Once again the San Jose Sharks were bumped from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, enduring yet another offseason of disappointment and questions. Once again, analysts and fans alike questioned just how did a Sharks team with all of its talent, fall short of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. Once again, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson would be asked to fix the problems that plagued San Jose's 2011 playoff run.
The Western Conference Finals proved to be a vital showcase of both the positives and negatives the Sharks possessed moving forward. San Jose finally got a stellar postseason out of its captain Joe Thornton and also watched as Patrick Marleau reemerged from criticism and stepped up as one of the leagues top forwards.
However, the Sharks suffered tremendously on the blue line as the lack of defensive depth with speed allowed Vancouver to permeate San Jose's zone all to often in their way to a 4-1 series victory.
As the Sharks entered into the offseason, critics wondered exactly how Wilson would address the shortcomings and move the team forward while the current window of exceptional talent still exists on the Sharks roster.
Previously, the Sharks had made moves necessary to stay within the salary cap. During the 2010 offseason, the Sharks parted ways with longtime—and expensive—netminder Evgeni Nabokov, electing instead to sign the much younger and cheaper Antii Niemi. That move alone cleared San Jose of nearly six million dollars which Nabokov had made in the final year of his contract.
On June 24, the Sharks traded forward Devin Setoguchi along with top prospect Charlie Coyle and a first-round draft pick to the struggling Minnesota Wild for defenseman Brent Burns. Setoguchi, a budding fan favorite and established goal scorer, enjoyed success with San Jose notching a total of 159 points over three seasons.
However, Setoguchi's skating abilities were at times questioned and despite his speed, Sharks management felt that he could be a viable asset to shore up the deficient defense that plagued San Jose in the Vancouver series.
By adding Brent Burns, San Jose acquired a quick two-way defenseman, capable of both holding his own zone, anchoring a power play unit, and providing quick shots from the perimeter. Burns posted an impressive 17 goals and 29 assists last season with Minnesota before the trade. The only other Shark to post any similar numbers and yet be able to maintain defensive presence is Dan Boyle.
Despite losing Setoguchi and two potential prospects for the future, San Jose took a step to address its defensive concerns. The Sharks still feel that their current pool of players should be able to compete for a Stanley Cup over the next few seasons, making prospect development less of a priority.
San Jose solved that problem on July 3 by trading again with the Wild, sending forward Dany Heatley for forward Martin Havlat.
The move makes sense in so many ways. Despite the fact that Heatley has emerged as one of the most prolific scorers in the NHL, his playoff resume remained questionable. In his two seasons for San Jose, Heatley scored only five playoff goals while tallying 17 assists. Certainly not the numbers fans would expect from one of the highest paid players on the Sharks roster.
In addition, there remained a question of Heatley's loyalty to both his team and teammates. He had asked his previous two teams for trades after feeling his role had diminished on both clubs. The Sharks probably did not want to be part of a third request.
Financially, Heatley was due $7.5 million over the next three seasons which handicapped the Sharks in making any future deals especially with outside talent. Trading for Havlat would not only rid the Sharks of such contractual obligations, but also bring in a player of solid caliber and scoring potential.
What makes these two moves so exceptional for the Sharks is that it leaves them with plenty of flexibility. San Jose will remain safely under the salary cap, able to sign perhaps another defenseman or add depth to their current forwards. Both long term and short term contracts could apply here.
In addition, the Sharks could use that cap space to sign Burns to an extension as his contract is due to run out after the 2011-12 season.
Regardless of whichever way the Sharks turn to build up their 2011-12 franchise, San Jose has once again put themselves into a solid position both in terms of talent and finances. In addition, it would be a reasonable assumption that Doug Wilson is not finished putting the final touches on this team.