- The Wild West
- Written by Dallas Guzzwell
Why NOT rebuilding now is the right move for the Sharks (in real and fantasy hockey)
There have been infinite discussions regarding what the San Jose Sharks will do this summer, with the majority of experts tending to think it’s time for Doug Wilson to dismantle the veteran core and start a rebuild. But will they blow things up, or stick with the status quo?
So far the team has already traded Dan Boyle’s rights to the Islanders. An even easier step is in process, with Martin Havlat on his way out. But the big question is deciding whether or not Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will ever lead the team to a Stanley Cup. Chances are the answer is no; but considering that only three teams have won the past five championships, it’s not like San Jose is the only team in the league to suffer disappointment over the past decade.
It is important to remember that the Western Conference is tough; and despite underachieving in the playoffs, there is a silver lining as the Sharks have made the postseason for each of the past 10 years. While it may seem to be the right time to rebuild, a closer look suggests that the Sharks are a top team that is only a few pieces from a championship.
Here are three reasons why the Sharks should stay the course.
Los Angeles Dominated Everyone
If the glass is half empty, well then the Sharks choked and blew their three games to none lead before stepping aside to watch the Kings roll to another Stanley Cup. If the glass is half full, then San Jose is looking at itself and realizing that for a three game stretch, they were the one team this postseason to completely dominate the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
San Jose outscored the Kings 17-8 in the first three games of round one before the series flipped, with the Sharks being outscored 18-5 over the final four games. But San Jose was not the only team that failed to deliver a knockout punch to LA.
Before winning the Cup, the Kings deserved to lose the first two games to the Rangers and trailed during games most of the series before finding ways to win. Anaheim had the Kings on the ropes and carried a 3-2 series lead before losing the final two games and bowing out in seven. And the Chicago/Los Angeles series was a classic as well, with the Hawks’ having their share of chances to send the Kings home in game seven of that series; but the Kings somehow prevailed yet again.
While the rationale for blowing the team up and moving core pieces Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau runs deeper than this year’s shortcomings, to only reference the team’s failure against Los Angeles this year while ignoring takeaways from its initial success during that series would be a huge mistake.
There is no question the Sharks would survive offensively if both Thornton and Marleau waived the no trade/movement clauses that came with their newly signed three year deals; but it is also safe to assume that the team would be taking a step back unless they traded these high end players for similar players in return.
There is little question that Logan Couture is ready to step up and that the Sharks would still have decent forward depth with Joe Pavelski, Matt Nieto, and Tomas Hertl leading the way, plus blueline support from the likes of Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Despite that, the team would be making a huge mistake moving the two veterans.
First, Thornton and Marleau bring elite offensive production and are signed to cap-friendly salaries. It would be impossible to get fair return in a trade. Second, Thornton and Marleau signed cheaper deals than what they would have received on the open market under the premise that they would be playing together while trying to help the Sharks win a Cup before closing out their respective careers.
Pressuring Thornton and Marleau to waive their NTC/NMCs now tells the team (and its fans) that the franchise is taking a step back while also sending the message that players are expendable even if they give the franchise a discount while signing contract extensions in good faith. This is the wrong message to send, as it may trickle down to cause players like Nieto and Hertl to be more cautious when signing extensions with the team down the road. Plus, the team obviously believed enough in Thornton and Marleau earlier this year to sign them to three year extensions despite their past playoff failures. For this year’s playoff disaster to cause the team to completely change course would seem to be a huge overreaction.
Nieto, and Hertl have matured this year. They will be ready to have an impact next year similar to what Pearson and Toffoli did for the Kings during these playoffs. Having younger players that are ready to step up and provide depth is a key component to winning Cups in the salary cap era. The Sharks have young players that will mature and contribute; but moving Marleau and Thornton will not shield them. These are players that still need a bit of protection over the next couple of years while their games progress and mature for playoff success.
Finally, the decision to move Brent Burns back to defense leaves the team with their top six already set with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Nieto and Hertl making up the top two lines. Considering that the combined cap hit of their top six would be $27.66M which works out to an average of $4.61M per player, the Sharks have a very cost effective top six that leaves dollars and flexibility for them to fill holes in other areas.
Thornton and Marleau signed three year extensions at $6.75M/year and $6.66M/year. Compare this to the $7M/year extension that the Sedins also signed during the season, and San Jose fans and management should be more appreciative of the flexibility that these deals provided for the team. Plus, by the time Nieto and Hertl burn their entry level deals, Thornton and Marleau will be a year away from coming off of the books, leaving room to sign the two youngsters to decent RFA deals that extend into their early UFA eligible years.
Tweak, Not Destroy
The real problem in San Jose during the playoffs was not their forwards. Therefore, the real concern this summer should be addressing their goaltending and their blue line.
Despite Antti Niemi’s Stanley Cup ring, Doug Wilson clearly needs to evaluate whether or not the Finn is the answer in goal. Niemi’s save percentage in the 2012-13 playoffs was a stellar .930. This year he posted a .894. Overall, Niemi’s career regular season save percentage is .916 while his consistency in the playoffs drops to .907. His GAA plunge is even worse, as he has a career 2.39 in the regular season compared to 2.74 in the post season.
The recent re-signing of Alex Stalock suggests their goalie tandem is set and the Sharks are ready to pass the torch if Niemi underachieves next year. Considering that Niemi is signed to friendly $3.8M/year contract that just happens to run out at the end of 2014-15, the team would be wise to stay the course. Perhaps moving Niemi and attempting to sign Ryan Miller would make sense as well; but it is debatable whether or not Miller is an upgrade at this point. Regardless, San Jose believes in Stalock and management is willing to give him the opportunity to at least pressure Niemi and potentially even steal the starting job.
It has not been mentioned enough how much the team suffered in the Los Angeles series after the game five loss of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who eats a ton of tough minutes and provides stability on the back end. Vlasic plays almost 21 minutes each night and was plus 31 this season, which was good enough for ninth overall in the league. In fact, Vlasic’s plus/minus rating topped all defensemen in the West this year.
That was an impossible hole to fill in a highly competitive playoff series, as Vlasic brought reliability that could not be replaced; and his absence was a significant reason why the Kings had their way with the Sharks in the final three games of the series. Barring a Vlasic injury, perhaps the Sharks would have found a way to wrap things up in game six or seven. If there is one certainty, the Sharks have the cap space to find another reliable defenseman and should be in the market for a player like Matt Niskanen or even Andrei Markov (EDITOR’S NOTE – This column was submitted prior to Markov re-signing with Montreal). Vlasic and Burns are a nice start, but the Sharks need more depth on their blue line and at least one reliable puck mover who can contribute some offense.
To keep things in perspective, hopefully the Sharks realize that their defense and goaltending are, on the whole, underrated. San Jose only allowed 200 goals during the regular season last year. The only other teams to allow less scoring were the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings. That is pretty impressive company – the President’s Trophy winning team and the two Stanley Cup finalists.
Rather than blowing it up, only a few tweaks are needed. The team has a solid top six that most would envy. Their goaltending has been decent and their defense just needs some depth and perhaps one more offensive defenseman (Niskanen?) as an upgrade to what Boyle would have brought. A signing to deepen their bottom six with a player like Shawn Thornton would add some grit that would complement Raffi Torres and give the team some more toughness that allows their top six to breathe and create.
Overall, the Sharks are closer than they realize and drastic moves this summer would be a mistake. Leave the team as it is. Take steps to improve it through tweaking. Give Thornton and Marleau their final window to lead while gradually handing the reins to Pavelski and Couture. Memo to Doug Wilson - relax, don’t do it!