The Sharks have been almost invisible in the free agent market so far, even though they have let enough players go to create some cap room. With many of the top free agents signed, the pickings left for General Manager Doug Wilson are slim.
For that reason, I expect the focus of the remainder of the summer to be on trades, covered in my next article. However, as of Tuesday afternoon, there are still some free agents the Sharks could add to improve the team. In order to determine the best choices, it is important to determine the areas of need for the team.
San Jose now has seven legitimate starting defencemen, and unless someone is traded, that is plenty of depth. This makes the signing of someone on the blueline unlikely, so only a few will make this list.
However, the Sharks have checking line forwards and a backup goalie that have already been signed away or are unrestricted free agents that do not appear to be coming back. Since relying on multiple young players to step up is probably not wise for a team looking to win now, that will be an area Wilson will likely focus efforts.
An even bigger priority should be addressing the lack of scoring that has been the team’s undoing in the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. While these are the players that tend to cost the most, we can expect Wilson to add at least one player who can generate points.
Bearing that in mind, here are the most likely free agent signings left:
1. Petr Sykora scored the big goal to extend the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, and could work very well on the wing beside Joe Thornton. Because his production fell this season and he is running out of chances to win the Cup, he may also be available for a smaller salary.
2. Mats Sundin would have to agree to sign for a considerable salary cut, but might well be willing to do so to get one more good chance at NHL immortality himself.
3. Depending on how much the Sharks offered Phil Kessel or Travis Zajac, restricted free agents, and thus how much they would have to surrender in compensation, any of these three could be very good signs for them. But much over $3 million and they are giving up a first- and third-round pick; under that probably gets matched by Boston or New Jersey, respectively. I would make a play for at least one of these young scorers, but consider it a longshot for any of them individually to wind up in teal-and-grey.
4. Mike Comrie is a well-traveled player who is not exactly the pure scorer the Sharks need, but is a solid all-around player who is an unrestricted free agent.
5. Travis Moen has not been re-signed by the team, leaving me to believe one of the two parties does not want to partner for the new season. But he still provides the Sharks the best checking line option as far as skills, attitude and championship experience. On the other hand, being a dirty player, I would be okay if he is not in San Jose for 2009-10.
6. Stephan Yelle is a fantastic two-way checking line forward and penalty killer with a Stanley Cup ring who would make a welcome addition to San Jose’s roster.
7. Michael Peca is a great defensive centre who is a leader with some gas left in his tank, and he has to be desperate for a chance to win a Cup.
8. Former Moen linemate Rob Niedermayer may be the second-best checking line option, but I doubt the Sharks will be able to tear him away from his brother in Anaheim. For those reasons, I expect the two sides to reach agreement once the Ducks’ cap situation has shaken out. (Todd Marchant would have been an even better option, but he has already been re-signed by the Ducks.)
9. The Sharks failed to sign Jonas Gustavsson, the ideal goaltender to push Evgeni Nabokov because at his age he could take over as the starting netminder for the future should Nabby fall short. That leaves Wilson with only one proven goalie as an option: Manny Fernandez. However, as he is about the same age as Nabby, Wilson may very well go after a younger player such as Mikael Tellqvist, Curtis Sanford, or Wade Dublielewicz.
If he determines none of them has the capacity to take over the starting role, signing another clear veteran backup could lead him to Kevin Weekes, Manny Legace, Martin Biron, or Anterro Nittymaki. Expect one (and only one) of these eight goalies to be moving to San Jose.
10. The Sharks are unlikely to go after anything other than a seventh or eighth defenceman because otherwise they drive the team’s best hitter, Douglas Murray, to the press box most nights and use valuable cap space for only a slight upgrade. As stated in a previous article, Chris Chelios fits this need perfectly and would add the leadership and championship experience the Sharks lack. Unfortunately, he has stated he wishes to be in an eastern location, so it might be tough recruiting him to San Jose.
It is also conceivable that Wilson could add another Cup-winning veteran in Bret Hedican, whose wife (Kristi Yamaguchi) has South Bay ties, rotating him with Murray depending on whether the team needs a physical or puck-moving presence on the blueline that night. If someone is traded from the current unit, Rhett Warriner and Teppo Numinen become possible options, as well.
Then again, if they do that Wilson could just re-sign Alexei Semenov or some other roster-filler for the minimum.