For some time now there has been growing concern over the state of the San Jose Sharks blue line as the twentieth year of Sharks hockey draws ever closer. The blue line was the clear weak link for the team in the Western Conference Finals last season, and the loss of veteran and Hall of Famer Rob Blake to retirement further degraded a unit which was already vulnerable.
The Sharks replaced ten-year veteran and former Vezina Trophy candidate Evgeni Nabokov in net with the highly more suspect Antero Niittymaki early in the offseason. While this move cleared salary cap room to allow the Sharks to secure centers Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski for the next four seasons, the sudden drop off of proven prowess between the pipes called the Sharks ability to prevent opposing teams from lighting the lamp in further question.
In the eyes of some, the Sharks solved this issue a couple weeks ago, when they signed second-year NHL goaltender and reigning Stanley Cup Champion Antti Niemi after his release from the Chicago Blackhawks. It appears that Niemi will establish a tandem in net with Niittymaki, which should help fend off the fatigue which seemingly plagued Nabokov at times later in the season.
Nonetheless, the ability of either potential netminder on his own is still a step down from Nabokov (at least given the current track records of the three on the NHL level) and many still hold the belief that the Sharks still needed to acquire a notable defenseman in order to contend.
An attempt to acquire restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago in July proved unsuccessful, and with few if any other viable top-notch options available in free agency, many assumed the Sharks would need to bolster the blue line through trade.
This would likely mean parting with either a key offensive role player like Ryane Clowe or Devin Setoguchi, or a bundle of top prospects and draft choices, as neither Niittymaki, Niemi, third goaltender Thomas Griess, nor any current Sharks defenseman other than perhaps Dan Boyle could command the trade value on the market necessary to get the caliber of player the Sharks sought in return.
Bringing in former Red Wing defenseman Andreas Lilja is an intriguing option, though.
Most hold that the Sharks need a top-four caliber defenseman, as they currently possess no more than three players capable of adequately filling a spot on the top two defensive pairings (Boyle, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, and perhaps Douglas Murray).
Lilja is a proven NHL veteran with a strong track record of serviceable play. He is a career plus 39 in the plus/minus department and can be counted on to contribute offensively with roughly 10 to 15 points per season when healthy. He may not be the top-four defenseman the Sharks are looking for, but may allow them to buy more time as they evaluate their trade options.
Lilja can pair with fellow Swedes Douglas Murray or Niclas Wallin and provide veteran stability on the blue line while the Sharks seek a more permanent solution. Swedes play a system-based style of hockey, so putting several of them together in your defensive pairings can vastly improve the overall level of play on the blue line. It sure worked for the Detroit Red Wings.
Lilja may be the boost the blue line needs to allow the Sharks to compete with their current roster while trying to orchestrate the trade that will make them a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. Signing Lilja would allow the Sharks to keep all their forwards while continuing to platoon Niittymaki and Niemi until the trade deadline. This might afford general manager Doug Wilson more time to evaluate what he really has in the current roster and make the best possible move to improve the team midseason.
This seemingly minor camp invite could turn out to be a stellar move for the San Jose Sharks.
Keep the Faith!