The Long and Winding Road
The Sharks are currently 2 games into their annual “SAP Open” road trip. This year’s edition is a brief 9 game, 16 day trip that takes them to St. Louis, Washington DC, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Detroit, Columbus, Toronto, Nashville, and Minnesota, includes 3 time zone changes, and 3 sets of back-to-backs. Clearly it’s going to be a grind for the Sharks until their next home game on February 28th against Philadelphia.
A road trip like this, this late in the season, will have a big impact on any team’s playoff chances and the Sharks are no different. Play well, earn some points, make a move in the standings, and the stretch run sets up nicely for the Sharks with 12 of the remaining 21 games taking place in San Jose and 4 of the 9 road games being played in the Pacific Time Zone. If the Sharks come out of this trip on an upswing it should give them a chance to reign in the minutes that some key players have been logging as they head into the playoffs, particularly guys like Thornton, Boyle, Clowe, and Niemi (with Clowe it’s not the minutes as much as his style of play). Conversely, if the Sharks are under .500 on this trip they will spend the last 21 games jockeying for playoff position, won’t have the luxury of resting those guys, and could enter the playoffs tired and banged up. For a team that was forced to play not 1 but 2 players with separated shoulders during last year’s Western Conference Finals that is not the ideal scenario.
The Sharks currently find themselves 3 pts ahead of Los Angeles for the Pacific Division lead at 68 pts with 3 games in hand, and if they are able to separate from the Kings they will assure themselves of finishing no worse than 3rd in the Western Conference. Looking up in the standings the Sharks see Vancouver at 76 pts and Detroit at 80 pts, though they do have 2 games in hand on Vancouver and 4 games in hand on Detroit (plus a chance to take 2 pts from the Red Wings on this trip). All those games in hand the Sharks have on the Kings, Canucks, and Red Wings are both a gift and a curse. While they have more opportunities to either distance themselves or gain ground, it also means they’re going to be playing more games down the stretch. I don’t think the coaching staff or GM would ever publicly admit that going .500 over any stretch is acceptable for this team, but I think if you injected Todd McLellan with sodium pentathol he’d tell you that if the Sharks can go .500 on this road trip and get back to San Jose healthy and playing well he’d be satisfied. Having started the trip with a disappointing shutout loss in St. Louis, where special teams were the big story (the Blues converted 2 5-on-3 power plays and the Sharks did nothing with their power play opportunities), and a dominant win in DC, the Sharks are right at that .500 mark. With the Lightning, Canes, and Wild fading from playoff contention, and the Blue Jackets being the worst team in hockey, the Sharks have to like their chances of returning home with some momentum.
(Quick side tangent: how the hell does a team with as much talent as the Capitals find itself sitting outside of the playoffs and playing a lifeless brand of hockey on a daily basis? If not for the ongoing drama surrounding Crosby’s health and the Rick Nash trade rumors this would be the biggest story in hockey this season and you have to think that, whether it’s at the deadline or over the summer, some big changes are coming to our nation’s capital. They’ve already fired the coach and it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference. Injuries have hurt but the disappearing acts that Ovechkin and Semin have pulled this year are both jarring and unacceptable.)
One of the biggest days on the hockey calendar will take place before the Sharks play their next home game on February 28th: the NHL trade deadline. It’s a time to sit back and watch these guys spend a day playing with their Blackberries on TV while waiting for the big deals to happen.
As it stands now the name you’re likely to keep hearing for the next 2 weeks is the aforementioned Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets captain. Is he going? Is he staying? Will they wait until the summer? Any trade for Nash is going to be complicated by the fact that he has a no-trade clause in his contract and any of the teams he’d most want to go to will have trouble absorbing his $7.8 million salary cap number. Most of the contenders are too close to the cap to take on that much salary, even the prorated portion, without sending some salary back to the Blue Jackets in the trade. That means either the team getting Nash is going to have to part with some roster players, which will make the team less attractive to Nash, or the Blue Jackets will have to take back a bad contract or two which they would obviously like to avoid.
There’s also the question of who will be making the biggest decision in Columbus Blue Jackets history. Current GM Scott Howson has presided over 3 consecutive non-playoff seasons and hasn’t been able to acquire or develop any premium prospects or young talents during that time. I’m not a big fan of letting a failed GM make a franchise altering decision on his way out the door because I think it makes much more sense to bring in a new guy and let him figure out what to do with the franchise’s most valuable asset. If the new guy decides that trading Nash is the fastest way to turn around the franchise then at least give him the opportunity to acquire the types of players he wants to build the franchise around rather than sticking him with whatever the guy he’s replacing could get.
All that is a way of saying that I don’t think Nash will be moved at the deadline. I think it’s much more likely something happens at the draft over the summer, when teams are allowed to go over the cap, and either Howson or a new GM can solicit more offers. I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone panic and make a Godfather offer at the deadline, I just think that the prudent decision for Columbus and for Nash would be to wait until June. Of course, if the Blue Jackets were a prudent franchise they probably wouldn’t be as awful as they are, so who knows?
The important question for Sharks fans is this: would Nash be a good fit in San Jose? The answer is yes. And no. First off, Nash has some history with Thornton, playing with him in Davos, Switzerland during the lockout season as well as on the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team. Nash is obviously a top 6 forward with a big body, great hands, and the willingness and ability to go to the net and score goals. He’s one of the most offensively gifted players in the league, a bonafide goal scorer, and pairing him with an elite passer like Thornton makes all the sense in the world on paper. The problem is that the Sharks don’t have much in the way of elite prospects and won’t have any great draft picks to dangle in a trade, so it would probably take 1-2 roster players to get it done. Are the Sharks a better team with Nash if they have to give up Couture or Pavelski, and Braun to do it? I’m not so sure, because like Dany Heatley before him, when Nash isn’t scoring goals there’s not a lot he brings to the table. On top of the price in talent necessary just to bring him to San Jose, Nash’s $7.8 million cap number instantly makes him the highest paid Shark, ahead of much more valuable players like Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Pavelski, and Couture. It would also create some significant salary cap problems starting in the 2012-2013 season and would probably necessitate a trade of Thornton or Marleau in the offseason, both of whom have no trade clauses. This is a trade that makes sense on the surface but the mechanics of actually pulling it off make it nearly impossible.
So who and what should the Sharks be looking for at the deadline? Glad you asked! This year is unique for the Sharks in that this might be the first year in franchise history where they aren’t looking to bolster the blueline in preparation for a playoff run. With 8 NHL defensemen already in the fold it’s unlikely that Doug Wilson would be able to find a player that would be a significant upgrade on the players already in house at a price that doesn’t decimate the rest of his roster. Everyone is always looking for defensive depth, particularly at this time of year, and the prices can be astronomical so the Sharks are fortunate to be in a position to be looking elsewhere.
With the injury to Havlat and the questions surrounding his return, and the number of injuries the Sharks faced during last year’s playoff run, it would make all the sense in the world for the Sharks to try and find a top 6 caliber forward to provide some depth. The name Ray Whitney has come up a few times and that would be a very solid addition. Whitney started his career with the Sharks and is the type of player that will find a way to make whatever team he’s on better. A smaller player with a nifty set of hands, Whitney can run a power play and chip in quite a bit offensively, but between his age and stature his minutes would probably have to be monitored in the playoffs in order to maximize his effectiveness. Right now Phoenix is in a group of 5-10 teams that still aren’t sure whether they’re buyers or sellers at this year’s deadline. Being owned by the NHL it stands to reason they are maybe more likely to sell than some of the other team’s in that grouping so Whitney is a realistic possibility. If the price is right he’s certainly a name to keep an eye on and it would be a good story if he was able to come back to San Jose to end a very good career.
Travis Moen is another name that has come up recently and if the name sounds familiar it’s not a glitch in the Matrix: he was acquired at the deadline by the Sharks a few years ago. He’s a 3rd line grinder type who could provide some sandpaper and perhaps some penalty killing depth, which the Sharks would surely like to find both to help limit the minutes of the big guns and because the PK hasn’t been good this year (currently 26th in the league at 78.8%). Moen didn’t exactly distinguish himself in his first go around with the Sharks but at 29 years old and with a Stanley Cup ring he could be a solid addition should he prove to be healthy by the deadline, again, depending on the price. I’m not sure I’d acquire Moen again and I’m guessing Doug Wilson feels the same way.
In a more general sense when I watch the Sharks I see 2 minor weaknesses that Doug Wilson should be looking to address at the deadline beyond the depth that every one of the top contenders is searching for. One is speed, because when I watch the Sharks play a team like Vancouver they can go long stretches without being able to get in on the forecheck and put pressure on the Canucks’ back end. Regardless of where the player would fit in the lineup it would be in the Sharks’ best interests to find another body that can really skate before the playoffs start.
The other weakness, as I see it, is someone who is not afraid to stir the pot. Many if not most of the Stanley Cup teams in recent memory have had a player or players that drove other teams crazy not necessarily by scoring goals but by being a pest. These are the types of players that start fights and rarely finish them, cross the line with their play at times, and are guys you love when they’re with you and hate when they’re against you. Guys like Claude Lemieux, Bryan Marchment, Raffi Torres, Steve Ott, Matt Cooke, and Brad Marchand come to mind. These guys, the with exception of Lemieux and Marchand who both have scored big playoff goals, become the centers of attention for all the wrong reasons and that’s why the Sharks need someone of this ilk. Every minute an opponent spends caught up in the antics of a Marchand or a Lemiuex or a Sean Avery is a minute they’re not spending focusing on Thornton, Marleau, Couture, and Pavelski. Ideally it would be someone who is a good enough player to be trusted for 13-15 minutes a game on the 3rd line, cross the line occasionally, draw some retaliation penalties, and have enough offensive skill to play 2nd line minutes when the coaching staff wants to send a message to an underperforming player.
In short I think the Sharks have been a little too nice and a little too easy to play against. Maybe you can trace that back to Doug Wilson and an organizational philosophy of clean, straight ahead, and tough but fair play. Thing is though, playoff hockey isn’t about honor or respect or making friends, it’s strictly about wins and losses. That’s not to say the Sharks don’t have tough guys willing to drop the gloves, they do, but that’s not what the playoffs are about. The playoffs also aren’t the time to be giving heavy minutes to 4th line players who bring little offense and are usually defensive liabilities. The Sharks need to be hated by their opponents and the opposition fans, and they need to find a player who relishes being the focal point of all that ill-will. Flipping through the rosters of the teams that are out of contention there aren’t any names fitting that description that really stand out so a lot will depend on what those 5-10 teams on the cusp of the playoffs decide to do over the next 2 weeks.
Which takes us right back to where we started. For Sharks fans the next 2 weeks will be filled with road games and trade rumors, and with the way Doug Wilson always seems to operate with stealth I’m sure most of the trade rumors will turn out to be false. Instead of following every rumor keep an eye on the standings, particularly the teams that are on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Should anyone fall out of it or experience some season altering injuries the list of available names could change quickly. Also bear in mind that Doug Wilson is a trade ninja and it would not surprise me if he pulled off a 3 team trade, one where the team that’s out of it isn’t a match for what the Sharks are looking for but is a match for another contending team that doesn’t want to to mortgage the future on the present. And if you’re a casual hockey fan and observer now is the time to start paying attention because by the time the Sharks play their next home game the playoff roster will be more or less set.
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