Sharks Could Use Defensive Upgrade

The San Jose Sharks have a plethora of big name players on their roster. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Logan Couture, Antti Niemi, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, and Ryane Clowe make up San Jose’s group of players that the average NHL fan is aware of, even those on the east coast.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, only one of these eight players makes his living as a defenseman. Boyle, the team’s No. 1 defenseman is currently the NHL’s leader in average ice time per game (27:01), 20 full seconds ahead of Chicago’s Duncan Keith. However at 34, Boyle isn’t getting any younger and the 2010-11 all-star has been overly relied on by the Sharks who as a whole are widely considered to have an average defensive corps.

Since the moment the Sharks were eliminated by the Blackhawks in last year’s Western Conference final, fans and experts alike have been clamoring that the Sharks need to bolster their defense. And when ex-captain Rob Blake retired over the offseason (as expected) those thoughts of finding defensive help were only enhanced.

Despite being over 40 years old and struggling to keep up with those quick forwards almost half his age, Blake finished last season with 30 points in 70 games and averaged 21:21 in ice time. As a captain and future hall of famer, Blake was a presence in the locker room and on the ice that San Jose has desperately missed this season. Even with his shortcomings defensively as father time caught up with him, Blake still was a huge contributor that the Sharks didn’t replace.

However, it’s not as if the free agent defensemen from last summer have gone on to great success, as players like Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov have not exactly lived up to the bill this season. And so for as much criticism as Sharks GM Doug Wilson received for not replacing Blake with a new addition over the offseason, his decision not to overpay for a big name defender looks to be a pretty smart choice at this point.

But, Wilson still envisions his Sharks as a true Stanley Cup contender. Outside of Boyle, however, the Sharks top-six defense includes the following names: Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Niclas Wallin, Jason Demers, and Kent Huskins. While each one has their strengths and the two youngsters in Vlasic and Demers show top-four potential, the fact of the matter is the Sharks don’t have the shut-down pair Stanley Cup contenders need to have.

Outside of Boyle, the Sharks don’t have a clear-cut top-four defenseman. Murray, Vlasic and Demers all play like top-four talents at times with Murray doing it the most frequently but neither of them are of a consistent top-four quality.

If the Sharks are to win their first Stanley Cup this season, a defensive acquisition is a must. But with large contracts already on the books for their “big 3″ forwards, adding a big name like Shea Weber or Tomas Kaberle to the blue-line doesn’t seem likely.

On the other hand, there are three less talked about defenseman who could still provide the Sharks with the defensive boost they need.

Jordan Leopold (Sabres)

The 30-year-0ld Minnesota native signed a three year, $9 million contract with Buffalo this past summer. In 45 games this season, Leopold has scored 10 goals and added 16 assists for 26 points while averaging 23:44 in ice time, good for 29th in the league.

Meanwhile the Sabres, who beat the Sharks twice this season, are not having the season they expected. With just 45 points in 45 games and sitting in 11th place, Buffalo doesn’t look to be making the playoffs this season and depending on the return, they could be willing to part ways with Leopold.

Fedor Tyutin (Blue Jackets)

At 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Tyutin would add size and skill to the Sharks blue-line. The now 27-year-old Russian defenseman has 17 points in 45 games thus far and his left-handed shot from the point would be a huge boost to the Sharks power-play which  has not had a left-handed defenseman who can play on the man advantage since they traded Christian Ehrhoff prior to last season.

With a cap hit of just $2.8 million over the next three seasons, San Jose would be getting a player making less than Vlasic but one who brings much more upside overall. Columbus does sit just two points behind the Sharks but at 13th in the conference, the Blue-Jackets are not going to make the postseason. They don’t have enough talent to overcome the teams ahead of them who are also fighting to climb into the top-eight. Because of this, Tyutin could be on the move and San Jose ought to be one of the teams interested in his services.

Chris Philips (Senators)

Probably the most likely of these three to find himself wearing a Shark uniform this season, Phillips would indeed be an excellent addition. With Senators GM Bryan Murray making no secret that he is looking to deal one of his defensemen, it is easy to think about Phillips moving west.

The 6-foot-3, 217 pound 32-year-old is a prototypical shut-down pair defenseman that San Jose needs. Not only does Phillips play a strong defensive game but he is no slouch offensively, as he has chipped in anywhere from 19-26 points in nine of his thirteen seasons in the league.

This season with Ottawa he has just three assists in 47 games and is a minus-2o. However, for his career Phillips has 45 power play points and a plus-88 rating. Just doing the math, that is a plus-108 rating for his career before this season.

In 1996 Ottawa made Phillips the first overall pick of the NHL entry draft but being in his last year of a four year deal paying him $3.5 million per, perhaps this is the year he finds himself in a new uniform.

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