The Sharks going forward
Now that the dust has settled and my emotions have had a chance to level off I can write this blog with a cool and objective mind. The double overtime goal in Vancouver was such a terrible way to finish off a great season for the Sharks who deserved better. They obviously didn’t deserve to advance to the Cup finals but no overtime games should end with a fluke bounce and or goal.
The San Jose Sharks are a team that has their nucleus locked up for the near future. They are relatively young and as the star players age they have a core of younger players who do contribute now, but will be ready to take the reins when the time comes for them to step up and be the marquee players when called upon.
We have seen that transition already happen with this organization when Owen Nolan was traded and Patrick Marleau stepped in and fulfilled a leadership role. If and when there comes a time when the Sharks decide to part with the likes of Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle teammates like Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe, and Joe Pavelski should be ready to steer the ship.
The goaltending situation in the bay area looks much different than it did a year ago. At this time last spring the Sharks were letting Evgeni Nabokov know that they would not re-sign the goalie that holds most of the team’s records including games played, wins, and playoff wins.
The Sharks GM Doug Wilson made a splash in free agency and signed Antero Niittymaki to a two year 2.0 million per year contract. It was a good plan considering that if nothing else worked out Niittymaki has played a starter role in the past but at this point in his career he is a suitable back-up.
GM Doug Wilson then went on to sign the Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi from the Chicago Blackhawks to a one year contract. After showing vast improvement to a slow start to the season, the Sharks signed the 6’2 – 215 pound Finnish goaltender to a four year contract averaging 3.8 million per year. The starting role belongs to Niemi for the immediate future, but after an inconsistent playoff performance if the Sharks have an opportunity to improve in between the pipes I’m sure they would jump at it.
One more year with Niittymaki as a back-up should give Alex Stalock time to develop in the minors. Stalock appeared in one game in relief for Niemi against Phoenix and got the win by shutting out the Coyotes in 29:47 of playing time. Expect to see Stalock backing up Niemi in the not too distant future provided he is able to return to form after a season ending injury.
Behind him is Tyson Sexsmith who spent most of his season with the Stockton Thunder. Sexsmith didn’t have the season the Sharks were hoping for, he was sidelined most of the season with a broken catching hand he broke in a fight early in the season. Upon his return he showed plenty of promise and along with Stalock and Carter Hutton they will fill the pipes for Worcester.
Chances are the defense will have a different look next season than the crew that finished the 2010/11 season. The Sharks D corps by no means played poorly this year or during this playoff run but this is an area where improvements can be made.
The Sharks do have a decent back end but are lacking that shut down pair that other high end teams have. In San Jose there is no Weber and Suter like in Nashville, or Mitchell and Doughty like LA has. The Sharks have Murray and Boyle, and beyond that things get somewhat thin.
Boyle is as good as they come when talking about offensive defensemen in the league, but he also plays the shut-down role in San Jose. If the Sharks had another stud to play along-side Douglas Murray, who could handle the puck, but also be a physical threat both during play and after the whistle blows that would take some pressure off of Boyle and allow him to focus more on offense.
If that were the case than Boyle would most likely see the opposition’s second pairing and not have to spend time or energy chasing the puck in his own zone as was the case playing against the Sedin twins in the conference finals.
San Jose needs players who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, athletes who bring an attitude with them and yet players who are not high maintenance. The available suitors via free-agency who might fit into Todd McLellan’s realm are limited. They can’t break the bank and age is a factor.
The first name that jumps out on the Unrestricted Free Agency list is Ed Jovanovski. Jovo cop is what he was called while playing in Vancouver has plenty of the attributes the Sharks are looking for, but his age is a factor and has played a full 82 game season only twice in his career. He is injury prone and may be asking for too much in the twilight of his playing days.
From there the names on top of the D list are either too long in the tooth or offensively oriented without enough sand paper. Former Sharks Scott Hannan is someone who might help San Jose and he is familiar with the team and the area. He finished the season in Washington and would most likely take less than the 4.5 million he made last year. Hannan is only 32 years young.
Eric Brewer is another player who could help the Sharks but after a deep playoff run with Tampa Bay his stock has risen and may be looking for more than what the Sharks are willing to pay.
Kevin Bieksa will be an UFA at season’s end and brings everything the Sharks are looking for. He is only 29 but may also be too expensive for the Sharks. No doubt his stock has gone up after an inspiring conference finals. James Wisniewski could fit the bill and is young enough to keep for long term.
Ian White played great for the Sharks and look for the team to try and lock him up for a few years. White is only 26 but he will be looking for a raise from his 2.9 million he made this year.
Niclas Wallin was great in the room and brings a winning attitude but isn’t getting any younger or faster. He would benefit the Sharks if he signed on for another year if he is willing to be a depth player and continue to mentor the younger defense on the team and in the system. His wisdom and knowledge and all around good attitude can’t be measured on the score sheet or with wins or losses.
The Sharks have guys like Justin Braun and Mike Moore who are in the minors and have played with the big club. Moore played some games early in the season and looked like some more time in the AHL was needed and Justin Braun proved to be a worthy fill in for Dan Boyle while he was out for six games in February. It is these players who benefit from a veteran like Wallin, and it won’t be long before we see the depth in Worcester making an impact at the NHL level in San Jose.
The forwards for San Jose is the where things get excited. The top three lines for the Sharks were productive and played as well as any in the league down the stretch and through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They are by no means old and grew as individuals as well as hockey players this spring.
Most notably Joe Thornton was finally a stand out in the post-season for all the right reasons. He was the team’s top shut down forward while leading on the scoreboard. He took and won his share of face-offs and did the little things well. Joe played through the pain of injuries, and didn’t complain to the officials while doing it.
He reminded me of Steve Yzerman the way he lead by example. Whether it was putting the “C” on his chest or it was just time that Thornton blossomed as a playoff performer it worked. Thornton changed the way he performed on the ice during the regular season so that when it came time for playoff hockey he didn’t have to try and turn a switch. He sacrificed points to play a better all-round game and the Sharks benefitted as a team for it.
Patrick Marleau was a slow starter in the playoffs, but once he found his groove he showed some consistency with his scoring touch. Marleau was called out by the media and responded but needs to be that impact player in all rounds of the post-season.
He has the ability to be a game breaker which makes it frustrating to watch. Like Thornton of the past, Marleau needs to get himself engaged right off the bat and perhaps dropping the gloves is a way for him to get the competitive juices flowing. We are talking about one of the leagues fastest skaters and someone who has a great shot.
If Marleau can learn to play through the tight checking that comes with playoff hockey and lead his team to the Stanley Cup he has the potential to one day find his way into the hall of fame.
The supporting cast all did an admirable job but of course know not to rest on their laurels. Everybody needs to be better in all areas.
The changes I believe that need to be made is adding more grit to the third and fourth lines. Pavelski’s line played well until they met an aggressive and physical Canucks team. The fourth line played well in the final round but were no-shows until then.
Expect to see more of Andrew Desjardins next season as his post-season play earned him a lot of support from both the coaches and the fans.
Scott Nichol’s injury from the regular season didn’t heal well enough for him to be an impact in the playoffs and that hurt the Sharks. His prowess in the face-off circle was missed and finished with no points and a minus-7 after fifteen games this spring. They either need more depth and or younger more durable players to man the fourth line.
The Canucks went out and did just that at the trade deadline and so far it has paid off in a big way for Vancouver. When they acquired Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre neither were starters for the Canucks, but now they are playing big roles on the second and third lines as well as contributing on the penalty kill. The Canucks didn’t throw away the future for them and may not have their services past this year, but those are the chances that need to be taken to be successful.
The Jamal Mayers experiment was certainly not a failure but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sharks let him walk. The younger guys have shown that they can fill that role and the youth of guys like Desjardins and Mashinter means there is more potential for improvement and one day becoming that second or third line player.
Dany Heatley finished the post-season on the third line and has fallen short of playoff expectations. He is still under the same contract he came to San Jose with which means a no-trade clause. I don’t believe the Sharks aren’t looking to move Heatley, but he has underachieved so far in his two years as a Shark but still should have plenty left in the tank. He is only thirty years young and when injury free he has proven to be that prolific goal scorer.
Even if San Jose wanted to trade Heatley it would be extremely difficult to get face value in return for him after the disappointing post-seasons he has had for the Sharks, and getting him to waive his no-trade clause would also be another issue to overcome. For Heatley’s sake let’s hope he can return to form and in a hurry otherwise there is the chance he becomes the fans whipping boy.
The Sharks are still a team on the rise especially with the momentum they created for themselves this spring. Yes they went down 4-1 in the Conference finals but this team realizes that the difference between contending for the Cup and watching it are attainable for this talented nucleus. A few tweaks to the line-up and a bounce or two going their way and they are right there.
Winning the Cup is not easy and in some cases it takes time and patience to get there. Steve Yzerman lost in the finals and suffered many playoff defeats before he took his Red Wings back to the promise land. The lessons learned along the way have to be remembered and applied accordingly and right now the Sharks are taking notes and preparing for the next season.
For those who say blow it up and start again, well I say get off the drugs and seek help. Finding players of the caliber the Sharks have is not easy and they are so close. Not to mention people that fit well into the community like these guys do.
Never do you hear about San Jose players causing trouble late at night or finding their way into the press in a negative way like so many other professional athletes do. These guys care about the town they live in and have decided to raise their families here. There is something to be said about how many players who no longer play for the Sharks still own homes in San Jose. It is a great place to live and work and they know it.
Keep your sticks on the ice,