Saturday was a busy day for the San Jose Sharks, one which included a contract extension for their new team captain, the debut of the 2010-2011 team on home ice and the revelation of two new banners in the rafters at HP Pavilion.
Joe Thornton signed a new three-year, $21 million contract extension prior to the game on Saturday, ensuring the core of key players will remain together at least through 2013-2014. The size of the contract in years and money is similar to the one he signed in 2007. Signing the extension going into his contract year also avoids a lot of potential distraction throughout the coming season and offseason.
There is absolutely zero doubt that Thornton could have received much more money by playing out his final year on his current contract, and then testing the waters as an unrestricted free agent next July. However, Thornton's desire to forego such a payday and re-sign a much more modest contract now reflects a growing team-wide commitment amongst the biggest stars in teal toward keeping this group together and bringing a Stanley Cup to Silicon Valley.
Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski also would have had little trouble finding more lucrative options than the pair of four-year contracts the duo signed this summer, but their commitment to putting the team before themselves has allowed the San Jose Sharks to keep one of the most dynamic pools of talent in hockey together moving forward, sacrificing only long-time goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
The steps Doug Wilson has taken to replace Nabokov are certainly not beyond question, however.
The Sharks signed Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi to replace Nabokov. For the right price, that would have been a fine approach, but virtually everyone agrees that $4 million for the pair is far too much money.
Statistically, both Niittymaki and Niemi have mediocre at best statistics in the NHL, and their high salaries prevented the Sharks from pursuing veteran defensive help to bolster a blue line unit that was clearly the weak link in the Sharks' conference final loss last season, even before the retirement of Rob Blake.
A training camp decision to show organizational loyalty to prospects like Mike Moore, rather than signing veteran Andreas Lilja, only exaggerated this issue.
The Sharks' suspect defense and less-than-stellar goaltending came to a head in a 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers during the Sharks home opener Saturday. Despite not playing for an entire week after their return from Sweden, the Sharks managed a strong first period, but were unable to expand or even protect a 2-0 first-period lead.
This marked the second time in three games that the Sharks had seen a 2-0 first-period lead erased with Antti Niemi in net. Statistically the Sharks defense played fine, allowing fewer than 30 shots on their goal, but the quality of the scoring chances was often the issue, as turnovers and bad defensive positioning fed the Thrasher transition into far too many odd-man attacks and failed to protect critical rebounds.
Niemi allowed a soft goal as well on the eventual game-winner, and in the end let four goals in on just 28 shots.
They say that sometimes you are better off lucky than good. Nabokov was more good than lucky, and Niemi looks more lucky than good. Will the choice to go from the former to the latter in net pay dividends for the San Jose Sharks? The jury is still out, but early indications are far from encouraging.
Many assume the Sharks will still pursue a veteran defenseman, but some suspect they may wait until the trading deadline. The first three games have shown signs that the trading deadline may be too late. With their current tandem in net, the Sharks may need to make a deal sooner rather than later to avoid falling too far out of playoff position.
Consider also that Niemi played sparingly in the first two-thirds of the Chicago Blackhawks championship season last year. Regardless of what they do defensively, the Sharks will need a reliable partner for him in net to shoulder a good portion of the workload. Whether that proves to be Niittymaki or Thomas Greiss—now back in the AHL after clearing waivers—remains to be seen.
The game also served as the venue for the Sharks to reveal two new banners to the fans at HP Pavilion. As expected, the Sharks placed another "Pacific Division Champions" banner in the rafters, in keeping with NHL tradition. Disappointingly, however, they repeated last year's mockery by revealing a second "Western Conference Regular Season Champions" banner.
The Sharks have long been denigrated as a team that performs splendidly in the regular season, but falls flat when the playoffs begin. Why then draw further attention to their struggles with these ridiculous mementos?
Perhaps management is hoping to motivate the team to greater playoff success by placing these bush-league banners on display for all to see, but the rest of the league ought to be laughing their heads off at the Sharks. There ought to be two types of banners at HP Pavilion: "Division Champions" and "President's Trophy Winners."
Anything else is dwelling on a losing mentality.
Keep the faith!