SAN JOSE – Maybe you agree with Sharks general manager Doug Wilson’s plan of incorporating younger, up-and-coming players onto the roster while still trying to remain competitive. Or, perhaps you’re of the mind that San Jose should have been much more aggressive in the offseason and added a veteran piece or two to a team that pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the playoffs.
Regardless, what’s undeniable is that Wilson has so far stuck to the plan that he laid out shortly after his club’s most recent and most epic playoff failure.
“We have some good players, but we're not going to get in the way of our younger guys taking over the team, and I expect us to go backwards,” Wilson said on June 17.
Go backwards they have. After 55 games, the Sharks have won just one more game than they’ve lost (28-20-7) for 63 points. At the same point last season, they were 34-15-6 with 74 points.
The 2014-15 season is one of transition, and that’s not likely to change as the NHL’s March 2 trade deadline quickly approaches.
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What the Sharks most certainly won’t do is trade a first round pick, or one of their more promising young players like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto or Mirco Mueller for a veteran rental that is on the downswing of his career and doesn’t fit into the future plans. Such a move would be contradictory to everything that has been said publicly. It would also send the wrong message to the younger players in the system that have been made aware of the Sharks’ transition phase and are champing at the bit to prove they belong.
Despite currently looking like a borderline playoff team that’s not a Stanley Cup contender as currently constructed, Wilson simply isn’t going to make a move that will bring only temporary benefits.
The Sharks are also still married to their core of catalysts – to borrow a term frequently used by Todd McLellan – of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tommy Wingels and Justin Braun, all of whom are locked up for the next several years. None of those players is leaving town before March 2, unless the return is for a player of similar skill, age and potential.
Couture, Pavelski and Vlasic all own limited no-trade clauses, too, but there’s virtually no chance they’d be on the block, anyway.
As for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they still each possess full no-trade clauses. While their production is down from last season and the miles are seemingly adding up on both, they still remain necessary ingredients if the team expects to reach the postseason, which is still an internal expectation.
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There could still be some players pushed out, particularly those that are either pending free agents or have not performed up to par.
One name that has frequently been mentioned since the offseason is goaltender Antti Niemi. While the 31-year-old’s up-and-down play this season is essentially reflective of the team in front of him, he’s still the best option in net. Alex Stalock hasn’t done enough to suggest he’s a future starter, and the promising Troy Grosenick is better off finishing the season in Worcester. There don’t seem to be too many NHL teams currently looking for a goaltender now anyway, so the Sharks probably wouldn’t get much of a return on Niemi even if they wanted to ship him out.
Tyler Kennedy is probably the most likely candidate to get moved, as the winger has been pushed down the ladder by some of the Sharks’ younger players like rookie Melker Karlsson. Despite still possessing some offensive tools, the 28-year-old pending unrestricted free agent just doesn’t seem to be a McLellan guy. Still, he could provide a veteran team looking to win now with some offensive depth, and could also potentially bring a mid-round draft pick back to San Jose.
Others that may not be in the Sharks’ long term plans are pending unrestricted free agent Andrew Desjardins, restricted free agent James Sheppard, and restricted free agent Tye McGinn, all of whom have been disappointments. On the blue line, the same could be said for Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan, both of whom are pending UFAs.
The return would likely be minimal for any of those aforementioned pieces, but their departure would open the door for more promising younger players, keeping in line with where the Sharks are as an organization.
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While a blockbuster is unlikely before this year’s deadline, that’s not to say that the Sharks aren’t setting themselves up for a big splash at some point, maybe even as soon as this summer.
San Jose currently has about $6.785 million of salary cap space according to spotrac.com, and that number will probably get even bigger in the upcoming offseason. The projected salary cap for 2015-16 isn’t expected to be much higher than the current $69 million cap, according to some reports, despite earlier projections that it might rise above $73 million.
At that point, there will be many more options on the table.
The Sharks could either pounce on an unrestricted free agent that is suddenly too expensive for teams against the cap, or make a trade for a blossoming player whose next contract will be too rich for his current club to afford. Perhaps a trade like the one that essentially sent Charlie Coyle to Minnesota for Brent Burns in 2011 is on the horizon.
In the meantime, the Sharks will continue to experience growing pains as their younger players get acclimated to the league or are given a chance to show that they belong. That was the plan a couple weeks after the playoff loss to the Kings, and there are no indications it's changed.