The San Jose Sharks: In It To Win It

There have been lots of calls for the Sharks to fire general manager Doug Wilson over the years. The uproar was especially loud after last season’s basket case of a campaign. It even included fans chanting “Fire Wilson” on fan appreciation night. That is a lot of ire in a fan base.

Sharks owner Hasso Plattner stood by Wilson.

Wilson may well wind up with the last laugh. The Sharks took a deliberate step back last season. This season, they are taking big steps forward. His work since the end of last season might be among the best he’s ever done. Of course, one massive caveat remains. Fair or not, the way Wilson will be judged is by what happens after the 82nd game of the season is played.

Wilson took several risks along the way in order to give this Sharks team its best shot. Some these risks seem to have paid off, some remain. The major risks he took for this season are:

• Using an older lineup

• Retaining Brent Burns on defense

• Acquiring goalie Martin Jones

• Needing key young player development

• Hiring a new coach

Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson

With each of these risks, Wilson seems to have come up winning. The Sharks record is less than stellar, but it is good and the team is well-positioned for the playoffs. Most importantly, the team is getting better as the season continues. A lot of that has to do with improved health on the roster, but it is also a stronger roster. Top to bottom, this might be the most talented roster Wilson has assembled.

Adding Talent

On Monday, Wilson traded the unhealthy Raffi Torres and a pair of second round picks to Toronto for Nick Spaling and Roman Polak.

With this trade, Wilson made sure everyone knew what everyone already knew. This is the Sharks season to go for the Cup.

Wilson is mortgaging the future for the present. It is a risk he has taken before with past acquisitions such as Brian Campbell and Bill Guerin. For each of the next three years, the Sharks currently have just one draft pick in the first two rounds.

Polak is the key piece in this trade. When healthy, the Sharks weakest skating spot has been the sixth defenseman. Matt Tennyson and Dylan DeMelo have played that spot. To me, Tennyson has been the better player, but management preferred the younger DeMelo. Both have been adequate, but an upgrade, which Polak clearly is, should help the Sharks greatly.

Coach Peter DeBoer has often used five defensemen in the third period, sitting the sixth defenseman for the most part. That shuffling of the defensive pairings has, at times, been problematic. Now DeBoer can keep his pairs together for the entire game. This is more critical come the playoffs, especially in games with a lengthy overtime.

Polak also gives the Sharks a more physical presence, something they could use as they are likely to see Anaheim and/or Los Angeles in the postseason, both very heavy teams. Come the playoffs, it is easy to imagine the sandpaper sparking between Polak and the Ducks Ryan Kesler.

Polak solves three challenges. DeBoer no longer has to go to his ‘five defensemen in the third period’ strategy. The Sharks just became more physical and they have a substantial talent upgrade at perhaps their weakest skating spot.

Polak will not be in the lineup in time to play against his former team, St Louis on Monday night. Sharks fans may remember Polak for an end of game beat-down fight in the playoffs in April 2012. As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock noted then, “You found out, don’t open the Roman Polak door. Don’t ever open that door.” Well, the Sharks have opened that door, albeit in a different way, and they should be a better team because of it.

Nick Spaling Predators
Journeyman forward Nick Spaling (Tony Medina/Icon SMI)

As for Spaling, he looks to be roster depth for the forward lines. The Sharks have a hodgepodge of depth forwards between the NHL club and their AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda. The Sharks have nine forwards which are clearly above the rest (one of the nine, Tommy Wingels, is injured at the moment).

The rest of the forward group consists of these guys. Matt Nieto is fast and good on the penalty kill. Dainius Zubrus is skilled, experienced and excellent on the penalty kill. Only two players have more PK minutes without a goal scored against their team than Zubrus; one of the two is teammate Brenden Dillon.

Mike Brown aggravates other teams (and Sharks fans). Melker Karlsson hunts the puck and has some goal scoring talent. In the AHL, both center Ben Smith and winger Barclay Goodrow have proven they can hold their own in NHL roles. Spaling gives the Sharks a seventh forward to choose from in constructing their lineup. With just three spots available on any given night, do the Sharks have too many of these guys? Probably, and further trades could be in the offing.

Good Value?

Some suggested Wilson overpaid for Polak, including my colleague Andrew Bensch. Perhaps. No doubt, the pain from giving up those second round picks will be much discussed in the year 2022.

This trade is a move this team needed to make. Do I wish Polak came cheaper? Yes. Is he a difference maker given what the Sharks had? Yes.

The bottom line on this trade will be simple. Fail to get past round two of the playoffs and its a bust. Win a Cup with Polak playing a key role and its legendary. Not a lot of room in between.

There are seasons you have a team ready to take a shot and for the Sharks, this is it. No team west of Bethesda, Maryland looks to be dominant this season (though a team just to the east of Bethesda is…) and the path for the Sharks to go far has probably never looked better.

Some may suggest that this moves sends a message to the team; this team is going for it all. I think the message was already clear before the trade. This is a good team and it just got better. The best trades are ones which turn a weakness into a strength. This trade accomplishes that for San Jose. The team knows this is the year for making a run. They are a better team today than they were yesterday. For the Sharks, it is game on.