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The Rise and Fall of the San Jose Sharks

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Tracing the history of the Sharks through parallels with Ancient Rome.

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The puck is cast.
The puck is cast.

Today's book is the non-fiction masterpiece Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. I'm very interested in Roman history and have read quite a few books on the subject, and this is my favorite one.

Inspired both by Rubicon and by the Sharks' recent lousy play, today I will examine the possibility that the Sharks have followed the trajectory of Ancient Rome - and that we are now in the "Decline and Fall" period of Sharks history.

Read on - you just might learn a little something.

The Roman Kingdom

Little is certain about the history of the kingdom, as nearly no written records from that time survive, and the histories about it were written during the Republic and Empire and are largely based on legend. However, the history of the Roman Kingdom began with the city's founding, traditionally dated to 753 BC with settlements around the Palatine Hill along the river Tiber in Central Italy, and ended with the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the Republic in about 509 BC.

This early period of San Jose Sharks history lasted from their creation in 1991 through the end of the 96-97 season. Rather than the stately Palatine Hill, the Sharks were born in the horrible and smelly Cow Palace. They languished there for years, handicapped by the overly-tough expansion draft rules of the time and some poor early draft choices.

The bright spots of these difficult early years were the 94 and 95 playoffs, which saw the Sharks finally make their mark as a team that should be, if not exactly feared, at least taken seriously:

San Jose's Romulus was undoubtedly Doug Wilson, their first actually-good player, first captain, and current general manager. Wilson helped shape the team in its first two seasons, and would return later to help guide the team once it had emerged as a major power.

The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic (Latin: res publica Romanorum) was the period of the ancient Roman civilization when the government operated as a republic.

It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 509 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and advised by a senate. A complex constitution gradually developed, centered on the principles of a separation of powers and checks and balances. Except in times of dire national emergency, public offices were limited to one year, so that, in theory at least, no single individual could dominate his fellow citizens.

The San Jose Sharks Republic era started in the 97-98 season, when the Sharks began a stretch of five consecutive seasons making the playoffs. This period ended with their first trip to the Western Conference finals and the lockout that followed in 04-05.

This was a period when great men emerged in San Jose history. Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse, and Evgeni Nabokov: these were San Jose's Sulla, Pompey, and Crassus. Patrick Marleau, in a fun bit of irony, was San Jose's Cicero. During this seven-year period the Sharks made the playoffs six times, losing four times in the first round, twice in the second round, and finally in the Western Conference finals in 2004, with a new coach and new general manager helping to guide the team to its most successful season ever, at that point. The heartbreaking loss to the Flames was the First Triumvirate of Sharks history, a critical moment that would set the stage for what was to come:

The Sharks, in this Republic era, achieved great success. Their repeated playoff appearances and two division titles gave glimpses of the strength that the franchise was developing, but also showed the team's limitations. Just as the Roman Republic, in its later days, was visibly creaking under the weight of an archaic government system ill-suited to the demands of a nation as sprawling and powerful as Rome had become, so too were the Sharks limited by the bonds of the past. The team was doing as much as it possibly could in its existing incarnation - but something would need to change drastically for the Sharks to take the next step.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum) was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean in Europe, Africa, and Asia.[7] The 500-year-old Roman Republic, which preceded it, had been destabilized through a series of civil wars. Several events marked the transition from Republic to Empire, including Julius Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC); the Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC); and the granting of the honorific Augustus to Octavian by the Roman Senate (16 January 27 BC).

In the season immediately following the 04-05 lockout, the Sharks were struggling. They were in last place in the Pacific Division, and endured a ten-game losing streak in November of 2005.

And then everything changed:

This was the Sharks' crossing of the Rubicon. This was the point of no return. This was the moment they committed themselves to being one the league's elite teams for the next several years, while also sowing the seeds of their eventual decline. With Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau on the team, two superstars from the same draft year, the team had committed itself to a definite success window. All of the roster moves they would make over the next few seasons would be made with this timetable in mind.

The Sharks Empire era contained the franchise's greatest successes, as they put together a record over the period that only the ultra-successful Detroit Red Wings (the Carthaginan Empire to San Jose's Rome, though that doesn't quite work out with the timeline we are constructing) could match. The Sharks made the playoffs every year, advancing to the second round in each of Thornton's first three seasons with the teams and making it to the Western Conference finals in back-to-back years in 2010 and 2011. The shocking events of the 2009 playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks, following San Jose's most successful season of all time, are the Sharks' Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

This impressive run of regular-season and playoff success would eventually take its toll, however. Just as Imperial Rome soared to power and then collapsed under the weight of its victories, so too would the San Jose Sharks eventually pay the price for too many seasons of high finishes and accompanying late draft picks, and too many trades for veteran players at the expense of the team's youth.

The Fall of Rome

The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the historiographical debate among scholars regarding what happened to the Western Roman Empire. The "Decline" theme was introduced by one of the most influential historians, Edward Gibbon. Many theories of causality have been explored and most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with barbarian invasions and usurpers from within the empire.

I believe that we are living through the decline of the San Jose Sharks. It began last season, with the team failing to win the Pacific division for the first time since 2007, and their subsequent worst playoff performance in history. It has continued into the current season, which has seen San Jose struggle to find any consistency after their hot start. It can't be denied that the team has suffered through some key injuries and some bad luck on offense, but they've also been benefiting from Antti Niemi playing the best season of his life and a penalty kill that has gone from second-worst in the league to third-best, so it all sort of evens out to say that the Sharks are probably right about where they "deserve" to be, standings-wise: near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.

Just as with the fall of the Roman Empire, the exact reasons for San Jose's decline can be debated. Certainly a great deal of it stems from the way the NHL draft works. As a consequence of their years of success and the resulting late draft picks, the Sharks have one of the worst prospect talent pools in the NHL. They've been in desperate need of scoring from their bottom six forwards all season, but they have no one worthwhile to call up. In order to try and compete NOW, the Sharks have had to ship their best young talent elsewhere, where they can do things like this:

The Roman Empire's decline played out over a period of four hundred years, during which occasional modest successes and great leaders failed to keep up with military setbacks and worthless buffoons. During its decline Rome was engaged in a constant struggle to hold on to its frontier territories and, to a larger extent, its old identity. Bad decisions were made in order to uphold outdated Roman principles or defend Roman holdings that should logically have been abandoned. In short, the massive weight of the idea of the Roman Empire helped ensure its own collapse.

The Sharks can allow the same thing to happen to them - continuing along the old path, trying to fight their way through a window that is no longer open, sacrificing what little future they have left to try and capture brief present glory, and eventually become the next Calgary Flames - or they can take a different path. They can adapt.

Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire (or Byzantium) is a term used by modern historians to distinguish the Constantinople-centred Roman Empire of the Middle Ages from its earlier classical existence. It is also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, primarily in the context of Late Antiquity, while the Empire was still administered with separate eastern and western political centres. Its citizens continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Basileia Rhōmaiōn;[1]Latin: Imperium Romanum) or Romania (Ῥωμανία).[2] After the Western Roman Empire fragmented and collapsed in the 5th century, the eastern half continued to thrive, existing for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe.

The Sharks need to escape the long, slow decline (the Calgary model). This doesn't necessarily mean that they need to blow the team up and start from scratch, however. Just as the Roman Empire gradually evolved into the Byzantine Empire, which was an enormous historical power in its own right, the Sharks can move to embrace a new identity for the future.

Logan Couture is San Jose's Emperor Justinian, and represents the team's best hope for success over the next decade. As he ages the team will rely less and less on Patrick Marleau, but Joe Thornton is the kind of player who could continue to help the team well past his prime scoring years. The Sharks will have to adapt to life without Dan Boyle very soon, but they have a solid core of players under thirty who could lead the team into the future - provided team management adapts to their new identity, stops holding onto old ways that just aren't working, and makes some moves to give the team a chance to reach ultimate glory in a new way:

The Byzantines attained greatness while surrounded by enemies, and the Sharks will have to do the same thing during their transition period. The Kings are the Ottoman Empire, already successful and poised to remain so for years to come. The Blackhawks are the Huns, seemingly unstoppable and with a history of hurting the Sharks. The Western Conference is a hostile place for a team trying to craft a new identity for themselves - but it's a better way of doing things than a four-hundred-year decline.

Next Game

San Jose Sharks
@ St. Louis Blues

Tuesday, Mar 12, 2013, 5:00 PM PDT
Scottrade Center

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The Sharks begin the second half of their season tonight. The trade deadline is less than a month away. Here's hoping they finish their season strong but don't take that as a sign that they should continue following the old ways. San Jose must adapt and evolve, or they will wither into frustrating irrelevance.

Prediction: Sharks win 4-2, with goals from all the guys I want traded.