The Sharks’ Defense: Who Stays, Who Goes?

The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals may just be underway, but with the final round possibly going deep into June, there is only so much time remaining to speculate on where soon to be free agents will end up. The San Jose Sharks, in particular, have a handful of free agents who may or may not return. Fortunately for their GM Doug Wilson, he has his core of Sharks already locked up and there are no big names on his roster in need of new contracts. That said, some serious tweaking is needed after every season (even for a Stanley Cup winner) and this season is no different.

San Jose has a handful of forwards and defenseman in need of new contracts but for now, let’s focus on the latter. The Sharks have three free-agent blue-liners in Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins and Ian White, all of whom are unrestricted.

So, who stays and who goes?

Niclas Wallin made nearly 2.7 million this past year and will turn 37 in the middle of next season. In his first full season as a Shark, Wallin averaged just 15:50 in ice time, and contributed eight points in 74 regular season games. A year prior to now, Wallin was coming of an injury plagued season that saw him split time with Carolina and San Jose. Between the two teams he picked up eight points in 70 games and due in part to injury, had a extremely poor defensive showing in the 2010 postseason for the Sharks. That said, it was easy to understand why Sharks fans raised their collective eyebrows when Wallin re-signed for more money this last season.

Moving forward, there looks to be little chance Wallin returns for a second full season. Unless the veteran agrees to a one-year contract for the league minimum, the Sharks should walk away. The Stanley Cup winner with Carolina certainly has some value, but at his age is now nothing more than a 6th defenseman and teams can find adequate sixth defensemen that are making at or around the league minimum.

Odds are Wallin seeks out one more decent contract and that certainly cannot come from San Jose, a team that would do wonders to use that money to upgrade their defense with younger talent.

Don’t expect to see Wallin back in teal next season.

Kent Huskins earned 1.7 million this season and is only 32-years-old but an “injury” kept him to just 50 regular season games and the only reason he saw playoff action was because of the ankle injury to Jason Demers. But Huskins, despite being less likely to jump into the rush than Niclas Wallin, actually chips in more points on a regular basis. In his first year with the sharks in 2009-10 Huskins registered 22 points playing in all 82 games and added 10 more in 50 games this past season.

While the former Anaheim Duck and Stanley Cup champion is a bit smaller than Wallin, (6’2″ 205, compared to 6’3″ 220), and fell lower on the depth chart than his teammate, Huskins is arguably stronger in his own zone. In terms of stick play and breakouts, Huskins in many people’s eyes brings a style of game better fit for a sixth defenseman. Seeing that he made less than Wallin this past season, it’s a good bet he would be more willing to stay for around the league minimum.

Hence, there is a slightly higher chance that Huskins returns to the Sharks but San Jose should be looking to take all that money coming off expiring contracts and put it towards signing  better defensemen.

Don’t expect to see Huskins back in teal next season.

And last but not least on defense, is the soon to be free agent Ian White. The puck moving defenseman was traded twice this past season, first from Calgary to Carolina and then from Carolina to San  Jose.  In 78 regular season games the 5’10” 195 pound, right handed shooting defenseman picked up 26 points and added another nine in the playoffs.

As a team’s second best scoring option from the blue-line, White can be one of the best. He can fill in on the top power-play unit as well as be a mainstay on a second unit. He has a knack for getting shots through from the point and by no means is a slouch defensively. However, as a right handed, offensive minded defenseman, he simply may not be back in teal next season.

When you consider the Sharks already have the likes of All-Star Dan Boyle, the up and coming Jason Demers who made huge strides in his second season, and prospect Justin Braun, who are all right handed offensive minded defenseman, the Sharks have a lot of similar style players. White made nearly 3 million this past season and will assuredly get that or even more on the open market. His style is a necessary ingredient but one the Sharks will still have without his services.

There is a good chance White returns to San Jose, after all this past playoff run was his first taste of postseason and he certainly will want to return to consistent playoff franchise, but my hunch says he’s yet again in another uniform next season.

Therefore, don’t be surprised if none of these three return to the Sharks.

The money not spent on these three will give the Sharks plenty of room to bolster their defense with younger and more defensive minded defenseman. San Jose has plenty of puck moving ability with Boyle, Demers and to some extent Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but they lack that shut-down pairing. If the Sharks could get that one potent defenseman to pair with Vlasic, they would instantly have that shut-down pair they’ve been missing.

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