Eric He and Ilya Davydov, two Sharks’ columnists at The Hockey Writers, are embarking on a three-part journey to discuss six burning questions regarding the San Jose Sharks. This is part I of a three-part series.
Question 1: Do the Sharks Need to Sign Any Free Agents?
Unless you’re the Los Angeles Kings and won the Stanley Cup the year before, you can always make improvements to your roster.
But in this strange situation with the lockout and shortened season, the best thing the Sharks can do is stay put and refrain from signing any free agents.
They missed out on the Rick Nash sweepstakes, and failed to steal Ryan Suter from the Predators. Now that all the big shots are gone, there’s no use picking up the scraps.
The big reason why is this: if the Sharks were to sign a free agent today, he would have less than a week arrive, adapt to his new home, create some chemistry with his teammates, and most importantly, get back into game shape before the season begins on Sunday.
The Sharks’ main concern at the moment is their defense, with injuries to Justin Braun, Jason Demers, and Brent Burns. There is no guarantee that any of them will skate in the season opener against Calgary on the 20th. However, these are short term, minor issues that can easily be taken care of by calling up some prospects from Worcester (Matt Irwin and Matt Tennyson) instead of panicking by signing a free agent on such short notice.
They are fine on offense, with all four lines locked in except for James Sheppard, who hasn’t played for the Sharks since being acquired before last season due to a knee injury.
As for goaltenders, look for Antti Niemi to play at least 90 percent of the games in this shortened season, with the more-than-capable Thomas Greiss backing him up.
The bottom line is: the Sharks are fine as is, and shouldn’t roll the dice on any free agents. Plus, do you really think that Adam Eaton is going to make much of a difference?
The “suits” decided to give Doug Wilson another chance, and he in turn has given a chance to the players and to the head coach Todd McLennan. The rebuild was put off, at least by another season. If the Sharks come up short once again – it is safe to say that heads will roll. However, for now the team is almost the same as last year – proof that the GM has a lot of faith in his squad. Only two players were brought in during the summer – Brad Stuart as a top four d-man to bolster the defence, and Adam Burish to play that gritty role that so many players before him have auditioned for (Nichol, Mayers, Malhotra, Moen, etc.). It will likely be the last shot for this group of players, and Doug Wilson is not likely to break the core yet.
It is safe to say that ‘yes, the Sharks need some reinforcement’. The problem lies in the fact that to win the Cup, the Sharks need a real reinforcement – a quality player that is hard to find in the current pool of free agents. This reinforcement can only be obtained through the trade with another team – and that is essentially the rebuild that is currently on hold. There are interesting UFAs that are still available, but none come close to being a player that will help the Sharks get over the hump. Holmstrom and Knuble could have buffed up the checking
lines, but the former is a true Red Wing and is set to retire, and age is really catching up with the former, whose production has dwindled down in the last couple of years. There are other UFAs, but most of them are 3rd/4th line material. To increase the level of internal competition among the bottom 6 forwards it would be good to sign someone like Petr Sykora or bring back Dominic Moore (if he chooses to return to hockey) provided that the contract is for 1 year only.
There is another thing to remember – there is a difference between the Sharks ‘signing any free agents’ or ‘needing to sign any free agents’. The Sharks would benefit from increasing the internal competition to keep the bottom 6 forwards honest, but it doesn’t look like Doug Wilson will make any more signings or acquisitions, at least for now. Dave Pollak from the Mercury News reported that Doug Wilson needs more information and is reluctant to make any harsh decisions after refreshing almost half of the team’s roster before last season:
“We brought in 10 players a year ago, I wouldn’t want to be bringing 10 players into a short and compressed season.” – Doug Wilson
Question 2: Are the Sharks better off with the 48-game season?
Joe Thornton is 33 years old, Patrick Marleau is 33 years old, and Dan Boyle is 36 years old.
Ask any of them if they would rather play a 48 or 82-game season, and the answer will probably be 48.
Look, these three make up the core of the San Jose Sharks, and the team goes as they go.
Thornton is the heart and soul of the team: the captain, the leader, the facilitator, and their MVP year-after-year.
Although he may have his inconsistencies and critics, Marleau will go down as the greatest player to ever don a Sharks’ uniform, hands down. He is coming off another 30-plus goal season, and the Sharks need for the reserved winger to have a big year.
I will never get tired of watching Dan Boyle do a postgame interview. Sitting at his locker, the veteran defenseman is usually red-faced with a stern look on his face, breaking down everything he did wrong and how he can much better. Face it, the man wants to win, and at age 36, time is running out for him to touch hockey’s holy grail one final time.
So, the question is: are the Sharks better off with a 48-game season?
I say yes, simply because Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle are better off with a 48-game season.
Like every year, it is almost a given that the Sharks will make the playoffs, and like every year, it is almost a given that the Sharks will be knocked out prematurely.
Maybe with the shortened season, things will be different. If everyone stays healthy, the Sharks will enter the playoffs with a full head of steam, and the core of Thornton, Marleau and Boyle will be fresh and in mid-season form.
Add in the surplus of complements they have (Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Martin Havlat, Brad Stuart, etc.), and this team could really be dangerous come playoff time.
The shortened season should be beneficial for the San Jose Sharks, but it wouldn’t be enough to get any substantial advantage over other teams. There are several reasons why the Sharks would be better off playing 48 games instead of 82.
Firstly, the Sharks have retained most of their players from last season, so they won’t need weeks or months to gel together or establish needed chemistry. The additions of Brad Stuart and Adam Burish should be relatively seamless and won’t distract from playing the game. There would be teams like the Minnesota Wild who will likely go through the transition period of establishing a new identity after acquiring two big names in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter; teams like the Detroit Red Wings would need to patch up big holes in defence made by the departures of Niklas Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, and the forward Niklas Holmstrom. However, there would also be plenty of teams like the San Jose Sharks – with nearly identical rosters to the previous season (for example the Cup holders – the Los Angeles Kings).
Secondly, the Sharks are familiar with the style of hockey Todd McLellan has been preaching for the past four seasons. Since most of the
players are returning – the majority of players would know McLellan’s playbook pretty well. Granted, Larry Robinson is sure to bring some changes, but on the whole – the Sharks would be in a familiar place. On the contrary, teams like the Oilers, the Flames, and the Blue Jackets would all have new head coaches for the upcoming season.
Thirdly, the shortened season lessens the chances of players picking up injuries during the regular season. It is particularly beneficial for players like Martin Havlat who missed a good chunk of last season. Of course anything can happen – no one can predict injuries, but the prospect of having all of your players healthy for the playoffs is enticing for all the teams. It is definitely a positive thought – a hope that all the teams in the league would cherish.
Lastly, the shortened season means that the schedule will not be balanced, and the Sharks will end up playing most of their games against their division rivals. Apart from the Los Angeles Kings, none of the Ducks, the Coyotes, or the Stars should be strong enough to spoil the party for the Sharks – meaning that around a third of their games will 4be played against beatable and familiar opponents. There won’t be any surprises on gruelling trips to the Eastern Coast. Playing against the Pacific Division rivals and Western Conference teams should be a good alternative to intense battles against the likes of the Rangers, the Penguins, or the Flyers.
While there would be few teams that would have wanted more time to setup the required synergy between their players, at the end of the day those same teams can find themselves clicking instantly or going on a good streak early in the season to secure a spot in the playoffs. The benefits the Sharks would get from the shortened season are not likely to give them any advantage over other teams who would be in the same boat, benefitting in similar ways to the team wearing teal.