Shark-Infested Blogger

March 3, 2010 4:44 AM

Three Problems, Three Solutions for San Jose

As the trade deadline approaches in ten hours, the San Jose Sharks figure to be players as they have been in the recent past. Over at Bleacher Report, I wrote an article detailing the predicament the team finds itself in; here I focus on the team's needs, the most viable players to meet them, and whether the move makes sense for the team.

One thing is for sure: I do not feel this team has what it takes to win the Stanley Cup as it is. Chicago has shown it is a better team, and no team that gets over 40 percent of its scoring from one forward line has won a Cup in at least 15 years. One line can always be shut down when a team can gameplan for them, as happened in 2007 with the Ottawa Senators by Anaheim and in the 2010 Olympics with Russia by Canada.

With the number of free agents this off-season and the time given to the corps lineup already, a team that is likely to be blown up may as well increase their chance of success by making improvements. But because of this, the Sharks have to be careful not to trade away talent that could actually last beyond this off-season.

Normally, that means trading away draft picks or maybe even prospects. However, the Sharks are tight against the cap and will need to give away approximately equal salary to what they take on.

Because one player is not likely to bring enough of a change in the team's character makeup to shift the playoff paradigm, the best Sharks fans can hope for is the team has had it with losing in May and will find it within themselves to move on. Any trade should therefore be done primarily to address the team's three most glaring talent short-comings.

The least of these is a backup goalie.

Thomas Greiss has looked good in limited action this season, but was abused in the Olympics. While I think this was mostly a function of inferior talent in front of him, his play leads one to draw the conclusion that should Evgeni Nabokov be down for the playoffs, San Jose would be lucky to get past the first round.

However, goalies are not as vulnerable to injury, and with San Jose holding a five-game lead with about 20 to go over second-place Los Angeles, there is no reason to think Greiss cannot at least spell Nabby often enough to keep him healthy without the Sharks losing hold of a top-three seed. (Whether coach Todd McLellan is wise enough to rest Nabby is another question--Martin Brodeur is the only goalie in over a decade to win a Cup after playing more than 62 regular season games.)

3201378632_bfbcd5d116.jpgAt the same time, Nabby is one of the Sharks free agents this off-season, and at his advanced age, he might well not be back. Greiss taking over the starting job next season is doubtful, so finding a solution for next year is logical.

Minnesota's Josh Harding would be a sensible target here. He will be a free agent at the end of the season and Minnesota is committed to Niklas Backstrom, making re-signing Harding unlikely given he has been an effective starter in the past.

He has a cap figure of just over $1 million, so San Jose could fit him on the roster pretty easily, especially by offering Greiss in return: I would pull the trigger on this deal and throw in a player if necessary to make it under the cap. Then the Sharks can pursue him this summer for less money than they have been paying Nabby and possibly keep more of the team intact for next year or find more replacement talent.

The next need is secondary scoring.

As mentioned above, San Jose relies more on its top line for offence than perhaps any other team in the league, and this was part of what doomed the 2006 squad. There are several scoring forwards for sale, and perhaps the best fit is former Shark Ray Whitney. He has championship experience and would be comfortable with the surroundings and recent teammate Niklas Wallin.

However, to make room under the cap, San Jose would likely have to trade Ryane Clowe or Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Both players would be desirable to Carolina, but would give up too much for the Sharks, who cannot spare mobile defencemen or power forwards. To me, there is no sensible deal to be worked out for Whitney or any other proven scorer--San Jose will either have to have someone step up or find a player on the waiver wire who happens to work out.

Finally, San Jose lacks puck-moving defencemen.

Were Dan Boyle to go down, the power play would bog down, and the blueline would be succeptible to the forecheck. This could stop the San Jose offence before it even starts and force them to play an inordinate amount of time in its own zone, making even a first-round victory a challenge.

Beyond Boyle, the Sharks have a good but not great skating defender in Vlasic whose primary asset is rarely being caught out of position. He could conceivably step up to get the puck out of the Sharks own end, but with just 13 points in 54 games this season, he is little help in the offensive zone or on the power play.

The only other option is Jason Demers. He has become a solid defensive player, being among team leaders in blocked shots per game, as well as the second-leading scorer on the blueline. But as a rookie, he is prone to mistakes, including turning the puck over; any reasonable Sharks fan would be nervous with him handling the responsibility to advancing the puck in his first playoffs.

With the addition of Wallin, the team now has a glut of solid defensive players on the blueline--the others being Douglas Murray, Kent Huskins, Jay Leach, and Vlasic. If the team is going to add a puck-moving defenceman, they will have to make room for him not only on payroll but in the lineup by moving one of these players.

Since the team just traded for Wallin, who has a no-trade clause, we can almost count him out for being moved. Murray is no longer a liability on the offensive end, and by far the team's best hitter. Leach has a small cap hit and no trade value.

This leaves Vlasic and Huskins. Because Vlasic is the team's second-best skater and could easily survive as a building block for the future, even with big off-season changes, I would not move him even though he has a large enough cap figure to bring in a talented player.

Huskins is only being paid $1.7 million, and that just does not offer enough room to get an impact player. But should the Sharks find a willing partner, trading him would make sense.

If Tampa Bay wanted to add his experience and felt they would be unable to re-sign Kurtis Foster, he would be a good trade no matter what pick was thrown in, and would create the room necessary to make the deal for Backstrom. But I do not see Tampa making that move.

Another great move would be Rotislav Klesla of Columbus--also certainly requiring draft picks or prospects--if he is ready to return to action soon. But since the Blue Jackets extended his contract, it seems unlikely they will part with him.

Joe Corvo might be available from Carolina, but his cap figure would require the Sharks to throw someone like Torrey Mitchell into the mix. If that is the case, they might as well go for a better defenceman like Marek Zidlicky. This would also make more sense in that one trade could be worked with one team, rather than multiple trades and teams.

The problem is that between the two trades, the Sharks would be taking on approximately $200,000 more in contracts for the remainder of the season, and while that is not much, I am not sure the team can do that under the cap. However, if necessary, they can shuffle a player down to the minors and either bring up a cheaper one or scratch only two players until the playoffs, when the cap no longer applies.

While I like Torrey Mitchell and he is young enough to contribute for the long haul, the Sharks have plenty of young forwards and could absorb his loss, especially in light of some of his injury problems. Trading him and Huskins to get a player of Zidlicky's calibre and a potential goaltender of the future would make it worthwhile, even given that San Jose would surely have to turn over substantial draft or prospect value--they can afford either.

My trade suggestion: Torrey Mitchell, Thomas Greiss, and Kent Huskins plus almost any prospect/draft pick needed to make it happen for Marek Zidlicky and Josh Harding.

What it would mean for the Sharks: The offence would improve because of the upgrade to the blueline and the defensive loss would be nullified by the upgrade in net. The team could land its future goaltender and let Zidlicky go in the off-season, relying on its young players to fill the void at both defenceman and forward, giving them flexibility to re-sign or replace most of the free agent talent for 2010-11.

What it would mean for the Wild: They would get a viable backup goalie, solid fifth defenceman, and a checking line forward for players they would lose in the offseason anyway. Moreover, all would be under 30 years old and under contract next season, and it is likely they could get a future draft pick or prospect as well.

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