FT. LAUDERDALE – Shortly after the conclusion of the NHL Draft on Saturday afternoon, when it was pointed out to Doug Wilson that his organization seemingly hasn’t made any tangible improvements to its NHL roster, the general manager was quick to say that it’s still awfully early in the offseason. He’s right, as unrestricted free agency hasn’t even started yet, with that market not opening until Wednesday.
That’s a good thing, because the Sharks left the hot and humid Florida shores with even more questions than when they arrived.
The goalie issue remains at the top of the list. While it’s truly hard to believe that no fewer than seven netminders were traded over the course of the past few days, and the Sharks didn’t add a single one while officially cutting ties with Antti Niemi, I got the sense from Wilson that he has something in the works on that front. Whether it will be a better, more established goalie than someone like Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack or Antti Raanta remains to be seen, but when I asked Wilson if the team might start the season with Al Stalock and Troy Grosenick as the tandem, the answer essentially was no. Someone else is coming at some point.
Still, its concerning that the Sharks haven’t made any moves yet to upgrade their current group, provided they are truly back to a “win now” mode after the oddities and failures of last summer and subsequent playoff-less season.
The two most notable trades at the draft were the Calgary Flames acquiring Dougie Hamilton from Boston and Anaheim Ducks trading for the Rangers’ Carl Hagelin. Both of those deals for young, improving players were done for money reasons, as the Bruins and Rangers both have cap concerns. They’re also the kinds of deals that Wilson has been hinting at since last summer while maintaining a healthy amount of cap space.
The Bruins reportedly wanted to send Hamilton west. The Flames ended up surrendering the 15th overall pick and a pair of second rounders (45 and 52). It’s easy to play Monday morning GM, but could the Sharks have offered two higher picks (9 and 39), and one of their two second rounders in 2016 to Calgary for Hamilton?
Future number one defensemen don’t come on the market very often. Wilson said he’s ready to surrender assets for players that “fit now and for the future,” and that’s exactly what the 22-year-old Hamilton is. The young and feisty Flames, who will be again battling with the Sharks for a playoff spot next season, are better today than they were last week.
As for Hagelin, the Ducks may have made that trade due to winger Matt Beleskey preparing to leave as a free agent. The Sharks reportedly are interested in Beleskey if he hits the open market, but that doesn’t guarantee a match. Hagelin – who was dealt primarily for inconsistent prospect Emerson Etem – would have been a perfect fit in San Jose. Wouldn’t the 26-year-old have looked nice on the left side of the Joe Thornton line? Or, perhaps he could have pushed Patrick Marleau out of a top six role. Hagelin is also a deft penalty killer, and the Sharks struggled in that area last season.
To a lesser extent there’s Milan Lucic, another left wing who should still have some good years left at age 27, now in Los Angeles. The power winger should be primed for a rebound season, and the two-time Cup champion Kings will have a chip on their shoulder as a group after missing out on the playoffs. Lucic would have immediately upgraded the Sharks’ forward depth; instead he’ll be wearing silver and black.
Meanwhile, the Sharks’ core group – which simply can’t be considered one of the league’s best anymore, and has seemingly peaked – remains, and the likelihood of a blockbuster trade is declining. I speculated earlier in the week that defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman Brent Burns would be my most likely candidate to get moved if such a deal arose, but according to a source, San Jose has no interest in moving him. Peter DeBoer likes Burns on the blue line after coaching him in the World Championships.
The rest of the core features players that have no trade clauses, are players that the Sharks would likely be worse off if they traded, or both. Just how the club will make those necessary changes to its dressing room culture remains to be seen, because a coaching change is probably not enough.
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San Jose also remains thin on defense, with Matt Irwin ready to depart via free agency and Scott Hannan on his way out. There are significant holes to fill here.
The Sharks were close to a deal with Kevin Bieksa, who might have been a decent short-term addition. Although Bieksa’s skills are declining, the Sharks blueliners could use a little more toughness and energy. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a fantastic player, of course, but former coach Todd McLellan indicated late in the year that Vlasic hadn’t quite developed into the leader that the club was hoping. I’ve also heard there are some internal concerns about Justin Braun. Bieksa could have provided a necessary kick in the butt to that group, which finished 23rd in the NHL in goals-against.
(That being said, signing the 34-year-old Bieksa to a contract extension after giving up the 39th overall pick – which the Sharks needed to move up and take highly regarded prospect Jeremy Roy – would probably have been ill-advised. Players of Bieksa’s type have a tendency to quickly decline at his age.)
There’s also the report that the Sharks were pursuing defenseman Griffin Reinhart from the Islanders, who would have potentially bolstered the blue line. The 21-year-old is another one of those players that could fit now and for the future, but Reinhart - the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft - went to the Oilers for a first and second round pick in yet another move that saw one of San Jose’s division rivals improve if the still raw Reinhart develops.
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All of those non-deals and general inaction could validate what the venerable Elliotte Friedman recently wrote: “Wilson is tough to close a trade with, a strategy that makes other teams crazy.” That’s not exactly encouraging news for a team that needs to make some changes. Still, it should be said that in his 12-plus years as general manager, Wilson has made at least one trade with all 29 franchises.
The next few weeks will determine whether the Sharks actually have a plan in place. We’ve heard they have assets they are willing to part with. We’ve heard they have cap space. We’ve heard they are willing to shake things up.
It could still happen. But the timeline is now shorter and more complicated, and there should be a feeling of uneasiness in the front office after this weekend’s absence of activity.