Rarely does one see a team finish with north of 100-points and have their off-season marred by the word “rebuild”. It just doesn’t happen. Then again, all bets are off when a team haunted by playoff failures and shortcomings lets a 3-0 series lead evaporate. So, there is a precedent to be set here, it would appear.
Followers of the San Jose Sharks were quick to pick up on Doug Wilson’s use of the magic “r” word and have spared no amount of digital ink in dissecting it. At first it appeared as though Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s futures with the club might be in jeopardy, but for now at least, cooler heads have prevailed and they’ve remained Sharks. Antti Niemi’s future was equally as murky, but again, for the time being at least it would appear as though he figures in the club’s immediate future.
Doug Wilson has let it be known that his version of the word “rebuild” doesn’t necessarily fall in line with others’. This is a believable claim, with memories of the 2013 trade deadline coming to mind; Wilson sent slower, aging players like Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe packing in return for draft picks – this was called re-tooling, not a rebuild.
In many ways, this off-season has mirrored the actions of the tail end of that one. Aging players that didn’t figure into the team’s future, like Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle, were sent packing for draft picks and replaced by a whole lot of nothing of immediate help.
It would appear as though Wilson wants this club to rebuild from within, infusing this roster with player’s developed from within the organization, rather than trading out core pieces to acquire these younger contributors. The Sharks have no shortage of these options and there are several that could be fighting for a roster spot come training camp.
The Defensive Logjam
Just yesterday I mused on the possible addition of Mike Green to San Jose’s already deep defensive-pool. I still think it would be a worthwhile addition, but as was pointed out to me by fellow Sharks contributor, Andrew Wilson, this would present a new set of difficulties; it would all but guarantee none of the Sharks’ younger defensive prospects crack the roster.
As things currently stand, the Sharks have six defenseman on one-way contracts; one of those spots, however, is accounted for by Scott Hannan, who could very likely end up being this team’s seventh-defenseman. One of those six defenseman locked into a one-way deal is Matt Irwin, who will finally get his shot to become a permanent fixture in the Sharks roster. Last year wasn’t necessarily a letdown for Irwin statistically speaking, but clearly something he was doing rubbed Todd MacLellan the wrong way as Irwin was benched quite often in favour of Brad Stuart.
So with Irwin locking down that fifth spot on defense, who makes up the competition for sixth? Scott Hannan aside, of course. Leading the way will be San Jose’s first-round pick from the 2013-draft, Mirco Mueller. The Swiss defenseman brings very little in the way of offense, but is a reliable defenseman all the same. The strong points of Mueller’s game generally show themselves when Mueller is away from the puck, as his positioning allows him to cover tonnes of ground with relatively little movement; Mueller is a very efficient skater. In short, Mueller would be very well suited to playing a sheltered role on the third-pairing as he rounds out his two-way game.
Another first-round pick of the Sharks, Matt Tennyson, could also be looking to land that sixth and final spot. Working against Tennyson is the fact that he had an abysmal year in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks; Tennyson had only 21-points in 54-games and posted a -25. These numbers hardly jump out at you, certainly not in the positive sense, but it’s worth noting that the Worcester Sharks were a terrible team last season and +/- is a borderline useless stat anyways – I used it solely because AHL data is extremely limited. I’m still of the belief that Tennyson is the most suited of all the Sharks younger defenseman to take on a full-time NHL role, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the fact that he’s a full year older than Mueller and has a more developed two-way game. Tennyson’s best assets are his first pass and vision, which would also make him a valued contributor on the power play. To this point in his career, Tennyson has but four games in the NHL to his credit. Something tells me that number is due for a raise this season.
Gridlock Up Front
If you think things are a little crowded on defense, be prepared for rush-h0ur traffic upfront. As things currently stand, CapGeek.com has 14-forwards up with the big club, and none of them are members of the Sharks prospect pool. Worry not, for this is a testament to Wilson’s off-season silliness and dedication to adding face-punchers more than it is an inherent lack of potential up front; there’s certainly no shortage of that within the organization.
Quite frankly, looking at the stable of forward prospects, I see a group full of Matt Nietos. Of the three players that I feel are primed to breakout next season, none are first-round selections and the highest pick of them all was a 55th overall, Chris Tierney.
None of these forwards have a realistic shot at cracking the opening day lineup, but should they impress in training camp and the Sharks get riddled with injuries, they could see time with the big club regardless. Who knows, maybe one of them fulfills the prophecies of my Nieto comparison and just forces their way into the lineup and holds on for dear life. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Leading the way in this group of forwards is undrafted free agent, Eriah Hayes. His age, 26-years old, can and will work as a double-edged sword for Hayes. Working in his favour is the fact that he’s played considerable amounts of pro-hockey and played in 15-games for the big-club last season. His ceiling is considerably lower than any of the other forwards he will be competing with, but it’s entirely possible that he’s more NHL ready. Hayes plays the kind of rugged game that Wilson apparently loves now, and has learned to take advantage of his 6’4 frame as he’s developed. Taller players often take longer to develop and learn how to use their size. This is certainly what the Sharks hope is the case with Hayes.
Also in the wings for the Sharks are the aforementioned Chris Tierney and Freddie Hamilton. Neither bring a first-round pedigree, but both have developed to the point where Hockey Future has them ranked in the San Jose Sharks’ top-five prospects. Hamilton is probably the more NHL ready of the two, but much of that his to do with his highly-developed defensive game. This would, of course, make Hamilton a more favourable call-up option, as the Sharks would surely need any injury-replacement to start their time in the bigs playing in the bottom-six. Thierney also plays a proficient defensive game, but much like Hamilton he’s yet to put it all together offensively. Thierney is much better suited for some more time developing.
What’s become increasingly clear in making this piece is that the Sharks are relatively well-off where the prospect pool is concerned. Who knows, maybe this caught Doug Wilson’s eye and held him back from trading Thornton and Marleau for prospects? But I digress. The point is, the older, core pieces aren’t going anywhere. If youth is to be served, it will be prepared from within. Looking at the NHL’s most successful franchises of the last decade, that seems like a prudent course of action.