Defense Wins Championships: San Jose Sharks Should Look To the Blue Line

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Defense Wins Championships: San Jose Sharks Should Look To the Blue Line

NHL hockey is a game generally played every other day. Apparently, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson is carrying that rhythm into the 2010 off-season.

The Sharks entered the off-season with a handful of high profile free agents, knowing they would need to make some tough decisions. On Tuesday, the team announced they were parting ways with Evgeni Nabokov . The announcement was not a surprise to many, but the timing was curious to some. Why not wait until the free agency period began to make such a decision?

That curiosity was resolved on Thursday, when Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski were each signed to four-year deals. Wilson had made his decision to part with Nabokov early enough to give him the time to re-sign the other two highest-profile free agents on the 2009-2010 team before any other team could begin to negotiate with them.

The return of Marleau and Pavelski is an interesting indicator. Both could have garnered better money in free agency, but decided to return to San Jose because they believe in the direction of the team and in their chances of winning a title in teal.

Flash forward to Saturday, and news broke that Scott Nichol and Niclas Wallin opted to forego free agency in favor of a return to Silicon Valley. Nichol's return secures one of the top face-off men in the NHL for another season, while Wallin brings valuable veteran and Stanley Cup experience to the blue line.

This recent activity has answered a lot of questions as to what Team Teal will look like in 2010-2011, as well as tied up significant money which could have been used to pursue other improvements. But some questions still remain.

Valuable forwards Manny Malhotra, Jed Ortmeyer, and Devin Setoguchi remain unsigned. The retirement of Rob Blake relieves the Sharks of a large veteran salary, while leaving a hole on the blue line. And the end of the Nabokov Era calls into question the team's future in goal.

Given the demographics of this year's free agent pool, many fans predict that the Sharks will target a proven veteran goaltender to replace Nabokov. Marty Turco and Chris Mason have been favorite suggestions. However, given Doug Wilson's recent comments about the trends of goaltending in the NHL, it seems unlikely that the Sharks would turn right around—after parting with Nabokov—and reinvest several million dollars in net.

Wilson may have a point. Of the last five Stanley Cup winners, their starting goaltenders had an average salary of just under two million dollars. Three of those five winners earned less than one million the year that they won the Cup. Goaltenders like Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, and Michael Leighton have made some noise in the playoffs in recent years while pulling in minimal pay. By comparison, Nabokov probably would have commanded much more than six million dollars next season.

Furthermore, the Sharks will have their 2009-2010 backup Thomas Griess and AHL standout Alex Stalock in camp this fall. Both have shown enough potential to warrant a serious look. Particularly for the 25-year-old Griess, that look should come sooner rather than later. This would mean any veteran goaltender that the Sharks bring in would need to be willing to split significant time.

Either Turco or Mason would probably command salaries in the millions of dollars, and being in their mid-30s, would probably want to start the majority of the Sharks' games in 2010-2011. There are, however, other options.

Patrick Lalime, Antero Niittymaki, Alex Auld, or Ray Emery could all seemingly be had for less than 1.5 million dollars a year. While none of them have stellar career stats, all have a career save percentage over .900, and with a strong surrounding cast, that could be good enough.

So with forwards like Patty, Pavs, "Jumbo" Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe, Scott Nichol, and Logan Couture still under contract, and if the Sharks follow Doug Wilson's professed path with a cheaper option in goal, where should they fill out the rest of their cap space?

The blue line, of course. Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, and now Niclas Wallin will be back, but beyond that, things are foggy. Rob Blake has retired and while Jason Demers seems to have the potential to become an NHL mainstay, that remains to be seen.

There are few true stars available on the blue line as free agency looms, but there are certainly some people that the Sharks should consider, some of whom could be absolute steals.

Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, Kim Johnsson, and Andreas Lilja, would be the premier options. All would command significant money, but they are all proven shot-blockers and fundamentally-sound defenders also capable of 20-30 points per season, and usually solid in the plus/minus department. Sergei Gonchar could be available, but his age (36) would make him an expensive short-term solution. The rights to Dan Hamuis have been swapped twice this off-season, but he remains unsigned, meaning the Sharks could still make a play for him.

Some other intriguing options exist in the forms of Niklas Hjarlmarsson, Anton Stralman, and Brett Lebda. None commanded more than one million dollars last year, but all had terrific stats, contributing offensively and finishing with a high plus/minus. They are also young and could potentially be signed to longer-term deals for a lower monetary investment (Brett Lebda is oldest at 28).

Investing in defense makes more sense than investing in net. There are many reasons for that. First off, trends have shown that average goaltenders can become great with a strong defense in front of them. If a team can consistently limit the opposition to under 30 shots, a goaltender with a mere .900 save percentage will get you more wins than not with just three goals of support. Limit a team to less than 20 shots, and you can win with just two goals a game.

The last five Stanley Cup winning teams have not had goaltenders with eye-popping numbers, with an average save percentage of just .908 in the regular season. But each team was strong defensively, giving up just 28.1 shots per game, allowing their goaltenders to keep them in contention. Then in the playoffs, both numbers improved, as the save percentage rose to a .918 average, while facing an average of 27.2 shots per game.

Furthermore, acquiring a defenseman improves the team up and down the line-up with the way it alters the defensive pairings. If you acquire a defenseman to join your top pairing, the former holder of that spot is displaced to the second pair, and a second pair defenseman moves down to the third, improving the quality of all three pairings. The same holds true for forwards, but not so much in net, as the goaltender position is fairly isolated from the rest of the play.

Finally, good defensemen can also fuel the offense, whether directly by way of setting up or scoring goals, or indirectly by controlling play in the neutral and defensive zones and maximizing time of possession and spurring transitions. A great puck-handling goaltender can sometimes contribute offensively, but this is rare, and has been further limited since the lockout thanks to the dreaded “trapezoid” rule.

If I were Doug Wilson, I would look for an option in the one million dollar or less neighborhood in goal, a veteran who could provide insurance and allow the team to truly assess Thomas Griess or Alex Stalock.

I would then re-sign Ryan Vesce and give him and Ben Ferriero a longer look next year in the NHL. Both Ferriero and Vesce have shown signs that along with Logan Couture and Jamie McGinn, they could form a young, talented, and for the time being, cost-effective nucleus of future stars for the Sharks.

Top that off with signing a free agent defenseman or two, and I think the Sharks would be in great shape going into training camp. I will be interested to see whether Doug Wilson agrees.

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