The San Jose Sharks have once again been at, or near the top, of the NHL standings all season long. However, recent showings against the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings display kinks in the San Jose armor.
While the Team Canada line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley can carry the load offensively, and the rest of the forward lines are performing well in supporting roles, the defense could still be upgraded.
San Jose recently acquired career long Carolina Hurricane defenseman Niclas Wallin along with a fifth-round draft choice from Carolina for a second-round choice originally received from Buffalo.
Wallin is a solid pickup for the Sharks to play alongside Kent Huskins on the third defensive pair. However, the top-four defense for San Jose could still use some work.
When healthy, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are as good of a top pair as there is in the NHL, but the duo of Rob Blake and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has left much to be desired this season.
If the Sharks want to make sure there aren't any excuses from this year's playoff run, then picking up a top-four, puck-moving defenseman by the trade deadline would see to that happening.
There would be no excuses for this team not to make at least a deep playoff run (six-to-seven games in the conference finals) because they would have a complete team.
But in order to get a top-flight defenseman like, say, a Tomas Kaberle or a Tobias Enstrom, what will they have to give up?
Here are the top five Sharks most likely to be on the chopping block to swing that type of deal.
First off, I will start out by saying that in my viewpoint, Ryane Clowe is one of the most valuable players to any hockey team. Clowe is a quintessential power-forward, a dying breed in today's NHL.
He may not score 44 goals, but he reminds Sharks fans of a left-handed version of Owen Nolan. And hey, Nolan only scored 44 one time.
Clowe can score anywhere from 20-30 goals and tally anywhere from 50-70 points, while dropping the gloves when need-be and being a dominating physical presence.
At 6'2", 225 pounds, Clowe is a force along the boards and has a nasty shot for a big body like his.
I, for one, hope the Sharks keep onto him and he never leaves San Jose, but his rather expensive contract that pays him 3.5 million per year could be moved to make room for that puck-moving defenseman.
With players like Manny Malhotra and Jamie McGinn able to jump up and play left wing, Clowe could be expendable given the right return in a trade.
Devin Setoguchi is quite an enigma. The Sharks right wing is in his second full season and continues to be quite the streaky scorer, similar to how Patrick Marleau was streaky to begin his career.
In his first stint with the Sharks back in 2007-08, Setoguchi started out on fire with two huge goals in his first career game against the Dallas Stars. Setoguchi tallied six more points in his next eight games, giving him eight in his first nine.
But in the following nine games, Setoguchi failed to register a single point. In fact, after his quick start, the rookie right wing managed just nine points in the final 35 games he played for San Jose.
Fortunately, Setoguchi broke out last season playing on the top line alongside Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.
In his first full season, Setoguchi notched 31 goals and 65 points, and many thought he would build upon those numbers this season playing with Thornton and Dany Heatley.
However, towards the end of last season, Setoguchi had returned to his hot and cold streaks. From Feb. 5 to Mar. 19 of last year, Setoguchi went without a goal in 12 straight games before scoring in four straight, including a two-goal game against the Blackhawks.
But after that four-game stretch, Setoguchi scored just one goal in the final eight games of the regular season.
And unfortunately, that same streakiness has plagued him this season. In his second full season Setoguchi has managed just 14 goals and 25 points through 47 games.
At that pace, Setoguchi would only finish an 82 game season with 44 points, more than 20 fewer than his '08-'09 marks.
While Setoguchi's skill set and youth on that second scoring line could become a staple for the Sharks in the coming years, it wouldn't be surprising to see the former first-round draft choice shipped out at the deadline.
Unlike fellow winger and the aforementioned Ryane Clowe, Setoguchi doesn't bring much to the table when he isn't finding the back of the net. When the Alberta native is scoring, he is moving his feet, back checking, and being physical. But when he isn't scoring, these other parts of his game seem to be absent as well.
If GM Doug Wilson were to ship out either winger, bets are it would be Setoguchi who simply hasn't been scoring enough this season.
Logan Couture may have only 12 career NHL games under his belt (all coming this season), but this has truly been his breakout year.
The former No. 9-overall pick from the 2007 NHL Entry Draft has been absolutely tearing it up in the AHL this season. In his first year in the AHL, Couture has racked up 45 points in just 33 games, good enough for the 16th highest point total in the league.
However, those numbers look even better when you consider his points per game average of 1.336 is higher than that of all but two of the players ahead of him in total points.
Without a doubt, Couture is a top-five AHL player in his rookie season for the Worcester Sharks.
But while many fans hope Doug Wilson holds onto Couture because of his potential, there is a strong argument to be made for using him as a trade chip.
Couture is clearly a play-making center, and his style doesn't fit that of a third/fourth line center.
And the Sharks are pretty much set at the scoring center positions with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.
Furthermore, Couture has two inches on Pavelski but comes in at the same weight of 195 pounds. If Couture wants to play consistently as a bottom-six center, he needs to put on some bulk before he can play in that role for an NHL club long term.
But at some point or another, the best place for Couture to play his a scoring-line center, and the Sharks have talent in those spots that isn't going to be gone any time soon.
Couture's potential is a perfect way to trade for a proven defenseman without having to give up a current everyday NHL player.
Fourth-year defenseman, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, was supposed to improve his game at both ends of the ice this season. Bouncing back from a sophomore slump two seasons ago with an impressive campaign last year meant big expectations for this season.
With an offseason trade shipping out play-making defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, and the veteran stay at home defenseman, Brad Lukowich, big things were expected from "Pickles."
But while Vlasic's defense has proved steady as it always has, Vlasic's inability to jump up in the play and create offensive chances has been a major concern.
With an older Rob Blake, and without Ehrhoff, Vlasic should be the second-best scoring option from the point behind Dan Boyle. In fact, Vlasic is just as fast if not faster than Boyle.
He has all the tools for a 40-50-point season, but instead of increasing his 36 point total from year three, Vlasic was on pace for just a 20-point year before his recent injury.
This down year for Vlasic offensively could be ignored due to his defensive abilities, but if the Sharks could upgrade his spot in the lineup with a better all around player, it would definitely improve their chances.
Sounds crazy right? The Sharks may have named the 39-year-old defenseman captain this offseason but so far during the season Rob Blake hasn't lived up to his 3.5 million dollar contract.
Prior to his current stretch of eight points in his last 10 games, Blake had tallied just 11 points in 38 games, a pace that would put him at just 21 points if he were to play in the 73 games he managed last season.
But last year Blake tallied 45 points in 73 games. Even with the offensive burst in his last 10 games, Blake is still only on pace for 29 points in 73 games.
Combine this lack of offensive contributions to 39-year-old legs that simply cannot keep up with the talented forwards who are almost 20 years younger, and Blake's value is limited on the ice.
He may be a great vocal leader and presence in the locker room but he isn't the coach of this team, he is paid to be a top-4 defenseman, something he simply isn't able to be at this point in his career.
Too often this season have we seen Blake take ridiculous interference and holding penalties in odd situations.
Being the captain shouldn't decrease the likelihood of Blake's departure as we have already seen the Washington Capitals trade their veteran captain Chris Clark earlier this season in favor of the younger Alexander Ovechkin.
Trading Blake and perhaps Couture or a draft pick, to get a better and younger defense partner for Vlasic could be the best route to take for San Jose.