CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz pointed out that the San Jose Sharks have had buzz over the last week but in fact did little to address their questions in his column Monday, June 29. Much of the activity happened in the right positions but not at the right level.
For instance, San Jose general manager Doug Wilson was reportedly pursuing Kevin Bieksa to shore up his second-greatest weakness. However, that deal fell apart and blue-line questions remain in place of what was admittedly a short-term and even iffy solution.
Wilson did make two moves that will help. Kurz mentioned a re-signed Karl Stollery at the base of his above-linked article to give the Sharks a needed blue-line reserve. The fact that he is slated to compete with Matt Tennyson and Mirco Mueller for action even after the more significant Brenden Dillon became the next re-signed free agent per Pro Hockey Talk Monday (initially putting the five-year deal at around $15.9 million) says all that needs to be said about the bottom of the blue-line depth chart.
The top is also thin. Brent Burns is not a real top-minutes guy because he is too irresponsible defensively. Justin Braun was not ready for the third role and Dillon has not been ready for the fourth. That makes Marc-Edouard Vlasic the only player on that unit expected to be up to playing his role, and getting a player that will upgrade the back end to even average will cost quite a bit in free agency.
Relying on the current talent to be ready for the next step is optimistic. If Vlasic and Braun plays to their 2013-14 NHL season form, Burns plays like he did in the IIHF World Championships and the end of 2011-12 while Dillon, Mueller, Tennyson and Stollery grow in any significant way, San Jose has three strong defensive pairs, a capable reserve and two players exceptional enough to make this an elite unit.
Again, every player should be better than last season based on the point they sit in their development. However, each of them has also had at least one season in which they took a step back and it is unrealistic to expect they will all progress. At the same time, it is likely that Burns and Braun will have a better 2015-16 NHL season than their last to make the blue line good enough to get by even if the rest of the unit only breaks even.
It is a player’s market for blue-line free agents, but the Sharks do have the cap room. Since there were not many options to spend it on in net and it seems free agent Antti Niemi wanted too many years, he was shipped to the Dallas Stars for a seventh-round pick and the hunt for an alternative was the entire focus. Troy Grosenick was the next goalie to sign a contract, remaining with the team most likely as the primary AHL goalie.
However, Wilson’s trade for Martin Jones Tuesday should solidify San Jose’s net. The 25-year old has been exceptional as a backup for the Los Angeles Kings and should be ready for a starting role in time for the 2015-16 NHL season-opening game between the teams.
The cost was very high: Sean Kuraly (a mid-level prospect) and the first-round pick of the talent-rich 2016 NHL Entry Draft. If it does not work out, Wilson should absolutely be fired because he would be giving up a sure-fire draft pick (i.e. top-14 for a non-playoff team) for a goalie not ready to be a starter.
Still, this is a good risk considering the options in free agency and elsewhere via trade were slim. If Jones can handle the starting role or Alex Stalock reaches his potential to challenge for that role, this will be a good position for the Sharks so long as the other (or even Grosenick) is the capable backup they both are expected to be at minimum.
Moreover, Wilson maintained the scoring-line forward strength with the re-signed Melker Karlsson. San Jose’s rookie of the year during the 2014-15 NHL season with a smart game while reaching 13 goals and 11 assists in 53 games in large part because he played his way onto Joe Thornton’s line.
Without Karlsson, the Sharks would have been hurting at forward even if Raffi Torres was able to return immediately. Even with him, there are questions about the bottom-six options.
If San Jose’s 2015-16 NHL season sees Tomas Hertl return to about halfway back from his sophomore season to the player he was as a rookie, Chris Tierney looks as good in a checking-line pivot role as he did in March, Torres returns at any point, Barclay Goodrow and Matt Nieto improve at all while the scoring lines stay healthy, everything will be fine.
Each of those things is likely individually, but the chances they all happen are slim. Hertl should return to a scoring line, probably bumping Tommy Wingels to a checking role unless new head coach Peter DeBoer has the courage to have stars like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau or Thornton center the third line.
Either way, a third line that may carry Nieto opposite Wingels and centered by Tierney could be intriguing. Mike Brown is an adequate 12th forward if Torres (who could have a bigger role) is not ready and Goodrow is already a solid fourth-line forward. Ben Smith rounds out the bottom-six forwards. The pool could be deeper if Sharks like Nikolay Goldobin, Rourke Chartier, Bryan Lerg (another free agent retained Tuesday), a likely re-signed Daniil Tarasov or any other forwards are able to step up.
Still, expecting much out of this bottom-six unit would be optimistic. More realistically, they will show flashes when they are largely healthy but fail to consistently perform.
The main thing is that even if last season was more trend than anomaly for Marleau, Karlsson’s signing means there will be seven or eight scoring-line forwards to carry the position if the back end is fixed. Jones, Grosenick, Dillon and Stollery may just be enough to put San Jose in Stanley Cup-playoff contention by the end of the 2015-16 NHL season.