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Tuesday, March 18
 
Gaff hooked: New owners sinking Sharks

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

The disintegration of the San Jose Sharks has been a remarkable thing to see, so remarkable that "disintegration" may not be the right word. "Immolation" comes closer to the truth.

If you look back 3 months, you see the firing of head coach Darryl Sutter, the trading of staples like Owen Nolan, Marcus Ragnarsson and Bryan Marchment, and Tuesday the canning of general manager Dean Lombardi.

But you won't be looking back far enough.

Indeed, to understand how the trendy preseason pick to win the Western Conference turned into the Columbus Blue Jackets, you need to look all the way back to last May, when title of the team from George Gund transferred to an ownership group headed, but not entirely controlled, by Greg Jamison.

It was then that the Sharks became a strict bottom-line team, with an asterisk. Gund, the billionaire with the jones for owning a hockey team, had given way, selling out to a group of local minority investors who liked owning a hockey team but not necessarily the bills brought on by such an act. Gund had the financial cushion to stay close to the Western Conference's most profligate spenders (Detroit, Colorado, St. Louis), but the new owners either did not, or would not.

And in this day and age, "did not" and "could not" mean essentially the same thing. It's a question of commitment, but the assets still pour out on the loading dock just as fast.

For example, the new owners told Lombardi to hardball goalie Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Brad Stuart on what should have been no-brainer contracts, during training camp, at a time when a contender needs continuity. Lombardi did as told, Stuart came back (and got hurt), and after a few games, so did Nabokov. Neither has been as good as a year ago, and it is hard to slough off their holdouts as "no big thing."

The holdouts were a hint of things to come, but not a telling one. Lombardi's history included his share of holdouts: Defenseman Mike Rathje missed nearly two months the year before.

But there would be more, and once the club had drifted to 13th shortly after Thanksgiving, the hammers started falling in earnest.

Sutter's firing was the second hammer, and in many ways most shocking, because it had no sensible hockey-based explanation and the team's new direction had not yet been made clear.

But when Ron Wilson, Sutter's replacement, couldn't turn the team around, the order came down from on high --- no more Cup dreams. Clean out the stable.

So Nolan went, and then Marchment.

But people, particularly the owners, expected more, and when Scott Thornton and Teemu Selanne and Mike Ricci weren't moved, Lombardi's position became untenable. He was trying to make sensible hockey deals, when all they wanted from him was deals.

So one week after a trading deadline in which the Sharks were active but not hyperactive, the general manager joined the most successful coach and the franchise's leading scorer at the post office.

And the process of stripping the team down to the jocks and the office equipment will begin anew. The Sharks made their run -- six consecutive years of improvement in the standings -- but they couldn't get around the three insoluble problems.

  • Being in the wrong conference. The Red Wings, Avalanche, and to a lesser extent, the Blues have the will to spend at a level that discomforts nearly every other team in the NHL. Plus, the Wings and Avs have spent as wisely as they have relentlessly, which is the double whammy that gave us the 49ers of the 1980s and the Yankees of the mid-to late '90s.

  • Losing their sugar daddy. Gund was often pilloried for loving too much, but on occasion for not spending enough to match that love. And compared to the above three teams (along with the Rangers, Flyers and Maple Leafs), that was true. But he did not scrimp on the team, certainly not to the point of alphabetizing the receipts, and he watched the game with more than an accountant's eye.

  • Getting more owners with less patience. The new group isn't running this team as a labor of love, at least not yet, and there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that its members are still jockeying for position among themselves. Thus, the uncertainty on the ice and behind the dasher has now risen to both the office that housed the chain-smoking workaholic general manager and the suites that held the investors.

    There is no way of telling where the Sharks go in the long run. In the short run, the answer is as plain as the standings on Page 7. Musical Chairs is nearly done, and now it's time for an extended stay on the couch while the more ambitious teams drive on, and on.

    Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com




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