If Grier, Sharks refuse rebuild, Brunette should be next head coach

If Grier, Sharks refuse rebuild, Brunette should be next head coach
L, Brunette (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images); R: Grier (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The great, downright-inspiring (if a bit late?) news is that Mike Grier became the first Black man to hold a GM position in NHL history. The bad news is that, in running the Sharks, Grier faces one of the toughest GM jobs in the NHL — and arguably in all of professional sports.

From managing a salary cap mess to finding a new head coach after much of the market’s been settled, this might not be a sinking ship. This seems closer to rescuing and restoring an already-sunken vessel.

Mike Grier indicates Sharks won’t go into full-blown rebuild mode

No matter who became San Jose’s next GM, the question would be inevitable. Will the Sharks institute a rebuild?

Mike Grier indicated that he won’t institute a full-blown rebuild as his first course of action as Sharks GM.

“We’re not looking to tear this down, like Arizona (Coyotes) or some teams have done in the past,” Grier said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “Yes, there are some challenges with the (NHL) salary cap, but I think the majority of the League is dealing with the flat cap and they have the [same] issue. So for us, we’re not looking to rebuild … there are a lot of ‘R’ words you could use.”

“For us, there might be a few bumps in the road ahead and we might have to step back a little bit to go forward, but we’re going to try and get better and try to make the roster better.”

Normally, this sort of comment would inspire foreboding feelings. You might even cue up Bowser-style imposing “boss battle” music.

Rebuild options might be limited for Sharks, anyway

Yet, when it comes to a rebuild, it may already be too late. (In Mario terms, the Sharks heard the “running out of time” music but can’t recover.)

When the contract ‘is its own no-trade clause’ but it also has an actual no-trade clause

For starters, the Sharks’ salary cap isn’t just saddled with bad/bloated/expensive contracts. Most of those players either boast no-trade or no-movement clauses, too.

You can joke that bad contracts are their own no-trade clauses. It’s especially bad when they check both boxes.

Now, it’s wise for Mike Grier to give the Sharks some room to gesture at a rebuild. (Specifically, “we might have to step back a little bit to go forward.”)

In plenty of cases, we see players waive no-trade or no-movement clauses. Ryan McDonagh did so after the Lightning awkwardly asked him. Veterans like Brent Burns may be more flexible if it becomes clear that the Sharks can’t compete, even if they want to.

If things line up, maybe the Sharks could trade some of the contracts they’d need to really jumpstart a rebuild. Perhaps that path is blocked off, but could open up with time? (Obviously, you’d still need someone to want some of those contracts — but never say never in the NHL.)

Already taking questionable paths at forks in the road

As bad as Erik Karlsson‘s contract is, at least you could understand the Sharks’ thinking at the time it was signed. This was a team that competed at a high level, and wanted to take that next step.

The toughest failure to take might just be the most recent one. Yes, it would’ve been painful to trade a player as talented (and sometimes underrated) as Tomas Hertl. A self-aware franchise would swallow that bitter pill. Instead, the Sharks added another risky long-term contract to what was already a terrifying, gigantic mound of poor spending.

It’s the sort of decision that complicates other choices.

In many ways, the Sharks are in a similar place with 25-year-old power forward Timo Meier. Do you trade Meier during his contract year, or add what would likely be a Hertl-style contract to the mix? Mario Ferraro is about to become an RFA. Do you trade a sturdy 23-year-old defenseman, or do you decide you can’t afford to remove one of your younger cornerstones?

Previous sunk costs muddy those decisions. Thus, it’s easier to understand if Grier hopes the Sharks can somehow figure this out.

Blame Boughner?

If the Sharks indeed refuse to rebuild, then they hang on a shaky hope: that Bob Boughner wasn’t the right choice as head coach.

Realistically, you can only blame Boughner for so much. But maybe the Sharks can talk themselves into a turnaround.

Consider that, in 2018-19 (an abbreviated season with Peter DeBoer, with Boughner taking over in December) the Sharks were a mostly-strong team from an underlying perspective. Their Evolving Hockey Team RAPM backed up thoughts that this was a good team undermined by bad goaltending.

From 2019-20 (Boughner’s first full season as Sharks head coach) and on, the team’s basically bounced between mediocre and an absolute disaster.

Realistically, it would be foolish for the Sharks to pin it all on Bob Boughner. Really, just look at that roster, and you’d likely at least admit that it would probably need to “outscore its problems.”

Even fully optimized, this isn’t the sort of team that could lock down opponents in a way that would draw Barry Trotz out of his sabbatical.

Maybe the key is to lean into the Sharks’ strengths, and hope you could either hide weaknesses, or overcome them? That might be where you start to pick at Boughner. Shouldn’t a Sharks team create more offense, even if it means taking more risks? Consider this timid heat map of their 5-on-5 offense from last season, via Hockey Viz:

That’s not to say the gameplan for 2021-22 was totally outrageous. The Sharks were likely trying to mitigate risks (their defense showed significant improvement).

Sensible enough. However, maybe the Sharks need mad science. Perhaps the Sharks need to try their own version of what the Florida Panthers have been attempting the past two years?

And it just so happens that a mad scientist could be available …

Andrew Brunette could be Sharks’ best hope as head coach

Again, the Sharks enter the coaching market much like they played too many games in 2021-22: from behind. They fired Bob Boughner really late in the game, when other coaching jobs were being cemented.

With limited options in mind, maybe it’s not shocking to see a “meh” option like David Quinn emerge as a possible Sharks head coach. There’s even the chum factor.

Instead, I’d argue that there might be some serendipity to the Sharks’ timing. What if they stumble onto a solution in Andrew Brunette, who entered the coaching market thanks to the Panthers’ own strange process?

Maybe there isn’t the same chum factor between Mike Grier and Andrew Brunette. You could argue that they’re both kindred spirits based on their playing days. Both were barely drafted (Brunette: 174th overall in 1993; Grier: 219th[!] overall that same year). Each needed to use their smarts and hard work to carve out careers of more than 1,000 NHL games played.

Really, though, it’s Brunette’s success (and hopefully, style) that should appeal to the Sharks.

It’s not very fair for Grier to inherit this Sharks mess as GM. It also wasn’t fair for Brunette to get fired after being thrust into an interim job with the Panthers where he churned out a Presidents’ Trophy season and became a Jack Adams Award finalist.

If you want to win now, wouldn’t you give someone a chance coming off such great success?

Bring the Florida formula to San Jose?

To reiterate: the style fit could make serious sense, too. The Panthers attacked relentlessly off the rush, accepting the bad because they believed it was outweighed by the good. MacKenzie Weegar, a right-handed defenseman with a hearty risk:reward factor, was a big catalyst for that attack.

Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are both right-handed defensemen who, ideally, create so much offense that it paints over defensive shortcomings. Heck, it’s possible that if Ryan Merkley is a fixture for the Sharks soon, he’ll fit that description too. It may even make sense for the Sharks to occasionally roll out two right-handed defensemen, as the Panthers often did with Weegar and Aaron Ekblad.

By modern NHL standards, that was an unusual pairing. It was also one that was wildly successful. Yes, even in the playoffs.

Leaf through Jack Han’s Hockey Tactics Playbook, and you’ll note that the Sharks probably need to experiment to get the most out of Erik Karlsson. A lot of that may boil down to having Karlsson handling the puck in the neutral zone, and creating potential rush opportunities.

While the Sharks may not possess the foot speed of the Panthers, they might still be able to echo Florida’s larger rush philosophies.

Seems like it’s better to “shoot from everywhere” than live in the “zone of pain.” (via All Three Zones/Corey Sznajder)

Maybe that wouldn’t work. Perhaps nothing would work, and the Sharks are destined to tank voluntarily or involuntarily.

Ultimately, if Grier and the Sharks don’t rebuild, then their best bet is Brunette as bench boss (or at least someone similar).

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