All signs point to one last hurrah in San Jose with the existing group.
Former dynamic duo, ‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will each be 34 years of age come training camp; both standouts from the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Freewheeling defenseman Dan Boyle is 37 and has seen his production tail off from .76 PPG in his second season as a Shark- four years ago, to a 0.43 PPG output this past season. That was easily his lowest production rate since his pre-Tampa Bay days, more than a decade ago.
The triumvirate has served as the Sharks core glue pieces for a combined 28 seasons, with Marleau donning the teal sweater for the lion’s share (15 of them). All three will be extremely hard pressed to reprise their roles on the Canadian Men’s Olympic squad in Sochi, after winning gold together in Vancouver along with former teammate, Dany Heatley. Meanwhile, Logan Couture is on the brink of his prime years while Joe Pavelski is already an established young veteran whose skills are used on the defensive side of the rink as much as it is on offense.
Next offseason will see the franchise cornerstones Thornton, Marleau and Boyle all enter unrestricted free agency. A number of questions will need to be answered by Doug Wilson and co. regarding the direction of this franchise as July 1 2014 looms. Would the aging trio be willing to take a significant haircut to stay in San Jose? Would Joe Thornton consider a transformation of his game a la Steve Yzerman in the early 2000’s; from leading scorer to a more complete player, allowing the young guns more room to flourish? Will the commitment be there to allow Marleau rarified air as a franchise lifer? Another multi-year deal will bring him mighty close to 20 years with the same club. Will Boyle, a smooth-skating puck mover with a skill set still in high demand despite his grey beard, chase the big bucks? His even older contemporary, Sergei Gonchar has dictated that he sure can, inking a two-year deal taking him past his 40th birthday.
Most of the questions remain to be seen. Although as for the concept of Jumbo Joe possibly transforming his game, he’s already shown signs of strengthening other aspects as his offensive numbers continue to erode. His faceoff winning percentage has increased year to year for four straight seasons, going from an already solid .539% in 2009-10 to .585% this past season, a career high. Thornton has been above average on the draw for a handful of years now, however he’s recently elevated himself to elite status at the craft. He easily led the Sharks at the dot this year and finished a very impressive fourth in the NHL. Jump back to three seasons ago and he barely even cracked the top three on his own team. (below)
The summer 2011 flipping of Heatley for the talented but oft-injured Martin Havlat has yielded unsatisfactory results on two accounts.
A) Despite Dany’s career seemingly going off a cliff after arriving in Minnesota, the Sharks surely have missed his 26 markers from his final year with the club in, 2010-11. Whereas Havlat has yet still only netted 15 over 79 games in a Sharks uniform. Although the rise of Logan Couture has helped mitigate that lost production to a degree.
B) Despite both former stars experiencing declining production as they enter their mid 30’s, Heatley’s deal expires next summer, whereas Havlat is still tied to the team until July 2015. The deal naturally meant the Sharks were taking on an extra year of cap commitment in Havlat. Though his cap hit presence has caused a financial roadblock for young talents in the Sharks system to earn promotions to the parent club, despite his diminishing PPG.
This summer’s compliance buyout period came and went with this option unavailable to San Jose’s upper brass due to Havlat's ‘injured status’, deeming him ineligible to be amnestied. However, next summer, assuming Havlat finishes the season in good health, they may choose to exercise it then, in the second and final ‘off-the-books-buyout-window’ permitted by the new CBA to help teams transition to the lowered cap.
As of now, San Jose remains a little over $400,000 above the cap ceiling, but Havlat is questionable to play this season at any point, which would give the team some much-needed breathing room.
Unfortunately, I believe San Jose to have the weakest prospect pool in the NHL. Hockey Prospectus ranks them 26th in the league, and I believe they were rather generous with that assessment. Here are the default in-house candidates for discounted replacements, from the farm club group.
Yes, this is a pretty underwhelming group to say the least. There’s a reason why San Jose’s AHL affiliate placed in the bottom five in league standings two years running and the past three seasons out of the Calder Cup Playoff circuit. In fact, had it not been for bright, young netminder, Alex Stalock, the Baby Sharks might have actually bottomed out this past season. The last prospect of note to develop through the San Jose system into an NHL caliber-star was Couture, drafted way back in 2007. With Thomas Greiss departing for Phoenix this off-season, Alex will assuredly be deputized as Antti Niemi’s backup this year, painting an even dimmer picture in the Worcester defensive zone.
Things do get a little bit brighter in the Bay Area this upcoming season from an offensive perspective though, as it appears San Jose’s only prized international prospect, Tomas Hertl, is finally ready to make the jump overseas. The 19-year-old Hertl may well find himself on the Sharks’ third line before long, after a strong year in the Czech ExtraLiga last year which saw him net 18 times in 43 games. Not too shabby for a teenager amongst men.
Moreover, look for Dougie Hamilton’s big brother, Freddie, a 20-year-old winger, to have a big development year in the ‘A’, to follow up an impressive rookie campaign. One other bright spot on the horizon is 2011 second-rounder, Matt Nieto, plying his trade for Boston University the past three seasons. Some may point to a slight drop in production last year from his sophomore season as discouraging, though a large graduating core had departed from the program, leaving him with a very inexperienced squad. Nieto also had a strong showing in his cup of coffee with Worcester this past spring at the conclusion of his college tenure, scoring six points in 11 games. In fact, there’s chatter he may have an outside shot to crack San Jose with a strong camp next month.
All things considered, whether or not we see some familiar faces leave town by the trade deadline this spring, it certainly is becoming increasingly likely that the hierarchy in the Shark Tank will experience further evolution.
~~ Follow Anthony Lancione on Twitter @anthisdaman ~~
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