Antti Niemi will also be the most valuable San Jose Shark in 2013-14
When examining potential forward lines for the 2013-14 San Jose Sharks, I noticed there was a notable drop-off in talent from previous seasons. No line and few players are exceptionally fast, physical or skilled.
That is not a problem on the back end. The Sharks finished the 2013 season second in blocked shots and sixth in goals against average. They are deep, have top-level talent and a good mix of experience and youth.
This is not to say this unit is elite. They lack too much offensive punch to be called that.
They also only have one elite player, with Brent Burns the only other difference-maker available as a fill-in if he is moved back to the blue line. But from the following projected pairings, one can see why they might be considered elite by many.
The only reason Antti Niemi finished just third in voting for the Vezina Trophy is because too many American GMs stop watching hockey in time for the 11:00 news. Buy then, most Pacific Time Zone games are barely underway.
(Fear the Fin did an excellent break-down of the focus on Eastern Time Zone, Original Six and Canadian teams in the Vezina voting before the results revealed the bias is now 30-for-30. I outlined why he should have won the award for Examiner.)
Nemo played in 43 of 48 games and was the single biggest reason the San Jose Sharks made the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. He started 24 games in a row at one point, led the NHL in ice time in net and faced the third-most shots of any netminder.
Look for San Jose to rely on him for more than 70 games even though Martin Brodeur is the only goalie to play in 83-plus percent of regular season games and still win a Stanley Cup in the Expansion Era. All Niemi's backup support combined have earned under 60 minutes of NHL ice time.
All of that time belongs to Alex Stalock. He is slightly more ready, having played a little better at the AHL level and not looking overwhelmed in two of his three NHL appearances.
Harri Sateri will need a little more playing time to catch up to Stalock, but neither is going to really have the confidence of the coaching staff. Then again, San Jose is not hosed if they have to dress their third guy, either.
The Sharks are sorely lacking at the backup position, but, by leaning on Nemo a little more, they will still be better than their opponents in net about 80 percent of the time. If one-fifth of the NHL got each of the five grades, this tandem gets an A-.
In the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, the San Jose Sharks had some strange defensive pairings. The two slowest, most physical players on the blue line were paired together, as were the only two players that were dangerous offensively.
It could be that coach Todd McLellan wanted to rely on one pair for defending and another for attacking. But the Sharks had trouble getting the puck out of their end with the defensive pair and lacked a scoring threat, unless the offensive pair was out there.
Much like he learned with the forward lines, McLellan will see the need to balance his blue line talents. Eventually, he will see that Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle are a perfect pair.
The left-handed Stuart is an average skater paired with one of the world's best. Boyle is an exceptional scorer that likes to add his right-handed bomb to the rush, and can trust that the team's best shot-blocker and world's best goalie have his back.
Matt Irwin has a knack for getting pucks to (or at least in front of) the net. The San Jose Sharks lack that skill on the blue line, and will rely on him and Dan Boyle by splitting them up.
Unfortunately, Irwin is inexperienced and not the best skater. Fortunately, he can be paired with Marc-Edouard Vlasic to make a talented, balanced pair.
Pickles is young (26 years old) but has over 500 games of regular season NHL experience. He is the unit's second-best skater and is almost never out of position. Like the first pair, neither player is a real liability on the end of the ice they do not make their living.
This pair could defend in its own end, get the puck out of the zone and provide potential once the team can set up. That would make them among the best second pairs in the NHL.
Justin Braun has matured enough to anchor this relatively inexperienced pair. He can skate and advance the puck, but has turned his focus to defending over scoring and became very solid in his own end.
The player he is paired with will vary. But the most likely option is Jason Demers.
For one thing, the team showed which was thought to be better when it gave the larger contract to the restricted free agent (RFA). It makes even less sense to scratch the higher-paid player when JD needs more playing time than Scott Hannan because he is still developing.
Demers is not reliable in his own end, but he is not worthless, either. He has not shown much offensive skill since his rookie NHL season, but he has it. He was playing well in Europe in 2012-13 before getting hurt, then was buried on San Jose's depth chart until Douglas Murray was traded.
Having him out there with Braun gives the team a defensive and offensive presence, plus two players to advance the puck.
Scott Hannan was clearly a better option for the San Jose Sharks in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs than Jason Demers. That could very well be the case in 2013-14, earning him playing time over the higher-paid youngster, even though an offensive threat is needed more than a defensive presence.
In any event, he will get some playing time. He was very solid and blocked shots well, and his experience will make him a secure choice on any given night.
Should the Sharks face a long-term injury, they may decide to call-up Matt Tennyson for his much-needed offensive skill. He is also in need of development and has a tough cap figure for sitting in the press box, but could start for many NHL teams.
This means San Jose has two reserves more than capable of stepping in. In the rare event of a need to go beyond the eighth player on the blue line, either Nick Petrecki, Rob Davison, Sena Acolatse or Taylor Doherty should be able to fill in without being a disaster.
This unit is led by one of the top dozen or so defensemen in Dan Boyle. He is not just the top scorer from the blue line over the last five years in the NHL, but has been top 50 in blocked shots for two years in a row. If he goes down, a genuine No. 1 candidate in Brent Burns can step in.
He is an elite defenseman backed up by two to three (if Burns moves back) great ones, two good ones and three more who are capable. Even behind there is adequate emergency talent.
Maybe the unit cannot be called elite, but that makes it the best of the rest.