The San Jose Sharks have been one of the most intriguing teams over the NHL offseason. Not only have they made two huge swaps with the Minnesota Wild, but by signing veteran center Michal Handzus they have clearly changed their third line philosophy to the more traditional shut-down defensive style (in sharp contrast to their offensive-minded third line of last season).
Combine the third line change with the two trades shaking up the top-four defense and top-six forwards, only the Philadelphia Flyers seem to have altered their roster more drastically this offseason than San Jose. (Sorry, but the Panthers don’t count.)
However, as detailed last week, the Sharks don’t have the third line wingers to complete the ideal third line group. Could both Jamie McGinn and Torrey Mitchell have career years? It’s certainly possible, and if that were to happen, the Sharks would have a quality line. But they shouldn’t bet on getting that type of production out of two unproven players.
And to add to the unproven list would be the current fourth line make-up for the Sharks. Very rarely do we see a team with an unproven third line also own a highly thought of fourth line—San Jose certainly doesn’t.
If the Sharks played a game today, the fourth line could be any of the following combinations:
Frazer McLaren—Andrew Desjardins—Benn Ferriero/Tommy Wingels/John McCarthy/Ben Guite
Brandon Mashinter—Andrew Desjardins—Ben Ferriero/Tommy Wingels/John McCarthy/Ben Guite
There isn’t exactly a strong veteran presence in the group, and there aren’t even well-established younger players. Just for kicks, let’s put the two bottom lines together for what would be a random regular season game in December.
Out of this group of six, there is hardly anything that can be put in the bank in terms of performance. Each and every one of them has been effective at times in the NHL, and if they all play to the potential they are capable of, this group could be quite good.
Unfortunately, numerous problems are bound to arise given the fact Mashinter, Desjardins and McCarthy have combined for just 71 regular season games at the NHL level. McLaren has played in 32 and Ferriero’s laced up the skates for 57. McCarthy’s played fewer games (41) than Ferriero but is a more natural fourth line checker than Ferriero who is more of a scoring type player better fit to fill in on a scoring line in case of injury.
McLaren and Mashinter are enforcer left wing types, and although Mashinter has only played in 13 games, all came last season, as compared to McLaren who managed just nine games with the big club in 2010-11.
Clearly San Jose’s bottom six forwards aren’t nearly as strong or deep as would be expected of a Stanley Cup-contending team. After all, four of the current starting bottom six have yet to establish themselves as NHL-caliber players over a full season. And neither of the other two are trending upwards nor are models of consistency.
Something has to give here. Sharks GM Doug Wilson’s recent changes have been about one thing and one thing only—the playoffs. San Jose’s defense didn’t get the job done in the playoffs, so Wilson acquired Brent Burns. Dany Heatley didn’t get it done in the playoffs so he’s shipped out for someone the Sharks feel they can better rely upon for clutch performances in Martin Havlat.
Wilson quite simply cannot be done tweaking his roster. It would seem quite odd to address deficiencies in defense and top-six only to ignore a newly opened one in the bottom-six.
Does that mean trading a highly thought of up and coming defenseman like Jason Demers? Maybe, maybe not. Plenty of pundits out there think that would severely weaken the defense that Wilson just improved. Now obviously Demers would be better apt to jump up into a top-4 position given injury than would any other of San Jose’s current defense or possible free agent pickups. However, given health, Demers is slated on the Sharks’ third defensive pairing.
Everyone speculating can differ on what makes sense as equal/ideal return for Demers but for the purposes of this article, let’s hypothetically say Demers was moved for a forward everyone agreed was of equal value.
San Jose’s third line would immediately become considerably better than what they currently have on their depth chart and to fill the void left by Demers, any number of free agent defenseman can fill in more than adequately on a third pair.
Names like Brent Sopel, Scott Hannan, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins, and Jack Hillen remain on the open market. While many fans out there seem to criticize the likes of Sopel and Hannan as over the hill and washed up, the logic just doesn’t add up to support that argument.
Hannan for instance played in 78 games last year between Colorado and Washington, averaging 19:47 in ice time while being the most frequently used penalty killer for the Capitals. After scouring the web for Capitals news on the former Shark, most of the scouting reports give a thumbs up for what Hannan brought to the Washington defense. Most note that he isn’t nearly worth the $4.2 million dollar contract that he’s coming off of, but given the right price, Hannan would be an above average third pair defender.
The same can be said for Sopel, who played 71 games last year between Atlanta and Montreal. Sopel averaged 16:20 in ice time and was the Canadiens third most used penalty killer behind Hall Gill and another former Shark in Josh Gorges. Sopel is just a year removed from being a key contributor the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup championship. At the same age as Dan Boyle, are we suppose to believe Sopel is already no longer worthy of a starting third pair role?
Well consider this: former Shark Niclas Wallin was apart of the Sharks’ top four last year and managed just 15:50 in ice time while being the 5th most used on the San Jose penalty kill behind Demers (at best an average defender in his own zone) and tied with Kent Huskins.
Right now the discussion is about adding Hannan and or Sopel (or Salei)—who are clearly more highly thought of defenseman than Wallin—and the discussion is about them playing on the third pair, not the second. Still sounds like quite the upgrade to me on defense even if Demers were moved.
With Demers or sans Demers, the Sharks’ defense pairs will be much better and more clearly defined than a year ago. Combinations like Vlasic-Wallin and Demers-Huskins or IanWhite-Wallin and Vlasic-Demers are things of the past. Certain games it was hard to tell which pair was two and which was three. How does the saying go? If you think you have two good quarterbacks you really have none?
Of course the Sharks can upgrade the bottom-six forwards without trading Demers. Certainly trading defenseman Justin Braun, draft picks or prospects could fetch a veteran third liner depending on the package but the return will undoubtedly be less than it would be if Demers was sent the other direction.
Either way, another trade of some sort is bound to happen. We just have to wait. Will we have to wait all the way until the trade deadline? Perhaps. But Wilson was steadfast in his belief that the poor first half San Jose had a year ago hindered their ability to perform in the playoffs. Plus it’s not like the mid-season deals in recent years have resulted in a Stanley Cup.
Sharks fans may be in a holding pattern for real news, but expect that trade and any subsequent signings to come before the puck drops in October.