In my last article, I outlined the San Jose Sharks roster as it stands (assuming players tendered qualifying offers stayed in teal).
I even postured on the deficiencies that would likely keep them from repeating the success of last season.
As promised, this article offers my suggestions to remedy that problem. Since exact figures for some salaries are unknown, all of these steps are done under the estimation of the team having about $3 million of cap room.
To summarize the team's position, while San Jose would have a questionable fourth line and reserves, they are so strong on the top two lines that they still would boast one of the strongest forward units in the league.
Thus, this is a unit that could benefit from some help, but not a priority for an upgrade.
The blueline would consist of one elite player (Dan Boyle), two good ones (Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray, who made significant strides offensively), two talented young players still learning the position at this level (Jason Demers and Derek Joslin), and two pedestrian veterans (Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin).
All in all, this unit would rank in the top half of the NHL, and even has a talented prospect to fall back on in Nick Petrecki in case of multiple injuries; the team could certainly get by with this blueline.
But the goaltending tandem of Thomas Greiss and (most likely) Alex Stalock has fewer than 20 NHL games between them.
While good goaltenders emerge out of nowhere all the time, many are veterans and it is not safe to bet on two such players. This is the Sharks top priority.
There are a glut of free agent goalies out there, listed in order of their perceived value around the league: Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco, Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, Jose Theodore, Martin Biron, Vesa Toskala, Josh Harding, Johan Hedberg, Anterro Nittymaki, Andrew Raycroft, Alex Auld, Ray Emery, Patrick Lalime, Manny Legace, Stephen Valiquette, Curtis Sanford, and Yann Denis.
Of those 18 players, only the first four or five would be likely upgrades over Greiss.
All will be seeking contracts of at least the $3 million the Sharks have under the cap, and are thus not the best targets.
That being said, any or all of them might find no takers in a buyer's market, and if they can be signed for less they should be.
Nabokov, if his playing time was limited to about 60 games in the regular season instead of letting him determine his workload, would be a great sign for $2.5 million, both for team unity and talent.
Dan Ellis might be the best alternative in the group.
The next nine or so players would be comparable to Greiss, with maybe not as much potential but more of a sure thing. All could be had for somewhere between $1-$1.5 million, well within San Jose's price range.
This would allow the Sharks to have an open competition for the starting spot and know that if Greiss won but then faltered, they would have a reliable alternative.
The rest of the players on the list would be solid backups to Greiss, available for less than $1 million. This would force the team to test their faith in the youngster but still allow them to develop Stalock for longer before relying on him for wins.
This means that the sensible and likely scenario, is one of the goalies in the middle of that list (my prediction: Johan Hedberg, who got his start with the organization).By carrying that player on the roster, the Sharks would send down Stalock and get the cap relief.
This should leave them with over $2 million in cap room.
Because teams often use at least eight defensemen over the season and bringing up Petrecki would require a pretty big cap hit unless the player he replaces is on injured reserve, the next priority becomes getting a cheap veteran defenseman.
Jay Leach showed he was enough of an asset at his own end to not hurt the team and could be had for the veteran minimum of about $600,000.
This should allow the Sharks enough room to re-sign Manny Malhotra, probably the team's best buy last season. He was an important checking line forward who showed enough to play on the second line when there were injuries, he was dominant in the faceoff circle, and he is peaking right now in offensive production that is more than adequate for the third line.
His signing would send a player down and mean the team could have more than a half-million in valuable cap room in case a player is hurt enough to not be able to play but not enough to go on injured reserve, or if the team needs to make a trade at the deadline that requires more space.
They might even have enough left to resign F Jed Ortmeyer or Dwight Helminen, particularly if they send down Derek Joslin so he can continue playing and developing, and carry just two scratched players. This could give the Sharks the following (or similar) lineup:
1. Heatley-Thornton-Marleau with Boyle and Murray the first blueline pair.
That gives them a good balance of a sniper, playmaker, and skater on that first line and a mobile, offensive-minded veteran paired with a hard-hitting one in the first defensive pair.
2. Clowe-Pavelski-Setoguchi with Wallin and Vlasic the second pair.
Again, there is the balance of a power forward, jack-of-all-trades, and poor man's skater/scorer hybrid with a stay-at-home defenseman paired alongside a skater.
3. Couture-Malhotra-Mitchell with Demers and Huskins.
That provides the balance of a scorer, a gritty player, and a skater plus a blueliner who can create but may make mistakes with one who cannot but will not.
4. McGinn-Nichol-Helminen, with backups with NHL experience available in the organization in Steven Zalewski, Benn Ferriero, and Frazer McLaren.
On defense, back-ups would include Joslin and Leach, plus possibly Petrecki. Outside of two capable goalies (say Hedberg and Greiss), they would have a player or two ready in a pinch to be a backup.
This team would not be an odds-on favorite to be the top-seeded Western Conference team anymore.
Even with Chicago losing some of its Stanley Cup Champion talent in the offseason, the Sharks will have lost at least as much and will be facing two to four other playoff teams in their own division.
But with the Sharks experience, dynamic forwards, and solid defense, they could overcome question marks in net and still have at least as good a chance as anyone of winning the Pacific Division, guaranteeing them a top-three seed.
If they fall short, they may be the most likely team to finish with the fourth seed and still capture home ice in the first round, or at least draw a vulnerable first round opponent.