With 10 games remaining in the regular season, fellow Sharks correspondent Zeke felt the itch to break down a number of team awards for Team Teal. Zeke was nice enough to include me in the process and let me post under my byline. What a nice guy!
The four awards are best offseason addition, best rookie, most valuable player and most improved player. Without further ado, here are our choices.
Sharks Best Offseason Addition
(Eligible choices: Peter DeBoer, Martin Jones, Paul Martin, Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi)
Zeke: I’m going with new coach Peter DeBoer. DeBoer took over a team in disarray and has helped right the ship. He has shown a good touch with his lines, juggling when necessary. When injuries could have derailed the season, DeBoer steered a steady course. His new schemes, with a greater emphasis on defensemen going deep into the offensive zone and forwards rotating back has resulted in a career high scoring seasons not just for Brent Burns, but also for Marc-Edouard Vlasic. DeBoer’s familiarity with Dainius Zubrus led to the veteran’s signing and Zubrus has been an effective fit wherever he has been in the lineup.
Early in the season, I said it looked like DeBoer was essentially following the Todd McLellan playbook. But he ditched that with moves like splitting Logan Couture from Patrick Marleau and rolling four lines. All these moves make DeBoer the top new arrival for the Sharks.
Bensch: This may surprise many, but after some serious thought, my choice will be Paul Martin. Peter DeBoer has done a good job, but I’m not convinced this roster wouldn’t still be a strong playoff team had Todd McLellan remained or if a different coach took over. Furthermore, while Martin Jones has been solid between the pipes, his .919 save percentage is above average, not yet elite. While Paul Martin hasn’t been crazy good either, his stay at home presence in the Sharks top-four defense is irreplaceable.
Martin has been the perfect complement for Brent Burns and we all saw what happened two years ago in the playoffs when Marc-Edouard Vlasic suffered an injury. That year the Sharks didn’t have a guy like Martin who could fill in on the top pair and be a shut-down guy. This season Martin has proved exactly that as he is a plus-16 on the season despite playing basically the entire season with Burns. The Wookie is a minus-1 on the season as he was a trainwreck defensively in the first half (-15) before turning his game around in the second half. If Burns had been defensively strong in the second half, Martin’s plus/minus could easily be in the mid-20s or close to 30. Finding shut down top-4 defensemen is far from easy. While Martin has flown under the radar because you don’t notice him much, (that’s a compliment for a defensive defenseman), his impact has been the biggest of all the newcomers.
(Eligible choices: Dylan Demelo, Joonas Donskoi)
Zeke: The Sharks have only used two rookies in critical roles this season. DeMelo began the season as part of the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL, but eventually overtook Matt Tennyson as the third defensive pair starter and held that role until the Sharks acquired Roman Polak. DeMelo complimented Dillon well and proved he could fit an NHL roster. The winner, though, is Donskoi. In a year where rookie performances across the league are off the charts, Donskoi has gained little visibility.
When the season highlight reel is run, one will find it filled with Donskoi highlights, including this pass below which made ESPN’s top play. The Sharks have lacked set-up men in recent years. Donskoi, along with teammate Chris Tierney, have filled this role effectively. He will turn 24 early on in the playoffs, with six seasons and over 300 games in Finland’s highly respected league. Donskoi’s experience has resulted in a mature game; he is not the defensive liability that many rookies are. This mature rookie has been critical in allowing the Sharks to roll four lines. Which in turn, has resulted in a much better Sharks team. Not only as Donskoi proved to be the Sharks top rookie, he has proven valuable as well.
Bensch: Obviously this is a slam dunk and to be honest, after Martin, Joonas Donskoi might have been my choice for best new arrival. Donskoi’s puck handling and passing ability is top notch. His presence on the second power play unit and on Logan Couture’s wing gives the Sharks some dangerous scoring depth that they have rarely had during the entire Joe Thornton era. A half a point per-game player as a rookie is quite impressive. Donskoi has been a catalyst on the Thornton line, the Couture line, with Patrick Marleau, even a handful of games on the fourth line. Donskoi uses one of the longest sticks on the team and is a poke check machine. With that long stick one might think stick handling would be tough in traffic, but as the saying goes, he can stick handle in a phone booth.
Most Valuable Player
(Eligible choices: Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic)
Three of the four have had stellar season. Brent Burns has had a stellar half season. Vlasic has, once again, been too good to overlook. Pavelski has embraced the role of captain in addition to playing terrific hockey. The winner is Joe Thornton. He is the straw that stirs the drink. He is both the best player on the team and the most valuable. There were legitimate concerns about his ability to keep up at age 36. Last season, he fell off in the second half, though it was unclear if that might have been injury-related. In the prior season Thornton missed four games right around the season’s midpoint with a shoulder injury. The difference in his performance pre-injury and post-injury was significant. This season, Thornton has been magnificent. Some wondered if a slow start showed he was slipping. The eye test offered no such issue. The offense still goes through the big man while his defense has been as good as it has ever been. Thornton should get a healthy number of votes for the Hart, Selke and Lindsay awards.
Bensch: Another slam dunk in this case, as Joe Thornton is having his best overall season in my eyes. He’s going to finish in the top-10 in the league in scoring and he has the best even strength goal differential in the entire NHL. His backchecking effort is off the charts, as he hunts pucks and creates turnovers. He has led the league in points for the entire second half since mid-December. So not only has he been the best offensive player in the league the last four months but he is shutting down the opponent’s best players in the process. Thornton plays against top defensemen every night and often against top forwards, but the bad guys can’t score against him. Thornton’s goals against numbers are insanely stingy.
Most Improved Player
(Eligible choices: Brent Burns, Brenden Dillon, Tomas Hertl)
Zeke: Tomas Hertl has improved substantially. Brenden Dillon’s game has done a 180 and under normal circumstances, he would be a slam dunk to win this. The winner is Brent Burns. After a year and a half of being a defensive liability, Brent Burns fixed that problem right around the start of 2016. Burns does a much better job of making the right call in risk/reward situations and the results have been dramatic. Not only has his defense improved, but he has found ways to fit the Sharks offense better. While the individual offense was always there, it didn’t fit the team particularly well. It does now. That combination has resulted in a dramatic improvement.
To be sure, two other major factors in Burns improvement are material. One is the pairing with defenseman Paul Martin. The other is Peter DeBoer’s system, which allows defensemen more offensive freedom while demanding more defensive responsibility from the team’s forwards, a particularly helpful change given fit Burns’ game. Burns has always been an exceptional talent, his overall performance as a defenseman has gone from maddening to exceptional as well.
Bensch: Again, this is an easy one. It has to be Brent Burns. His offensive game remains as amazing as it always has regardless of playing defense or forward, but his defensive game on the blue line is night and day different. In the first year and a half back on the blue-line after a near two-year hiatus from the position, Burns struggled to play sound defense. Since the Sharks started to take off in early January though, Burns has looked like a completely different player in his own zone. Over that year and a half of defensive zone struggles, fans and pundits like myself wanted to pull their hair out at least once per game with some of the boneheaded mistakes and poor defensive zone coverage. During the past two plus months though, there has been maybe just one or two instances where Burns has made a key mistake.
During the first half of the season, this writer laughed at anyone suggesting Burns as a Norris trophy candidate for the best defenseman in the league. However, with his defensive game transformation, there is a case to be made for Burns winning said trophy. He has been that good at both ends of the ice here in the second half.