The San Jose Sharks field a starting-six as good as any in the NHL
After making minor moves to bolster forwards in the system, the San Jose Sharks are likely done in free agency. They will have to officially start the season with a reserve taking the place of Tomas Hertl to fit under the salary cap until Martin Havlat can be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).
That will leave them less than $400,000 in room. At best, they can replace the reserve on the San Jose roster with a better one worth close to $1 million in 2013-14.
Such a player would frankly have a hard time cracking the starting roster: San Jose will already have to scratch someone on the blue line making at least that, while the last three forwards dressed are all younger players still developing that are also more familiar with coaches and teammates.
The chances of the Sharks adding another forward better after Havlat's cap space is freed up by LTIR are slim. More than likely, that will have to come in a trade later in the season.
That makes it appropriate to break down every position right now.
Because the Sharks are strong down the middle, a strict look by position would not be as telling when they will play centers on the wing. Thus, this breaks down positions into eight non-traditional categories...
Scoring line centers not only can take faceoffs, but score over a point per two games. They are critical on the power play and provide skill.
Logan Couture has asserted himself as perhaps the best player on the San Jose Sharks. At just 24, he is already capable of being their top center and he will only get better.
He may pass Joe Thornton, but not unless the current captain falls back from the elite player he was in 2013. He will be 34, but a drop-off is more likely to be minimal and thus result in less ice time rather than a line demotion. His superior faceoff skill and the best talent distribution could still result in him getting more minutes than Couture.
Either way, the Sharks have two genuine top-line centers. Their presence pushes other scoring-line centers to other roles: Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are quite capable second-line centers projected to the first-line left wing and third-line pivot, respectively.
That means they can absorb an injury to one of the top two centers and one other and still field NHL-caliber talent down the middle...that rates four pucks out of four (°°°°).
Other scoring-line wingers include any other forwards capable of filling a role on the top two lines but not able to play center.
Because the San Jose Sharks are so deep at center that those players skate on the wing, they do not need to be as deep on the outside. Nevertheless, they were so thin at the top of the position that they had to borrow not only a center but a defenseman for a scoring-line role in 2013, and look to be thinner this season with the injury to Martin Havlat.
Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau are both good enough to play on the first line. Tyler Kennedy is good enough for that line in a pinch. If they had an injury on the wing, Joe Pavelski could be promoted from the third line.
Even with that reserve talent, the Sharks will have to rely on 19-year-old rookie Tomas Hertl to play a scoring-line role on the wing. He has never even played a North American-style game or any on the smaller surface of the NHL.
Without making a trade, the Sharks can absorb one injury on a scoring line at best. It can come at center or on the wing, but players like Tommy Wingels and Raffi Torres are not really good enough to play for long in those roles if there is more than one injury...°°.
Depth centers lack the scoring ability to be effective for more than a few games on one of the top two lines, but they can handle the pivot long-term on a checking line.
Even if Joe Pavelski was not playing the middle on the third line, the San Jose Sharks would have plenty of centers for their checking lines.
In addition to Andrew Desjardins and James Sheppard, Tommy Wingels, Bracken Kearns and John McCarthy were centers in the AHL. Natural wingers Adam Burish and Raffi Torres played the pivot on occasion for the Sharks in 2013.
However, none of those players is good enough to anchor the third line. Torres and Wingels are more effective on the wing, and it is unrealistic to expect Kearns to step in at center at a level in which he has only played six regular season games. McCarthy has 51 games at forward but has not seen the NHL since Feb. 16, 2012.
Thus, the Sharks can absorb any number of injuries to the center position so long as none of the top four centers (Pavelski and the three on the scoring lines) go down...°°°
Depth wingers may be capable of taking faceoffs or filling in on a scoring line briefly, but their regular role can be no better than a third- or fourth-line wing. This would include reserves.
Because natural or potential centers play the wing for the San Jose Sharks, they are solid in depth on the wing.
One-time 20-goal scorer Raffi Torres gives them a legitimate fill-in for a scoring line. Put him with scoring line-calibre Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels, whose solid two-way game did earn him time on San Jose's second line last season, and they are a potent third line on both sides of the ice.
Adam Burish has the versatility, experience and grit to play on a third line, but will be the veteran of the fourth. James Sheppard could regain the pre-accident form that made him the ninth pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Andrew Desjardins is a good penalty killer that can win faceoffs, skate pretty well and throw his body around.
Behind them there is a notable drop. Matt Pelech, Bracken Kearns and John McCarthy have been able reserves, but they are unlikely to bring anything to the fourth line.
That means the Sharks can absorb up to three injuries at forward without playing guys incapable of making it happen, but every one will hurt their fourth line...°°°
Overall, the Sharks have great top-end talent and good role-players, but are a little scant in between. They only have the talent to get by with one injured top-tier forward, but there is no one player they cannot do without. More than two injuries to any forward would also spell trouble...°°°
Scoring defensemen are so critical on the power play. They are more valuable to the San Jose Sharks because of the reliance on the man-advantage for scoring.
They only have two scoring threats on the blue line: Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin. The team will get a little scoring from the other six defensemen, but none of them will make it much past 20 points. Irwin and Boyle will combine for more than the rest of the unit.
Boyle is still an exceptional No. 1 defenseman. He can still handle heavy minutes and earns them by playing well in all three zones. The top-scoring defenseman in the NHL over the past five seasons, his skating helps the Sharks advance the puck out of his zone and he consistently finishes in the top-50 in blocked shots.
Irwin has an uncanny ability to get the puck to the net. Or maybe it just seems uncanny because no one but he and Boyle can do it. Either way, he struggles to keep his feet when changing directions, and that makes him a defensive liability.
Nevertheless, the Sharks are okay at this position because of their one two-way defenseman was hurt, they could move Brent Burns there from the forward position. In that event, they still have good lines so long as there were no other injuries up front.
If Irwin was hurt, they would at least have Burns on the power play. They would also improve defensively unless he was replaced by Jason Demers or perhaps Matt Tennyson. Both of those players have the potential to step up into a true scoring defenseman role, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart have done it before.
That means the blue line could absorb any one injury and another to a depth defensive player, but the loss of Boyle would hurt the team's forwards and they lack offensive depth...°°
Minute-munchers are other players on the top two pairs of the blue line—they usually offer a little offensive ability but eat minutes because they are defensively sound. The San Jose Sharks have incredible depth of other defensemen capable of handling a role on one of the top-two pairs.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart have both scored over 30 points in a season and can be counted on for about one per four or five games. That really gives them two No. 2 defensemen, so the fact that both lean toward defending now only makes them ideal pairings with (or contrast to) Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin.
It also means they can absorb an injury to either of them without the first pair suffering. They will also probably have a third pair anchored by Justin Braun, who was impressive enough to get more minutes than Stuart in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Few teams can absorb more than one injury to a top defensive blue-liner...°°°°
The rest of the blue line, from the third pair to the AHL. The San Jose Sharks might be deepest is in this position. In addition to probably having top-four material on the third pair in Justin Braun, they have a plethora of solid NHL talent to pair with him.
Jason Demers is being paid the fourth-most on the team even though he signed the contract as a restricted free agent. That says the Sharks see potential for him to play an everyday role, perhaps even seeing power play time.
They also signed veteran Scott Hannan to a one-year, $1 million deal. That means they are not convinced Matt Tennyson is ready for the kind of regular role expected out of a seventh defenseman.
Both Demers and Hannan are capable of playing the sixth spot on the chart. Whichever one is scratched on a given night (and the sharks might play seven on the blue line because of their ability) is worthy of being played.
If two players are out, Tennyson will be able to handle a stint or two in the lineup even if he is not ready for a bigger role. That means even if the Sharks lost two players from the blue line and could not use Brent Burns, they would be putting NHL-calibre defensemen on the ice...°°°°
Overall, this gives San Jose's blue line the ability to handle one injury to a scoring defenseman and one to any other without it becoming a serious liability, but their lack of scoring keeps them from being elite...°°°
Goalies have to be analyzed for not just the starter but the backup and any reserves. The San Jose Sharks have an elite starting goalie. Antti Niemi is the only goaltender under 30 to have won a Stanley Cup and been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
He can handle heavy workloads for stretches, too. He played some of his best hockey while playing 36 of 37 games down the stretch in 2011. His 2013 Vezina-finalist season saw him play 54 of 59 games, including the playoffs.
However, he has technically never held the role for an entire season.
When coming closest in 2011-12 by joining the team three games into the season and playing 68 games, he had the second-worst save percentage (.915) and worst goals-against average (2.42) of his career as a starter. When he had that stretch in 2011, he followed it with the two worst playoff series of his career in three rounds of action.
Unfortunately, San Jose's backups are a wild card at best. One will probably be just good enough, with the other being a more-than-adequate third choice.
Alex Stalock has played three times in relief for Niemi, saved less than 90 percent of shots faced but earned three points for his team because he has allowed just two goals in just over 72 minutes between the pipes. Since a nerve injury to his leg, he has only clawed back to even being the top guy in the AHL.
The good news is that if he is not up to the task, there is still the possibility Harri Sateri will be. Right now, he looks like an AHL starter at best, but he has been the team's emergency backup on a couple occasions and might be ready to raise his game.
The Sharks only have 10 back-to-back games. It would be best if Niemi could take only one of those two nights off and no others until the team's playoff position is determined. He could end up tired more quickly playing for Team Finland, or splitting time in net could give him a breather.
It is reasonable to count on him to play as much as needed and still come up with numbers better than he had in 2011-12. But it is unlikely he will repeat his 2013 performance with a full season of heavy work, and someone ought to be able to get go over .500 vs. generally weaker competition behind him...°°°
This gives the team three pucks at goalie, three overall on the blue line and three overall at forward...°°°