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Mike Grier Has His Work Cut Out For Him

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - OCTOBER 18: (l-r) Mike Grier, Rick Kowalsky and John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils work the game against the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center on October 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Avalanche defeated the Devils 5-3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Mike Grier begins his tenure as the new general manager of the San Jose Sharks today, and as the first black man to ever earn such a post, the first thing to be done is to note the bio. His brother Chris is the GM of the Miami Dolphins, meaning that there is a pronounced sea creature mascot bias at play here.

Unlike his brother, Mike Grier has the advantage of not working for an owner who seems dottier than a barn owl, so that’s a start. Indeed, Sharks owner Hasso Plattner not only has money ($7 billion, though according to Forbes that number has fallen in recent years) but is a continent away from meddlesome (he lives in Germany). Also, Grier’s time as a hockey ops advisor for the New York Rangers and before that a scout for Chicago and assistant coach with New Jersey means that he doesn’t come into the new job completely cold.

But, and here’s the caveat, it’s pretty chilly from where he sits anyway.

Grier gets to be the guy who starts what surely must be a full teardown and rebuild of a once nearly-proud franchise. He has an aging and cap-strangled roster that seems closer to being aged out than cleared out. The farm system is considered thin on prospects, and he has been hired two days before the draft, meaning he will start with other folks stocking the lower end of the roster for him. In short, he has inherited a brutal job at the worst possible time. Which, when you think about it, is how most job changes in sports happen. Team goes room temp, boss gets squirrelly, demands rolling heads, gets same, then struggles to find new and better heads.

In the case of San Jose, this all started when longtime general manager Doug Wilson, who had built a perennial playoff team without ever getting his name on the Stanley Cup, first withdrew because of health reasons and then fully quit in April. His interim replacement Joe Will then waited until four days ago to fire coach Bob Boughner and most of his staff, suggesting that the team is more shambolic than it is letting on, and further away from repair than a mere tweak or two will solve.

Into this hot and fetid mess steps Mike Grier, who in addition to all the hockey issues must also take stock of a dwindling fan base that once routinely sold out its building but now is barely more popular than Buffalo, Ottawa, and the preposterous Arizona Coyotes, who are moving to a new arena with a 5,000-seat capacity that will rarely be filled.

In other words, Grier got the worst job in the NHL at the worst possible time. He has to watch the draft without being in charge of it, then hire a coach who has to be vetted for both competence and compatibility, then show the office that changes to an organization gone stale are coming, and coming at pace.

If there is a positive in all this other than the fact that the Sharks foraged outside their comfort zone to get Grier (who at least was a Shark in his playing days), it’s that they recognized that the comfort zone needed to be breached at all. Wilson was a firm believer in rewarding those already on site, and it worked long enough to make the idea defensible, but the last three seasons have been deeply uninspiring. They were dead last in 2019, then 14 points out of a playoff spot in a pandemic-shortened season which is 20 points in a normal one, and then 20 again last year. Their goaltending, once an organizational strength, is a disaster, and their most notable events in that time were letting franchise icons Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton go, releasing, reacquiring, and then trading and re-reacquiring Patrick Marleau, experimenting with Evander Kane to the detriment of all involved, and finding themselves shackled to the back ends of the careers of Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

In other words, Mike Grier looks at his brother with some envy because digging the Dolphins out of the nightmares created by Stephen Ross seems at least slightly less daunting than curing the Sharks of all their self-afflictions.

And if this doesn’t work out, there are aquatic mascots in Vancouver, Seattle, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and, if you stretch the definition a bit, Carolina. In short, Mike Grier could be beginning a long and job-filled career here. But he will never forget his first, because most of the time, it’s the hardest one.