Winning without Patrick Marleau: Was Game One a Preview of Next Year's Sharks?
Thanks in large part to the continued impressive play from center Joe Pavelski, the San Jose Sharks took the victory in the opening game of their Western Conference Semifinal series with the Detroit Red Wings.
With the win, the Sharks won their first series opener since beating the Red Wings in Detroit during the 2007 Western Semifinals, and they are now positioned to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
But despite winning Game One by a 4-3 final, arguably the most intriguing storyline was the fact Sharks' star forward Patrick Marleau was not in the lineup.
Reports prior to puck drop ranged from an undisclosed injury to flu-like symptoms, and it appears that the latter of the two was accurate.
Marleau, the Sharks' leading scorer with 44 goals in the regular season, was held out of the lineup with flu-like symptoms, but he should be all systems go for Sunday's Game Two.
However, the fact that the Sharks, without their star forward, came away with a Game One victory against the model NHL franchise makes one wonder if Marleau will be retained next season.
I mean, if the Sharks can beat the Red Wings without him, is he still that critical to their success?
It's not a knock on Marleau's abilities, but perhaps it may be time for the Sharks to move on without him next season. After all, the former captain is in the last year of his contract.
Furthermore, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Rob Blake join Marleau as the marquee soon-to-be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season.
But that's not all; key contributors like Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol, and Jed Ortmeyer will also be unrestricted.
And that's not even including the aforementioned Pavelski, who, along with Devin Setgouchi, are going to be restricted free agents.
Quite simply, Marleau may be the odd man out, especially if he is seeking another multi-year deal paying him over $5 million per season.
Now we won't know until the offseason how much money each of the free agents are asking for, and a large part of that is due to the fact there is still plenty of playoff hockey left to be played.
However, looking at the situation as it stands, Marleau appears to be one of the least vital free agents to re-sign.
He hasn't had a strong playoff up to date, and most of the remaining free agents to be have stepped up their game.
Pavelski and Setoguchi are obviously going to be re-signed, and both Malhotra and Nichol have done more than enough to be brought back for more money.
Plus, with the play of Nabokov in net during the playoffs thus far, one would expect that he has earned another multi-year deal at $5 million or more per season.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, when it comes down to it, they may have to decide between Nabokov and Marleau.
Almost assuredly, one or the other will be in a different uniform next season.
Under the NHL salary cap, it would be extremely difficult to re-sign both of them while having to give raises to Pavelski and Setoguchi.
Even with Blake's $3.5 million probably coming off the books, getting both Marleau and Nabokov re-signed would be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, unless everyone involved decides to take a hometown discount.
So who should the Sharks choose? Marleau or Nabokov?
To be honest, I started writing this piece with the mindset that Marleau should definitely return next season because of the all-around game he brings to the ice.
But as I have moved along in my writing, I have had to pause for a moment.
As much as I have been critical over Nabokov's tendencies to allow weak goals and flop in big games, he is currently playing the best postseason hockey of his career.
While I believed he had played too many games during the season (including the Olympics, where he struggled), he is showing no signs of slowing down.
Considering that the Sharks didn't have enough faith in backup Thomas Greiss to start him more than 11 games this season, it is clear that without Nabokov, the goaltending in San Jose would become a huge question mark.
While Greiss played well in limited action, we just don't know his true potential. But what we have seen is Nabokov playing phenomenal hockey in six of seven playoff games.
If he continues to perform this way, it may not even matter how well Marleau plays the rest of the playoffs.
Nabokov will and should be the one re-signed if he continues to perform at an elite level throughout the remainder of the playoffs.
Marleau will then be left as the odd one out despite being four years younger than the Sharks' netminder.
Nabokov, who is going to be 35 next year, has a good two years left in him when you consider recent goalies who have played deep into their thirties. Martin Brodeur and Dwayne Roloson come to mind as netminders who played Stanley Cup quality goaltending at ages 35 and 36.
Case in point, a two-year deal for Nabokov would make much more sense for the Sharks than re-signing Marleau long-term, assuming the Russian netminder continues his strong playoff performance the rest of the way.
So while Marleau will return to action for Sunday's Game Two against the Red Wings, Sharks fans should remember how the team looked in Game One, because Marleau probably won't be around next season.
Barring an unexpected drop off in Nabokov's play (he appears to be in an almost unbreakable zone right now), it will be Marleau who finds himself in a new city for 2011.
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