Over the current NHL offseason, only a couple of top-caliber teams have made sweeping, yet widely-applauded changes to their roster. Both those franchises reside in the Pacific division. The San Jose Sharks have upgraded their defense by bringing in veteran depth as well as All-Star rearguard Brent Burns. With their changes to the defense, the Sharks are now considered amongst the league’s elite on the blue line after being below average last season. Meanwhile, the already defensively stout Los Angeles Kings boosted their offensive firepower with the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.
The two clubs met for the first time in the playoffs last season and clearly the increased rivalry between these division foes is a top story line going into the upcoming year. Both teams are near locks to qualify for the playoffs as they each have genuine dreams of lifting the Stanley Cup in 2012.
However, each of these teams could use improvements in the bottom six forward group. And while that sentiment can be said for almost every team at every point of the year, in the case of San Jose, it is quite evident.
As outlined quite often over these last couple months, the Sharks’ third and fourth lines as currently projected do not jump off the page. Certainly the addition of veteran center Michal Handzus looks to be a solid pickup but the only other acquisition of note this offseason in the bottom-six for the Sharks was the signing of former Blue Jacket Andrew Murray.
While Handzus fills a void for third line center, he is in effect replacing Joe Pavelski who manned that spot during the second half and playoffs last season. Pavelski moves back into a top-six role to replace the loss of Setoguchi—who was a part of the trade for Burns. Now even though “The Big Pavelski” is a better all around player than Setoguchi, the improvement gained in that right wing/top line spot isn’t as big as the drop off that will occur in going from Pavelski to Handzus on the third line.
Setoguchi certainly had his struggles with consistency but his skill set made him a top-six caliber player any given night and though he and teammate Dany Heatley were expendable assets, the fact remains San Jose got only one legitimate forward back in their deals with Minnesota. Martin Havlat will fill the spot Heatley left but the moves do leave San Jose significantly thinner at the forward position.
Pavelski is a dynamite, underrated Olympian center who plays a strong two-way game (for those who don’t know/live on the East coast, think Chris Drury in his prime) and it is fair to make the assertion that he belongs playing on one of the top two forward combinations.
That said, Pavelski gave the Sharks a third scoring line last year playing as the third line center and he made his teammates better, his “wings” on the line were fellow right handed and smaller-sized centers in Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood. This trio clicked to the point where they carried the team offensively at times as if they were the true No. 1 line. And Pavelski made the line what it was because Mitchell thus far has proven to be nothing but your run of the mill third liner, and Wellwood was a waiver wire pick up who currently remains a free agent who nobody seems to want. Pavelski drove that line, he carried it and made it work.
If the Sharks do end up going with Pavelski in the top-six role (which it appears they will), then the third line they are left with looks like this:
Jamie McGinn — Michal Handzus — Torrey Mitchell
Mitchell will now be playing with an aging center who has an equal chance at posting 20 points as he does 40 this upcoming season, and a fan favorite in McGinn who has registered a mere 25 points in 143 NHL games over parts of the last three seasons. McGinn has yet to establish himself as an NHL caliber player. After all he has spent significant time in the AHL during those three seasons. Even more concerning is that McGinn played fewer NHL games last season than the year before and his points per game dropped significantly from 2009-10 to 2010-11.
Not exactly the same as playing with Pavelski and Wellwood—who despite seemingly being unwanted at his small size is a decent two-way player with a respectable 173 points in 373 regular season games.
If that is the third line San Jose goes with, it’s only natural to expect Mitchell to produce less alongside less talented players. Taking the career paths of the this projected third group into consideration, the following would be the projected point totals for them to reach:
Combine those numbers with what looks to be an extremely inexperienced fourth line featuring two rookies in left wing Brandon Mashinter and center Andrew Desjardins and the veteran of the group John McCarthy—who owns a grand total of 41 career regular season games in the NHL. Difficult to project rookies, but neither of the three are tremendously gifted offensively, and will struggle as a trio to chip in with goals.
Combined projected total of third and fourth lines: 104
One hundred and four points doesn’t sound bad until you compare it to the production from the bottom two lines of the last two teams to knock the San Jose Sharks out of the playoffs to advance to the Stanley Cup final.
The 2009-10 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Runners-up Vancouver Canucks were better than the San Jose Sharks of those respective seasons for many different reasons, the largest of which being team defense.
Therefore it is understandable why the San Jose Sharks of the 2011 offseason have elected to completely revamp their blue-line but should that alone make the experts and fans more likely to make them their pick to win the Stanley Cup this season?
After all, not only did those Blackhawk and Canuck teams have better blue-liners, but when you compare their bottom six forwards to this year’s projected bottom six of San Jose, it’s no contest.
Chicago’s bottom six forwards during the final Cup winning game that year were Andrew Ladd, Tomas Kopecky, John Madden, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager. They combined for a ridiculous 172 points between them in the regular season.
And five of those six had more points in 2010-11, with Ladd, Byfuglien, and Kopecky all becoming significantly better players.
Vancouver’s bottom six forwards during their Cup run last year were Max Lapierre, Manny Malhotra, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini, Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins. They combined for 145 regular season points and that’s leaving out 50-point man Mikael Samuelsson, who saw time on the third line for the Canucks.
Now Lapierre and Higgins were mid-season acquisitions and there is no reason this year’s Sharks can’t make similar trade deadline pickups to address their current deficiency. However, unless the Sharks can somehow acquire at-least two highly regarded bottom six players, their forward depth might not be good enough to get the job done even with the improved defense.
Even if San Jose can pickup (for example) a Jason Chimera and sign a John Madden, will that be enough to match the forward depth of the other elite contenders? Maybe it will be, maybe it won’t. We’ll just have to watch and find out.