If Doug Wilson and whomever he hires to take over the team really believe in this roster, they should focus on re-signing the free agents they have. If not, he will need to free up some cap space to bring in others.
(After much consideration, I have decided that, based on the limited information available to me, my first choice for said coach would be Pat Burns. My only other choice is Bob Hartley—anyone else being chosen will have me questioning the decision.)
However, my assessment of the roster indicates it needs more change than just behind the bench. It needs more than letting a few free agents go. So what would I change if it were entirely up to me?
One of the surest ways to change the face of a team is to trade some of the highest-priced players, but you don't want to start from scratch. You have to look for key guys with large contracts to move. This is risky because they need to be people with trade value—i.e. established veterans and prized young players with a lot of potential.
That points to two guys in particular: Patrick Marleau and Matt Carle.
Marleau has been minus-26 in the last 101 games the Sharks have played, and scored only 56 points in that span. His leadership can definitely be questioned: he has disappeared in the second round the last two years (12 GP, 2G, 0A, -7), just as the team he captains. Nothing shakes a team that is complacent like trading its captain.
An anecdotal example of his lack of leadership occurred in Game 1 against Dallas, when he jumped over a power-play shot from the point by Mike Modano. This screened Evgeni Nabokov in a way that would have made Tomas Holmstrom proud. (Incidentally, the Sharks might try to start employing that on their power plays.) However, Holmstrom would only do this to the opposing goaltender; on the penalty kill, you are supposed to block shots.
Right now, he still has trade value, and his salary of over $6 million per year could really be used to sign someone else. If he is not traded by July, his no-trade clause kicks in and the team is stuck with his contract.
Matt Carle recently signed a four-year, $13.75 million contract because he looked like the kind of puck-moving defenseman who would flourish under the post-lockout rules of the league. However, he scored just two goals and 13 points in 62 games this season, and has been unreliable on the defensive end.
If the goal is to win now, there are better players on the blue line for almost $3.5 million annually. And because he is young and does seem ideally suited to the direction the league is going, he might be a desirable enough commodity to get some return on the open market.
Most other guys do not have enough trade value and would not free up enough cap space to bother moving. Perhaps the team could consider moving Kyle McLaren, who may have nominal value, for another blue-liner less likely to be hurt. However, the player gotten in return for him must be another fifth or sixth defenseman.
Moving both Patty and Matty could free up about $10 million per year. With that amount of money off the payroll, Wilson should be able to re-sign Campbell and acquire a playoff-tested leader on the blue line, like Philadelphia's Jason Smith.
That would make signing Campbell worthwhile, because it would make the Sharks' blue line third in the league, behind only Anaheim and Detroit. There also would still be enough talent among the forwards to match up against almost any team in the West.
Wilson has shown the capacity to cut players loose and not throw good money after bad before. He saw in 2007 that the trade for Bill Guerin was a mistake, and rather than re-sign him to cover for the loss of the first-round pick given up to get him, he let him go. He saw that the 2006 acquisition of Mark Bell was a mistake and traded him with Vesa Toskala for a first-round pick.
However, if he was not confident (right or wrong) in his assessment of the crucial role he expects both Marleau and Carle to play in the Sharks' future, they would not have gotten long-term deals. It thus is likely he will focus any changes entirely on those he does not have under contract for 2008-09.
Nonetheless, if I were sitting in Wilson's chair, I would make these moves, even if Smith and Campbell cost more than the $10 million shipping out Marleau and Carle would save. After all, the team turned a profit for the first time; why not spend some of it to reward the fans who made it possible?
In the end, it can never be assumed you will be able to sign the guys you pursue, but the Sharks are in the catbird's seat because they are so close to the Holy Grail of Hockey. Free agents would get to live in a nice fan market with favourable weather. Players here already talk about what a great organization it is to be a part of, and that goes a long way in recruiting.
Coupled with the free agency suggestions I discussed in yesterday's article and other assumptions about players’ futures with the team, I believe the following lines/pairs would be in place for the 2008-09 season:
(Left wing-Center-Right wing/Defenseman-Defenseman)
Goaltenders: Evgeni Nabokov and Curtis Joseph, with Thomas Greiss for emergencies.
That would be a formidable roster. All of them spent time playing on the Sharks’ special teams, aside from Smith, who would become the team’s best penalty-killing defenseman, and Jody Shelley. I would also feel good about having Marcel Goc and Tomas Plihal as solid back-up forwards.
This would leave the team with only one NHL blue-liner in reserve, Jeff Norton. Therefore, if I could not get production out of minor leaguers or recent draft picks like Ty Wishart I would make signing another free agent defenseman a priority—one cheaper than Ehrhoff and better than Alexei Semenov or Sandis Ozolinsh.