With the signing of free agent defenseman Colin White, the San Jose Sharks’ blue line is now solidified, at least on paper. The question will be whether the teaming with new defensive acquisitions Brent Burns and Jim Vandermeer will crystallize on the ice.
The Sharks have been on an offseason feeding frenzy, making remarkable transactions nearly weekly. And by all accounts, San Jose has done nearly everything they needed to do in order to bolster their subpar defense. Last season, notably during the playoffs, the Sharks surrendered untimely goals due in large part to a porous defensive unit that could not keep opponents in check. In the postseason, defensive lapses and miscues are magnified; especially when they are the direct reason for playoff exits.
Throughout the entire postseason, San Jose defensively was unable to hold onto late-game leads or prevent goals during the last minutes of periods. During the 2011 playoff run, the Sharks gave up third-period leads six times, and they allowed five goals in the final two minutes of periods, including the game-tying goal with 13.2 seconds left during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals versus Vancouver.
The Canucks went on to win the game and series in double overtime, sending the Sharks packing after another disappointing playoff tease. What proved to be the most glaring problem on the Sharks roster was their lack of depth at the blue line.
Lackluster performances by their primary defensemen—during crunch time of the playoffs—often forced goaltender Antii Niemi out of position, and he suffered untimely onrushes during the beginnings and endings of periods. These anguishing moments left Sharks fans holding their heads and left the Sharks players shaking their own. With continuous defensive breakdowns, San Jose’s main offseason focus was to address the blue line.
General manager Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McClellan both adhere to the mantra of defense winning championships. So far this summer, the Sharks have been hot and humid on the free agent market, wheeling and dealing to acquire their needs on defense. Such is exemplified by the trading of winger Dany Heatley and forward Devin Setoguchi, both offensive-minded players. Moving two large chunks from their deep and talented offensive unit was a clear sign to the franchise that team needed to get tougher and mentally steadier on defense.
Burns was the first piece to the puzzle.
A grinder on defense, combined with tremendous puck handling and offensive prowess make Burns a versatile two-way player. Paired with veteran Dan Boyle, the Sharks will have two dominant defenders who can move the puck at both ends of the ice. His presence fills the need that was absent whenever Douglas Murray or Jason Demers was unable to clear the puck out of their own zone.
Trading Setoguchi was a valued risk, as his minus-seven rating in the playoffs exemplified his offensive contributions not compensating his lack of effort on defense. Though his goal scoring and energy will be missed, the Sharks needed to add to the blue line and got a scorcher in Burns to fire up the defensive end. In fact, the Sharks believe that Burns will be burning the candle at both ends of the ice for years to come, signing him to a five-year extension on Tuesday after acquiring him in the Setoguchi deal with the Minnesota Wild.
On July 1, Wilson sought and signed Vandermeer, recently of Edmonton, for a highly affordable $1 million. Vandermeer is another defensive stalwart, but more gritty and gamey in overlooked game situations. Last year he tallied 122 hits along with 78 blocked shots, an example of his all around feistiness and willingness to sell out his body when it matters most—and sometimes the least.
Blocking shots is really an inner instinct that is a byproduct of mental mettle and physical desire. Sometimes blocking an innocuous first-period shot is the difference in the game, holding the same importance as if it were in the last minute of a one-goal game with the opponent’s goalie pulled. Vandermeer’s strengths will come in his tenacity and doggedness during crunch time.
Meanwhile, now in San Jose teal, White will add some black and blue bruises to opponents. With the signing White, San Jose rounds out their defense by infusing a venerable and hard-nosed penalty killer.
The Sharks ranked a dreadful 24th in the NHL in penalty kill, but they put up a near-worse performance in the playoffs. In 18 postseason games, San Jose allowed 18 power play goals and only killed off 76.3 percent of opponent man advantages. And their weak power play performance seemed to worsen as they continued deeper in the playoffs, unable to stave off Vancouver’s attacks during the Western Conference Finals. Moreover, with White having won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils, he totes some winning playoff experience that the Sharks so desperately need to absorb.
The Sharks have been very busy this summer moves: removing Heatley and Setoguchi; trading for Martin Havlat; adding forward Michal Handzus; and re-signing forwards Jamie McGinn and Frazer McLaren. But it is the acquisitions to improve the defense that was so malodorously offensive last season that has the team looking better than ever. Sharks fans can only hope that the well rounded trifecta Vandermeer, Burns and White will finally get San Jose over the playoff hump and into the Stanley Cup Finals.