SAN JOSE – The speculation was rampant regarding the San Jose Sharks in the days and weeks leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline on April 3.
Would San Jose, which endured a brutal stretch of hockey for six weeks between early February and mid-March, begin a major rebuild and trade some of its veteran assets for young players and/or draft picks? Or would the Sharks take one more kick at the can with their veteran core, and add pieces for a potential playoff run?
Somehow, general manager Doug Wilson managed to do a bit of both while staying away from anything extreme. Gone are three members of the team’s 30-plus club in Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus. Arriving, along with a handful of draft picks acquired for those players, were 31-year-old Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan, 34. Both are pending unrestricted free agents this summer.
Oh, and the Sharks have managed to go 11-3-1 since the Murray trade on March 25, which was the first domino in the club’s flurry of activity.
How does Wilson view his team now, with a ninth straight postseason appearance all but assured?
“I think we’re playing the right way,” Wilson said on Monday morning, after the players and front office sat for the annual team photo at HP Pavilion. “I think we’re playing the north-south game that we wanted to play, with speed, and I think the coaching staff has done a heck of a job.”
The Sharks look to be a faster team because of their additions and subtractions. They are quicker on the forecheck, the transition game is improved, and their ability to create more goals in and around the crease has helped the club snap out of its terrible offensive funk in which it scored more than two goals in regulation just twice in 20 games from Jan. 29 to March 12.
Torres essentially replaced Clowe, and the speed difference between the two is evident. Torres already has five points (1g, 4a) and a shootout winner in his first eight games with the Sharks, after Clowe managed no goals and 11 assists in 28 games before the trade.
The void left by Murray has been filled by players like Matt Irwin, who has shown an ability to get shots on goal and who typically gets the puck up the ice more quickly and effectively than Murray, while Hannan provides veteran insurance.
Handzus wasn’t playing when he was traded to Chicago, but Scott Gomez has shown to be much more of a playmaker than Handzus was in his stint here. Gomez spends most of his time as the fourth line center, but also sees time on the second power play unit.
“Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus were all really important parts of this team. They were pending unrestricted free agents,” Wilson said. “We made some moves because we had some people underneath that were ready for additional roles. And, we added some players. Raffi is a straight line, speed guy and he plays physical, but plays in a straight line.
“Our job is to put the best team on the ice this year, but keep an eye on the future.”
Suddenly, even Wilson’s most notable move at the deadline last season looks better now, too. TJ Galiardi and Daniel Winnik were acquired from Colorado in exchange for Jamie McGinn on Feb. 27, 2012, and up until about a month ago, the deal looked like a complete disaster for San Jose.
Winnik departed for Anaheim in the offseason after the Sharks meekly bowed out in the first round to St. Louis. Galiardi was retained but was frequently a healthy scratch this season, and hadn’t made any discernable mark on his new team. Meanwhile, McGinn was proving to be a good young goal scorer with the Avalanche.
Now, Galiardi is contributing, and looks nothing like the player that sat in 12 of 21 games from Jan. 31 to March 16. He has three goals and six assists in his last 18 games, after just three points in his first 15.
“TJ is still a young player that can skate,” Wilson said.
Other players have settled in, too.
“Having a top line forward in Brent Burns come into the lineup, [Joe] Pavelski going down to the third line center, adding a little more speed with Raffi; now our team, to me, has everybody in their proper roles. I think their performance as a group just fits.
“I go back to the coaches. The coaches want our players to play a certain way. When we play the way we need them to play, I think we’re a very good team. Where you get in trouble is when sometimes players will play the way they want to play, which just doesn’t fit with how you need to be successful in this league.”
The key in the playoffs, of course, will be to have each of the aspects of their game firing on all cylinders for two straight months.
“That’s what we’re looking to do, and when we do that, we think we can play with anybody,” Wilson said.