Five Sharks to Focus On in 2012-13

Free agency starts in less than 24 hours and there will be lots to talk about in terms of signings and trade rumors but yours truly couldn’t wait any longer for his hockey fix.

While we await the signings of lucrative contracts and more Rick Nash trade rumors, why not speculate about Sharks players already inked for the upcoming season?

Without further ado, here are five Sharks you should keep an “extra” eye out for next season…

1) Martin Havlat (RW)—What will his health be like?

People tend to forget that just a few years ago Havlat was starring for the Blackhawks as a team leader for the then extremely young Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. In 2008 Havlat tallied 77 points, out-scoring his young teammates (Kane and Toews) in what was a career year for the Czech forward. While Havlat’s point totals did “fall off” the next two years (54 and 62 points) he deserves some slack when you consider he spent those seasons wit the offensively inept Minnesota Wild organization.

In reality, Havlat is still a dynamic play-maker when healthy. A rather clean bill of health for a full season and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Havlat once again eclipse the 70 point mark. After all he is still just 31-years-old.

Unfortunately for Havlat, this past season (his first in San Jose) did not go as planned.  He missed most of training camp and the first handful of games in the regular season (therefore wasn’t able to get used to his new teammates in practice) recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Havlat eventually got into the Sharks lineup towards the end of October but his health didn’t last long, playing in just 26 games before getting hurt again. This time around he suffered a freak injury trying to hop over the boards for a line change. It turns out Havlat tore his hamstring which sidelined him from mid-December until mid-March.

Through the injuries Havlat managed 27 points in 39 games in his first year with the Sharks. Translate that production to 82 games and you are looking at 57 points. Not terrible at all for a second line player, and if you ask Havlat, he will tell you he can be much, much better than the pace he was on.

Given health, which is a big if, Sharks fans will be in for a treat watching this guy play a full season. If he ends up playing the equivalent of a full regular season, Havlat will be money in the bank for at least 60 points.

2) Brad Stuart (D)—Is he still worth $3.6 million?  Just how good will he be?

Stuart returns to the Sharks this season with a great pedigree after winning the cup with the Detroit Red Wings and having developed his game into a solid shut-down defender. He was by far the Red Wings leading penalty killer, spending more time on the ice short-handed than any of his teammates this past season. He brings size, can skate and has an effective stick in his own zone.

He can still play a top-4 role, there is no doubt about that. But at the advanced age, can he continue to be as effective as he was for Detroit? Will he be as solid at 32, 33, 34 years old than during his late 20′s/early30′s?

At $3.6 million, the Sharks only chipped off a $150,000 dollar discount for a player who wanted to return to the Bay Area (where his family lives).

With the Red Wings Stuart played a very physical role, and when you consider Hal Gill signed a $2million AAV deal with the Predators, and that another former Shark like Scott Hannan is set to be available, well, could they have found a cheaper solution? Hannan played for $1 million this past season and averaged over 20 minutes of game in ice time.

Stuart can help the Sharks, there is no question about that, but it will be interesting to note just how effective he remains while playing for essentially the same amount of money he made with the Red Wings.

3. Justin Braun (D)—Will he be as good as last year?

During the 2010-11 season when Justin Braun shined in a cup of tea with the big league Sharks (11 points in 28 games) the young puck moving defender that was developing at a rapid rate before your eyes was Jason Demers. In fact many around the Sharks organization will tell you Demers was San Jose’s most effective defenseman through two rounds of the 2011 playoffs until he got hurt.

That said, this past season was a major step backwards for Demers. The Quebec native struggled all year long and Justin Braun was more than ready to take his minutes.

In 66 games Braun may have merely equaled his point total from his rookie season but that doesn’t tell the story. The Minnesota native was just an all around defensive gem, strong in his own end and great at leading the rush up the ice. He has a knack for getting his point shot through traffic on net and he is simply a workhorse.

You could make the case in fact that Braun has the highest “compete level” on the Sharks roster. Nobody works their butt harder than this young defenseman. He may not have the talent that other player do but you can tell he wants it more.

Braun will be playing third pair minutes this season and thoughts are that he will be tremendous in that role this season. But then again those were the exact thoughts regarding Demers going into last season.

4. Tommy Wingels (RW)—Will he continue to make strides?

In his rookie season, Wingels managed to become a fan favorite. While he only managed three goals and nine points in 33 games as a rookie, Wingels proved to be solid at both ends of the ice in a checking role. Despite being listed at 6’0″ 195, the young winger out of Illinois played more like a guy 6’2″ 215.

Wingels played well when called upon to play top six minutes alongside Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture during Havlat’s absence. He clearly has top-six potential.

This upcoming season he is bound to be on the third line and while his points from last year correlate to 22 over a full 82 games, can he produce more than that?

Is it asking too much for Wingels to pop home 12-15 goals and 30 points on the third line? Maybe, maybe not but if you ask me, he’s ready to make that type of leap. He has the talent, the work ethic and some experience under his belt. He knows he belongs at this level and knows what it takes to be successful.

5. Antti Niemi (G)—Will he bounce back?

Some voices out there will argue that Antti Niemi was amongst the top third in the league last season in terms of goaltending. Furthermore, word has it that the Sharks organization is quite fond of Niemi (aka don’t expect a trade of him any time soon) and it is true that at even strength last season Niemi’s save percentage was amongst the top 10.

But let’s get one thing straight, bad penalty killing by the skaters in front of him aside, doesn’t the phrase go “you’re goaltender has to be you best penalty killer?”

Niemi did not have any stretch of games this past season that comes anywhere close to the second half dominance he had in his first year with the Sharks. In 2010-11 Niemi was a rock down the stretch and on many nights was the difference in the game. He “stole” games as we say in the hockey world.

But Niemi was not stealing games this past season, and bad penalty killing or not (in fact the San Jose penalty kill wasn’t much better in 2010-11) Niemi did not have the season expected out of him. A .920 save percentage in his first year with the Sharks is phenomenal, but a .915 mark last year is simply good.

You need your goalie to be great and be able to steal games for you and not allow the deflating goals which Niemi let in far too often this past season.

The Finnish netminder has always had issues with his rebound control and late in Game 5 against St. Louis Niemi should have swallowed up an innocent wrister from far out. Instead he bobbled the puck right onto the tape of Jamie Langenbrunner who tied the score with minutes remaining. St. Louis went onto win the game with a quick go-ahead tally just seconds later propelling them to a four game to one series victory.

Niemi may not have been the main reason for the Sharks struggles last season but he certainly wasn’t playing up to his previous standard.

If San Jose wants to get back to making a deep playoff runs, they will need better play from Niemi than they got this past season.

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