San Jose Sharks: Promising Offseason Takes a Turn for the Worse

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IJuly 1, 2010

NEW YORK - JANUARY 19:  Antero Niittymaki #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save against the New York Rangers on January 19, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks began the offseason with a string of moves that not only made hockey sense, but made their fanbase happy.

With the trend of unheralded goaltenders succeeding in the NHL, the Sharks' front office (headed by general manager Doug Wilson) made their first critical decision of the offseason by parting ways with starting netminder Evgeni Nabokov.

Nabokov, who had been dominant in the regular season over the past decade, made over $5 million last season and wasn't going to take a discount to stay in San Jose.

Essentially, the Sharks knew they could only afford to bring back either Nabokov or star forward Patrick Marleau. Both are premier players in the NHL and it was obvious before this past season ended that each one will get the money they want somewhere, somehow.

It came down to one or the other and the Sharks stuck with their former captain who was the only Shark who played phenomenal hockey in the Conference Finals.

By re-signing Marleau and second line center Joe Pavelski in the same day, the Sharks were on track for an excellent offseason.

Former defenseman Rob Blake retired (Sharks get younger and better by subtraction), Nabokov is allowed to walk (even the biggest Nabokov fans have agreed with this move), and star forwards in Marleau and Pavelski were brought back for the long term.

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Everything was going well in Shark land.

Until a couple of days ago.

When the San Jose Sharks re-signed defenseman Niclas Wallin, it was quite surprising to see the money given to a defenseman of his stature. You can see my full thoughts on the subject here

The main problem with the Wallin deal ($2.5M, one year) is that he made $1.7M between Carolina and San Jose last season. Whether he was hurt or not, he clearly didn't outplay his contract and at his older age, he wasn't a candidate to be overpaid for in free agency.

San Jose didn't need to pay him this much money and combined with events that took place earlier today (the first day of free agency), this signing has prevented the Sharks from making more critical moves.

Thus far during the six hours of free agency, the only new free agent they have acquired is former Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyer backup netminder Antero Niittymaki.

While the Sharks were in the market for a cheap veteran goalie, Niittymaki has been signed to a two-year, $4M contract which is by far more than the Finnish netminder deserves.

Last year with Tampa Bay, Niittymaki made $600K and posted the following numbers:

Games: 49 Starts: 46 SV%: .909 GAA: 2.87

Conversely, fellow free-agent goaltender Chris Mason signed for $3.7 million over two years with the Atlanta Thrashers. His numbers with the St. Louis Blues last season are as follows:

Games: 61 Starts: 61 SV%: .913 GAA: 2.53

Clearly, Mason had the better season last year by the numbers. Now it can be argued that St. Louis wasn't as porous defensively as Tampa Bay; the career numbers from Mason to Niittymaki are even bigger of a discrepancy.

Mason's career save percentage stands at .914; Niittymaki, on the other hand, comes in at just .903.

Not only did the Sharks clearly overpay for Niittymaki because of the mediocre numbers he has posted compared to Mason, but because the market isn't in the favor of the goaltenders this season.

Cheap goaltenders are the ones having the most success in recent years, and there are bound to be goalies available deeper into free agency for much cheaper than what the Sharks signed Niittymaki.

But by making a move right out of the gate in the goaltender position, the Sharks not only show a lack of faith in the goaltenders already on their depth chart, but limit the money available to spend elsewhere.

It's not simply that Niittymaki and Wallin aren't capable of giving San Jose quality minutes next season (it is possible they live up to their contracts), but rather their contracts prevent the Sharks from re-signing and signing other, more dynamic/critical players.

And you can almost guarantee that neither Wallin nor Niittymaki would have made more money elsewhere in free agency and most likely they would have made less had San Jose not signed them to these deals.

Unfortunately, since the Sharks locked both these players into contracts earlier than necessary, they left themselves with less money to go after bigger holes on their roster.

Those holes are third line center/winger and a top-four defenseman. Not only have the Sharks missed out on almost all of the key free-agent defensemen (the majority of top rated free-agent defensemen have been signed today), but a key figure from last year's Sharks team is gone.

Manny Malhotra (who was reportedly throwing contract offers back and forth with San Jose about re-signing prior to today's free agency opening) is now a Vancouver Canuck.

Malhotra is reportedly going to make $2.5M per year for three years. While he only made $700k in his lone year as a Shark last season, he clearly outplayed that deal. And although it is understandable for the Sharks to have hoped Malhotra would want to re-sign for around $1.25-$1.75M per year, they should have done everything in their power to get him signed.

If his minimum asking price of San Jose was somewhere between $2-2.5 per year, the Sharks should have agreed to a deal because the 30-year-old center is worth every penny. His faceoff percentage was the best in the entire league last year and he scored a career high 14 goals while playing multiple different roles for the Sharks.

When they needed him to play on a scoring line, he performed admirably. When they needed him to win big faceoffs and play stellar defensively on the bottom two lines, he dominated.

He is one of, if not the most, versatile forwards in hockey.

And the Sharks came out and stated they would prefer to have a career backup netminder in Niittymaki and an aging slow defenseman in Wallin for a combined $4.5 million next season instead of Malhotra for $2.5 million?

Not only is that absurd, it's borderline crazy.

Wallin and Niittymaki combined to make $2.35 million last season compared to Malhotra, who, as mentioned previously, made just $700k.

Now Malhotra goes out and has a career year and earns a raise of 357 percent.

That makes sense; maybe he made a tad more than the average player of a similar skill set, but that is what happens when a professional athlete is sought after in free agency.

But neither Niittymaki nor Wallin were going to be sought after free agents. The Sharks bid solely against themselves to come up with these contracts.

And bidding against themselves cost them the ability to bring back a fan favorite in Malhotra.

A move of this fashion could prove costly for the Sharks as their roster has now gotten significantly worse on paper since the offseason began.

Not only have they failed to plug any holes they had from last season, but the loss of Malhotra has opened up a new one.