Free Agency Could Be Friendly to San Jose

As the calendar creeps closer to July, the anticipation of free agency grows and grows for most NHL fans. And with the dawn of free agency less than 24 hours away as I type, the closer we get to the Brad Richards sweepstakes.

Or at least that’s what most fans are referring to this year’s UFA class as: “Sweepstakes for Richards”

In terms of free agent forwards, no other player touches the  point production of Richards outside of the ageless Teemu Selanne, who is all but assured of finishing his career with Anaheim.

Combine the lack of forward star power in this year’s free agent class with the minimal amount of top-four defenseman available and there aren’t many opportunities to make that big splash.

However, for a team like San Jose which doesn’t often sign big name free agents to expensive contracts, (actually I’m having a hard time re-calling them ever making such a signing) there is a rather large group of quality free agent forwards available to fill (mostly) bottom-six roles.

While I wouldn’t put it past the Sharks and GM Doug Wilson to make a run at scoring wingers Ville Leino and or Stanley Cup Champion Michael Ryder, with their capabilities to play top-six minutes and earn top-six dollars, it doesn’t seem likely either one ends up in San Jose.

The more likely free agent forwards that could wind up wearing the teal and black next season are the following:

Brendan Morrison (CAL)
Eric Belanger (PHO)
Scottie Upshall (CLS)
Marty Reasoner (FLA)
Jamie Langenbrunner (DAL)
Jason Arnott (WAS)
Raffi Torres (VAN)
Michal Handzus (LA)
Joel Ward (NSH)
Chris Higgins (VAN)
Jeff Halpern (MON)
John Madden (MIN)
Vernon Fiddler (PHO)
Max Talbot (PIT)
Michael Rupp (PIT)
Drew Miller (DET)
Brad Winchester (ANA)
Marco Sturm (WAS)
Steve Sullivan (NSH)

Free agency may be weak at the top but here’s a list of 19 different forward names that are all relatively well known around the league and in the average NHL fan’s house.

Plus after throwing in San Jose’s own free agents in Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood and the list grows to 21 quality forwards that are available to bring into the San Jose mix.

Obviously some of these forwards will receive more interest than others depending on the needs of certain clubs and the confidence those clubs have in their blossoming prospects but I would bank on at least one of the forwards from the above list (of 19) to play their first game as a Shark next season.

Just whom will that be? Well, how bout narrowing the list down to the five most likely candidates based on San Jose’s ever so large need for penalty killing help.

Joel Ward out of Nashville has been a steady force on the Predator’s bottom six and has shown he can handle penalty killing duties in his young career while chipping in offensively at a consistent mark around 30 points per season in his first three full years in the league. Add to his pedigree was a great playoff last season which included seven goals and 13 points in 12 games. If there is one-bottom six player that fits the bill best for San Jose, without question it is the 30-year-old Joel Ward.

If signed, Ward would most likely play on the right wing of Torrey Mitchell if Joe Pavelski is indeed moved back into the top-six, but what about the  left side of that third  line? Savvy veteran center Marty Reasoner  is a possibility and would be the second most ideal signing to help improve the Sharks’ third line and penalty killing woes.

The 34-year-old left handed shooter has spent the last few seasons in the Southeast division playing with the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers but spent the majority of his career up in Edmonton with the Oilers. Another 30 point per year player, Reasoner can also play on the penalty kill and be an offensive threat as he had five shorthanded assists in a single season back in 2008-09. At 6’1″, 205, he also brings added size to what was a small third line for the Sharks last season.

Jamie Langenbrunner is an interesting conundrum. The longtime Dallas Star and New Jersey Devil has still been quite a productive player quite recently. Prior to last season, when he was traded back to Dallas from the Devils mid-season, Langenbrunner had posted back to back 60 point campaigns with New Jersey. He even represented the U. S. in the 2010 Olympics but this past season Langenbrunner managed just 31 points in 70 games between the two clubs.

Soon to be 36, Langenbrunner clearly still brings tools to the table but it will be interesting to see how much he makes in free agency. Given the right price and a desire to play for a winning franchise, it could be the right fit. With 20 career shorthanded points, he could still help take the load of current Sharks penalty killers in Pavelski and Patrick Marleau.

Sharks fans may hate me for saying this but a player like Raffi Torres might just be an ingredient this team has been missing over the years. He doesn’t offer much in terms of penalty killing but agitators don’t make a living in this game for nothing and Torres is one of the best in the business. If the Sharks don’t re-sign Eager, it wouldn’t surprise me if they make a play at Torres who brings similar size and strength with a more consistent scoring touch.

And finally, most likely the cheapest option of this group would be former Shark winger Marco Sturm. Wouldn’t that be something, eh? A year after Bruins win the Stanley Cup, the Sharks win the Stanley Cup with Joe Thornton, and Sturm (one of the three players traded for Thornton)? It would certainly be interesting to talk about how both teams have won the Cup within six years of the big trade.

But back to Sturm, the German-born winger has fallen on hard times of late since leaving the Bruins. Despite averaging 76 games per season in his first 10 years in the league (playing no fewer than 64 in any one season), Sturm has seen two of his last three seasons limited by injury. In 2008-09, Sturm played in just 19 games for Boston and this past season he managed only 35 games between the Kings and Capitals. Although 16 points in 35 games isn’t terrible by any stretch and given his health a 30 point season isn’t out of the picture. Once a fan favorite in San Jose, Sturm often killed penalties. Perhaps not the player he once was, revitalizing his career in San Jose for the league minimum could be in order.

Many, many options available for the Sharks to add to their third and fourth lines. Knowing how San Jose has operated in the past, it would be surprising to hear any of these players signed on the very first day of free agency. Over the weekend and into next week however, expect at least one, maybe two veteran forwards to ink deals with San Jose.

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