Coach Todd McLellan needs better defensive play out of the San Jose Sharks to be successful in 2013
In June 2011, the San Jose Sharks traded away a scoring-line forward and a top prospect for a first-pair defenceman. Not only was this meant to upgrade the blue line, but the thought was that a team's seventh-best forward would be easier to replace.
Trouble is, neither of those things happened.
Young forwards the Sharks were hoping would develop, veteran free agents they signed and even those they traded for to fill the void failed. It was much the same on the blue line, where the play of the top three was offset by declining play of two existing defencemen and failure on behalf of veteran free agents.
The result was the worst season in Doug Wilson's eight as general manager and the fastest playoff departure in the team's two-plus decades in the NHL. It was obvious the Sharks needed more from their role players.
San Jose let the ineffective veterans go. They will rely on the young talent that remains at forward, leaving fewer changes to the unit's depth chart for 2013.
The bigger hole was on the blue line, and they brought former Sharks No. 2 overall pick Brad Stuart back to correct the problem. A player of his calibre will shake up any depth chart...where does it leave San Jose's?
Note: As with the forwards, the defencemen are listed in the order of projected total ice time for the season rather than production, which I outlined for Examiner.com separately for the core and depth talent.
When the San Jose Sharks hit St. Nick's Day in 2011, Dan Boyle had just one goal, nine assists and was a minus-one rating in 24 games.
Predictably, quick-trigger fans started calling for him to be traded before the bottom dropped out. But the team had the best record in the Pacific Division and would clearly need a top-pair blueliner to replace him if they were to stay contenders.
As if a player thought to be over the hill will fetch a young player anywhere near as good. And as if a player that led all NHL defencemen in points over the previous four years and was second in average ice time over the entire league in 2010-11 would suddenly be barely worth the second pair the next season.
As it turned out, Boyle was scoreless and a minus-six over his last nine games because of a broken foot. He endured pain and questions because he was still one of San Jose's best blue-line options. Once his foot healed enough to regain the skating that defines his game, he scored eight goals and 30 assists in the final 37 games.
He finished seventh in total ice time because he is more than an offensive player: Boyle finished 41st in the NHL in blocked shots, second on the Sharks blue line in takeaways and finished just 10 hits away from second-place defenceman Brent Burns.
At 36 and facing a compact schedule, his role should be reduced. But he has missed more than six games just once in the last 10 years and will still see 24 minutes a game when he is out there. That will add up to more total ice time than any other Shark.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the most underrated defencemen in the world.
He is not a prolific scorer, but he did exceed 20 points last season. He is not a big hitter like most stay-at-home defencemen because he is a better skater than most.
Being able to get in the right place at the right time helped Pickles finish 12th in the NHL in blocked shots. It was why he saw more ice time than anyone on the San Jose Sharks but Dan Boyle. And it will be why—along with Brent Burns starting the season inactive—he will be second in ice time again.
Brent Burns was slow getting acclimated to the San Jose Sharks. By the playoffs—apparently while fighting through a sports hernia—he was the best player on the blue line.
Surprisingly, that injury has not yet healed and Burns is almost certain to miss at least the first two road games of the season. Once he is back, he will need to be eased in and might move into second in total minutes in 2013.
In fact, if he started the season healthy, he might be the top defenceman on the San Jose depth chart. He is not the skater or passer (75 giveaways to just 26 assists) Dan Boyle is, making him less adept getting the puck out of his own end.
Burns has room to improve defensively, too. While he led the Sharks blue line in takeaways last season, three others on the unit had more hits per game and four had more blocks per game.
Still, he is the stereotypical big, two-way defenceman with a booming shot (only five Sharks forwards scored more goals) who has the ability to mix it up. He is also an above-average skater and young enough to continue to improve. By the end of the season, he may well be getting the most minutes.
Brad Stuart has returned to the San Jose Sharks to be with his family. His sub-$4 million price tag represents a 10 to 20 percent discount and makes the 33-year old the logical No. 4 defenceman.
Except that he would be the second-best option on many teams, including perhaps the Detroit Red Wings he came from. He is still a mild asset on the attack, scoring six goals and 15 assists. But his biggest asset is his body, which dishes out over two hits a game and absorbs three shots every two games.
That would have led the Sharks in hits by a wide margin. He will probably dish out fewer because of San Jose's style and slightly reduced ice time due to the burden of a condensed schedule.
By contrast, Detroit does not block as many shots as San Jose, making him a good bet to finish in the top three on the Sharks. Being happy to be home will help on-ice results, and he will be leaned on more while Brent Burns and Jason Demers are out; he could play more than 21 minutes per game again this season.
Reports of Douglas Murray's demise are premature.
There is a reason he started last season on the top pair, and even in a bad season he was productive defensively. Only four NHL players had more blocked shots per game, and he had about twice the hit rate of anyone else on the San Jose Sharks blue line.
The problem was that he missed 22 games. Though it got less attention, the Sharks struggled almost as much when he was out of the lineup as they did with Martin Havlat.
His late start to his career suggests he may have mileage left despite his physical style, making him unlikely to play worse than his banged-up body did last season. He will probably miss games due to injury and occasionally be rested because Jason Demers and Justin Braun are worthy of ice time, but he'll play more than either.
Justin Braun was exposed in his only game during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was plagued with giveaways and missed assignments.
He learned his lesson and has not looked back. While Braun did not generate impressive statistics (11 points, 46 blocks, 66 hits and 16 takeaways in 66 games) in 2011-12, he proved he was almost as reliable to be in the right place at the right time as Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
He should be able to take the next step and make plays when he is there now. This would keep him in the lineup almost every game, and the San Jose Sharks could lean more heavily on his young legs because of the condensed schedule.
Such great things were expected from Jason Demers that former defenceman and current San Jose Sharks studio analyst Bret Hedican changed his name to DeMeers to honour the diamond distributor.
OK, maybe the two are not related. But Demers has put up 45 points in his first 126 NHL games. And while the older but less experienced Justin Braun was exposed in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, an injury to "JD" showed his value: San Jose was trapped in its own end when the third pair was on the ice.
The bad news for Demers is that indications are he will not come back until some unknown point next month. Meanwhile, six other very good defencemen will be developing chemistry and knocking off the rust.
The good news is that JD may not have as much of that having played overseas, where he appeared to regain his offensive prowess. He is certainly the weakest defensive player on the Sharks blue line, but still gets over one hit and one block per game.
Even better, the Sharks like to play seven defencemen, and Demers would seem a good fit for the fourth-line wing. There are likely to be other players injured, giving him a shot at a few extra games. It would be a surprise if he played less than half a season.
Matt Irwin is 25 years old and had never played an NHL game prior to this year. Most players for which that is true are doomed to remain in the minor leagues or find a new profession.
But the San Jose Sharks could not ignore his AHL All-Star play and gave him a shot at training camp this year. Because there are two injuries on the blue line, he has already gotten action.
Unless he does something to jeopardize his status, he is clearly the first call-up option even if he does get sent back down. He could even play himself into more ice time if he can add an offensive dimension to the unit, or if there are continued injuries.
The "Worcester Shuttle" is the term used to describe the players being shuttled back and forth from San Jose to its Massachusetts-based, AHL affiliate.
Last season, the Sharks were eight deep with veteran NHL defencemen and left the shuttle seats for their forwards. In 2010-11, 23 games were played by minor league replacements Derek Joslin (17) and Mike Moore (6).
Aside from the probability that Matt Irwin spends time at both levels, 23-year-old former first-round draft pick Nick Petrecki is in the NHL as an emergency replacement because of two blue-line injuries. Having not played an NHL game thus far, he is almost certain to be sent down once Brent Burns returns.
Matt Tennyson and Matt Pelech were also invited to camp. With good play in the minors, either could easily jump Petrecki or even Irwin should he falter. Pelech has three points in five NHL games but nothing since, while Tennyson seems to be a late bloomer rising fast.
In a longer season, someone else might get noticed and fill in for another injured Shark. There are no shortage of defencemen capable of playing in the NHL in the near future.
But even in a full season, San Jose rarely needs anything beyond a few games outside the top eight. If there is another injury soon, Petrecki is with the team and likely steps in. Once they start returning, the chances of even Tennyson, Pelech or Petrecki taking the ice are remote—at best they are scratched call-ups.