Antti Niemi was on a list of San Jose Sharks with the most to prove before the 2013 season started
Players nearing the end of their contracts or coming back from injury, especially when unproven or aging, always have the most to prove. The 2013 San Jose Sharks have 16 active players less than two years away from their contracts expiring.
Half of them will play their next contract on the wrong side of 30 years old. Seven of the other eight plus two more under contract beyond the 2013-14 season have had uneven productivity thus far in their careers, and one more is coming off an injury that kept him from even skating for months.
This makes sense on a team that must prove it did not have the most wasted talent in this millennium. The Sharks are one of only three teams (Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers) to reach the conference finals three times in the last nine seasons, but the only one not to win it, with just three combined games won.
But listing almost every player is pointless. Some entered the season with much more to prove than others, and some have been added or removed from the list depending on their play thus far.
For instance, goalie Antti Niemi came off a weak year and had essentially two streaks of about 40 games in his career that separated him from a journeyman. But after finding out he was not healthy last season and seeing him almost carry the Sharks in 2013, there is more to confirm faith in him than doubt.
For others, they have less to prove because less is expected of them. Michal Handzus is not providing the secondary scoring the San Jose needs. But he was signed to play defense and is doing so much better than last season.
However, these five Sharks cannot escape the pressure of proving they are worthy of being part of things moving beyond 2014...
The NHL and NHLPA essentially made a special rule to allow teams to dump a contract for two players. Scott Gomez was one of them, making him the obvious choice for a player with something to prove.
Gomez is only 33 and was a very good two-way player just a few years ago.
Great in the faceoff circle and attentive to position responsibilities, he was among the best penalty killers in the NHL. Once he scored more than a point per game in a season, it was no surprise he was able to sign a contract for over $7 million per year.
The San Jose Sharks got him for $700,000, pro-rated for 46 games to under $400,000.
Because he is not even dressed every night, the question for him is whether he can play well enough to be an everyday player for a playoff team. But if the play-maker were able to elevate his play enough to make the third line capable on both ends of the ice, he could be sure to make at least seven figures.
Even before serving a two-game suspension for going from the bench and forcing an altercation, San Jose Sharks forward Ryane Clowe was in the spotlight. He turns 30 this March and is in the last year of a contract with a cap hit of $3,625,000.
Last season, Clowe was a disappointment with just 17 goals and 28 assists. With more than twice as many giveaways as either takeaways or assists this season, finishing with almost six points per 10 games again would be an require more than 20 points over his final 30 games.
Because he is a physical player capable of sticking up for teammates, pushing 30 points in the shortened season could get him a pay raise even in the buyer's market coming this summer. If he continues to struggle, he might as well stay with the Sharks for the small, one-year contract he will be limited to.
Jason Demers has had trouble staying in the lineup for the San Jose Sharks, even though the blue-liner is less than two years removed from scoring 45 points in his first 126 NHL games. His cap hit is $1.25 million and he will be a restricted free agent next season.
He had better prove he needs to be on the ice every game, or he will be one of the many players getting the veteran minimum as teams scramble to get beneath the salary cap this summer. If he cannot be regularly dressed this season, there is a chance the Sharks will not even want him back next season.
Martin Havlat is an offensively skilled player with great skating ability but a reputation for being soft. He is injury-prone even though he avoids physical areas of the game (six hits, 14 blocks and 19 takeaways over 39 games for the 2011-12 San Jose Sharks) and does not always look motivated.
Havlat is signed through 2014-15 at a cap hit of $5 million per year. At 31, he should have plenty of good hockey left. But with just five points in 17 games, he is easily be the most overpaid player on the team.
Havlat has stayed healthy this season, but his premature celebration Feb. 2 (rather than putting home the puck) marked the beginning of the current San Jose slide. His production is not good enough for a player unwilling to get dirty.
If he does not start earning time on the second line, he could be bought out this summer.
T.J. Galiardi is the last hope for the San Jose Sharks to keep the trade at last year's deadline from being a disaster. They sent Jamie McGinn (24 points in 34 games since the trade) and prospect Michael Sgarbossa for Galiardi and Daniel Winnik, moving down in the draft in the process.
It lent no short-term benefits, as the Sharks continued to struggle in the remaining two months including a franchise record for the quickest playoff exit ever. Reaping long-term benefits was not the original goal, but Winnik is playing very well this season...for the Pacific Division rival Anaheim Ducks.
That leaves Galiardi to out-perform McGinn and Sgarbossa and balance the ledger. Since he was shipped off partially because he was in Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco's doghouse, he also has to show that he can get along with his coach and that his one-plus good year was not a fluke.
So far, he has been scratched six times in 17 San Jose games and has just two assists, four blocks and four takeaways to support his 11 hits.