NHL Free Agency, San Jose Sharks: The Ugly
In the third piece of my series, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," assessing the San Jose Sharks offseason, we examine the ugly or non-moves of the summer. (See the following links to read about the team's good and bad decisions in free agency.)
The thing that makes these decisions ugly is the business of the NHL: It is not so much that they were bad moves as they were unfortunate, but necessary, to keep a competitive team under the salary cap.
There really are only three key players from 2009-10 who are not returning: In order of their contributions, Evgeni Nabokov, Rob Blake, and Manny Malhotra.
The first and easiest to look at is Rob Blake. Some people saw only age rob Blake of his skating ability, and may think the team forced him out. Even though that is remotely possible, this would not put him on this list because it does not make his departure ugly.
In addition, a forced retirement is not widely-held as a logical opinion throughout the league. While he was slowing down, that single deficiency was covered well, paired with the skilled skating of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Last year, Blake was still very productive, finishing top-three on the team's blueline in every category: hits, blocked shots, plus-minus, goals, assists, and points.
It is also unlikely that the team was unable to meet his salary demands due to financial limitations: There is no reason to believe they would not have preferred to pay him the same $2.5 million that went to Niclas Wallin, or use some of their little-remaining cap space to pay him more if necessary.
Finally, a low offer would not have pressed him to retire, given he could have sought a contract elsewhere. Thus, his departure was not an ugly part of the business; in fact, he and the team both came out well in the public relations department with his retirement.
Nabokov is another story. He is unquestionably the best goalie in franchise history, was still a top six goalie in the regular season.
He also still played well enough in the playoffs to win a Stanley Cup: Antti Niemi had worse statistics, if you don't include facing the Sharks' anemic playoff offense that made every opposing goalie look outstanding.
But Nabby was not willing to accept the changing landscape for goalies in the NHL. With low-cost goalies coming up big post-lockout while highly-paid studs like Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur couldn't get out of the second round, no sensible team was going to spend top dollar for a goalie who is not quite elite like Nabby.
At the very least, Philadelphia tried what San Jose passed on—negotiating with the best goaltender available in the free agent market. Reportedly, Nabby is headed to Russia to play, a sensible location for the Russian national born in Kazakhstan, especially given the rather sizable difference in pay.
Perhaps as much as Patrick Marleau, Nabby is the player most identified with the franchise, and still capable of performing well. Thus, had the Sharks possessed the cap space, they would surely have wanted to re-sign a player they had developed and who had a bond with the teammates and fans.
The loss of both of these players was expected. In contrast, Malhotra seemed a player within the team's reach: As a checking line centre coming off a $700,000 contract, the team's remaining $1.5 million-plus in cap room seemed more than adequate.
But in hindsight, his going to Vancouver was predictable. His wife is a British Columbia native, the Canucks are in contention for the Stanley Cup, and they desperately needed a checking line centre who was a great penalty killer.
Thus, they had the cap room and his value would not have been as high anywhere else. In San Jose, $2.5 million a year would be a grossly overpaid salary, but in Vancouver, he might be worth it.
In other words, the money was perfect, the location was perfect, and the competitive considerations were as good as anywhere else. But for the business (ugly) side of the game, the Sharks could have competed with that.
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