to be better.”
Now in his second season as GM, Grier said he has routinely met with players individually. This was the first time he addressed them and the coaching staff as a collective. The final straw came after Saturday’s loss to the Penguins, a game where a sellout crowd at SAP Center watched Erik Karlsson return to San Jose and saw his former team completely fall apart in allowing five second-period goals after playing a competitive first 20 minutes.
It was nothing Grier was looking for after enduring the worst home loss in club history, where Vancouver scored four goals in each of the first two periods and stretched its lead to 10 goals before Fabian Zetterlund’s late goal avoided what would have been a record-shattering shutout defeat.
“I just felt they needed to hear from me and what I’m seeing and what I expect from them,” Grier said. “To let them know what’s happening was not acceptable from my end. There’s certain things I won’t tolerate and some of that stuff has been happening. I kind of let them know that and we’ll kind of go from there.”
Grier called his team “a fragile group” that’s beyond finding kernels of satisfaction in moral victories and needs an actual one just for a seed of confidence to take root. But he also called the losses to Vancouver and Pittsburgh “unacceptable” and cited owner Hasso Plattner, the entire organization and their fans as those who deserve better than the brutal play on display.
“It’s not anything I take lightly,” Grier said, also noting that he has spoken to Plattner in recent days. Plattner rarely does interviews but Grier said he attended the Sharks’ first two home games and continues to show unwavering support for his long-term plan even with the one-sided losses.
There were other notable takeaways from the GM’s session following the team’s practice ahead of Tuesday’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Another loss would make them the first team in NHL history to open a season with 12 consecutive losses.
Quinn is on safe ground — for now
Second-year coach David Quinn answered questions about his job security Saturday night, telling reporters, “I guess it’s an obvious question, but if you’ve been around long, I mean, I don’t think about that for two seconds. I’ve got a job to do.”
Later, Quinn seemed exasperated by the inquiries about his status. He was in place Monday running practice, stopping a drill to stress his unhappiness with how it was being executed before resuming and then gathering the group at the end of the workout for a lengthy conversation. Grier has not considered a coaching change and still believes Quinn’s message still resonates among the Sharks.
“I think the players respect Quinny,” he said. “I think one of his biggest qualities is that he communicates well. So, I think the players know what’s expected of them. I think they know where they stand with him. But when things aren’t going well, sometimes the guys that care too much become almost an issue. You care too much so you want to do more. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that. I’m going to do things I’m not supposed to be doing because I want to win so bad for the team and it turns into something that’s not good and snowballs into being something that started from a good place in their heart of wanting to help the team win (and) turns out being a negative.
“I think they’re still listening to Quinny. I think they still are buying (into) what the coaches are preaching. Like I said, it’s just about executing better details, better effort and believing they can win a hockey game. Until they do, it’s going to be hard.”
However, Grier did not remove the prospect of cutting Quinn loose from the table. Players have backed the 57-year-old and aren’t blaming their woeful performances on him. But there could be a breaking point if the Sharks continue to be embarrassed on the ice.
“If I don’t see what I want to see, I’ll be evaluating everything and looking at everything,” Grier said. “This can’t go on for much longer. Like I said, the fans deserve more. The owner has been supportive in backing me and the team forever. We deserve to be better for everyone. If the response isn’t there and I’m not seeing what I need to see, then everything will be evaluated and I’m sure there’ll be some changes made.”
Abandoning their rebuilding plan isn’t an option
The Sharks don’t have a lineup that stacks up with most teams, if not every other one. They don’t have a pure puck mover in the defense that can consistently generate offense from the blue line, they’re without captain and current franchise face Logan Couture as he continues to have setbacks with his lower-body injury and Tomas Hertl is the closest thing they have to a first-line-quality forward.
But do the recent blowouts have Grier considering whether obtaining roster help from the outside might be necessary to have a lineup that can be competitive and not severely outclassed every night? Not likely.
“The broader plan, that’s what takes precedent here,” Grier said. “We got to stay with it. Stay with the vision in what we want to do. I think a lot of times you get yourself in trouble if you’re just trying to make moves for the short term and it affects the long term. We got to maybe look around and see if there’s something there that maybe can fit in with what we want to do long-term and age-wise and player profile-wise. Maybe there’s things to look at. But definitely not going to do anything that would jeopardize or get in the way of any of our young players’ development. Moving important draft capital or things like that just to try and salvage this season.
“We have to take the long view and I think that’s my job and I’m sure it’s different when you’re playing and coaching. It’s about the result today. But I have to be able to sit back and take the long view of things. As much as it’s kind of sucked for these few weeks, it’s to have some patience and not panic and do anything.”
Translation: Don’t count on the Sharks using their two first-round picks or two second-round selections for 2024 to get players that could help now. Especially if that first one winds up being the No. 1 choice if they win the draft lottery. And they won’t be sacrificing their best young talent that’s either with the club now in William Eklund or playing in the AHL with the Barracuda just to bring in, for instance, a defenseman that can run their power play.
“I don’t think the plan is to go out and get three and four guys and hope they come in here to save the day,” Grier said. “It’s got to start with the group and it’s on them to kind of come together and look themselves in the mirror, work hard and control the things they can control. I think it’s in there definitely to play better hockey and be more competitive and win games. We’ll see if they can kind of rally together and do that.”
Prospect development is a major focal point
Henry Thrun played two games, grabbed two assists and was still sent to the Barracuda. Thomas Bordeleau joined him after playing in six contests where he had a goal and assist but also saw his effectiveness and minutes decrease. Shakir Mukhamadullin showed a lot of promise in the rookie tournament and had some good moments in the preseason but was kept in the AHL.
The fact that all three are waiver-exempt made it easier for Grier to reassign them, particularly when they’ve got a glut of defensemen and had veteran center Mikael Granlund returning from injury.
“I think Henry and Shak have been pretty good down there,” Grier said. “I think it’s good for them. They’re getting lots of puck touches. They’re getting to play on the power play. Get to make plays under pressure and feel good about themselves. Especially for defensemen, the situation we’re in and the environment we’re in wasn’t great for a defensive prospect to be in where you’re defending so much. Development-wise, it’s not great when you maybe don’t get to make enough plays and you’re just kind of treading water.
“We’re happy with (what) Henry and Shak are doing down there. They’re playing heavy minutes. Playing in all situations. And I think their games are growing because of it.”
Another defense prospect, Nikita Okhotiuk, has played in his first two games with the Sharks and Grier contends they’ve “been really good.” Okhotiuk came to San Jose with Mukhamadullin as two parts of the Timo Meier trade last spring. And there is Eklund, the 21-year-old 2021 first-round pick they’re keeping. The left wing has shown flashes of his playmaking ability but those have often led to teammates that can’t finish. He has a goal and an assist in San Jose’s 11 games.
“Ekky’s been pretty good up here,” Grier said. “I think it’s not easy and I don’t want to put too much pressure on him to be the guy who’s got to score the goal and produce offense for us. For us, it’s about making sure he’s doing the things we’re asking him to do to develop his whole complete game but also (making) sure he has the support so he’s not feeling like he’s got the weight of the world to be the savior just because he’s a young guy.”
(Top photo: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)