Shark-Infested Blogger

July 2, 2009 7:34 AM

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Unrestricted Free Agents

The free agency period has begun, and Doug Wilson has made moves that have given the Sharks cap space. The question is not whether they will sign new players, it is how effective those players will be.

In the summer of 2008, the Sharks made major upgrades on the blueline that were supposed to carry them to a title. Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, and Brad Lukowich certainly provided that upgrade, as the Sharks had arguably the best blueline in the regular season.

But the team got no post-season hardware out of their new unit. This should bring Wilson to the realization that the problem is not on the back end, but rather among the forwards.

The Sharks have struggled to score in the playoffs for four consecutive post-seasons, and bowed out in the second round each time. The widely accepted theory is that it is defence that wins in the playoffs, but the statistics post-lockout say otherwise.

The top eight offensive teams were all in the 2009 playoffs, but the second-best defensive team, the Minnesota Wild, did not. Of the final four teams playing were the three with the most scoring in the post-season, with both finalists being the top two.

That trend holds for the previous years, with the final two teams being first and fourth in playoff scoring. Seven of the top eight offences advanced beyond the first round and three of the top four were in the Conference Finals.

In every year in which shows statistics (through 1997-98), the Stanley Cup winner has finished in the top five in scoring during the playoffs. Only twice in those ten seasons was that winner lower than third.

In other words, you have to score to win.

While the Sharks blueline was among the most effective on the offensive end, the reality is that it is the forwards who are relied on for putting the biscuit in the basket. That has been the team's failing in the past four springs.

Only twice in that stretch has a player scored a point a game for the entire post-season (2007: Joe Thornton and 2006: Patrick Marleau). Both Pittsburgh and Detroit had two players do that this year alone.

Therefore, the Sharks have to take a hard look at their lack of scoring in making decisions about their own and outside free agents. For starters, they seem in no hurry to sign any of the unrestricted free agents other than Rob Blake and Kent Huskins on the blueline.

Here is a look at what was/should be done with the others they had on their roster at the end of last season and why...

1. Claude Lemieux was a total waste of a roster spot. He had one point in 13 games, and that came on a dump in that resulted in a goal half a shift later. He cannot keep up with younger skaters and is not intimidating anymore.

2. Jeremy Roenick seems to have little gas left in the tank. He struggled all season with injuries and his production has fallen off. At best, he might be worth having as the 13th or 14th forward at a league minimum salary, mostly for his leadership.

3. Alexei Semenov had been my whipping boy in 2007-08, and I could not believe the team re-signed him. He was slow, a liability on the offensive end, and often looked lost. But last season, he stepped up his game and was effective on the defensive end in relief. Nevertheless, there are better options out there: I would rather have Chris Chelios, who is not much slower, not much worse on offense, and offers a lot more leadership for probably the same money.

4. Brian Boucher was allowed to go back to Philadelphia because while he was a solid backup and could have backstopped the Sharks to a series victory in the playoffs, he was not going to ever be more than that. Based on the mediocre play of Evgeni Nabokov in the past two playoffs, they need someone who will either push him or take over.

5. Minor leaguers such as Tom Cavanagh, Ryan Vesce, Cory Larose, and Brett Westgarth were not worth re-signing as they showed little sign of breaking onto the NHL roster. If you have not reached that plateau by the time you are eligible for unrestricted free agency, it is time to give someone else a shot.

6. Kyle McLaren was not even able to make the NHL roster last season, although his large salary played a part because the team was tight against the cap. He was great at the hipcheck, but a liability in the offensive end and unable to stay healthy.

7. Mike Grier was one of the best penalty killers on the team, but his effectiveness seemed to wane in late April of 2008, and it seems his best days are behind him.

8. Travis Moen is a thug, and one my least favourite players in the league. But he has everything the Sharks need: a championship pedigree with mental and physical toughness who is an asset on both ends of the ice, particularly on the penalty kill. Unless he is costing well over $1 million per year, he should be signed.

The last part of the autopsy (Wilson's own term) is analyzing the players under contract and those the team should pursue. Those will be tackled in my next articles.

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