SAN JOSE – Raffi Torres’ numbers were modest in his 11 regular season games with the Sharks, after a trade deadline deal brought him to the Bay Area last season.
The 31-year-old agitator posted two goals and four assists down the stretch, and scored a shootout-deciding goal, too. Nice contributions, for sure, but not exactly Earth-shattering.
Still, when looking for evidence of the Sharks’ turnaround that started right before the deadline and continued through a heartbreaking second round playoff defeat to the Los Angeles Kings, Torres is, quite simply, Exhibit A.
Just ask Joe Pavelski.
“He helped create kind of a little bit of a different identity for us, brought a lot of speed and intensity, and everyone fed off it,” said Pavelski on Monday, shortly after it was publically revealed that Torres will miss at least a month, and possibly much more, with a right ACL injury.
Pavelski continued: “It creates a bit of a hole, but gives an opportunity to another guy.”
If the Sharks decide they want to fill the void left by Torres internally, there are some candidates, although there is no one in the organization that can completely provide what will be missing with Torres’ absence. San Jose was already thin up front when training camp opened, and for as much skill as its has down the middle with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Pavelski, those three can’t do it all by themselves.
[RELATED: Torres could miss 3-4 months with ACL injury]
Anthony Stewart, 28, is one option. The veteran NHL forward is still in camp on a tryout basis, and although he’s not as fast or as skilled as Torres, he does provide a level of intimidation and physicality that is now in short supply.
“Raffi fills a big role for the team, but it’s an opening for me, a similar type player where I like to get in on the forecheck and throw some big hits,” Stewart said. “Hopefully it gives me a long, good look to show what I can do. I’ve played two games so far and I feel comfortable enough with what I’ve accomplished so far, but not content.”
Todd McLellan said: “Anthony looks like an NHL veteran. He’s obviously played enough NHL games and he feels comfortable in the locker room. He’s picked things up on the ice well. We’ve asked him to do some things physically along the boards, and he’s attempting to do that night in and night out. I think he’s giving himself a real good opportunity to make the team.”
The Sharks could go the younger route, as forwards Freddie Hamilton and Matt Nieto remain in camp and are getting long looks from team brass. Hamilton, 21, had a strong game on Saturday against Anaheim, scoring a power play goal and playing on Couture’s line at even strength.
Nieto, 20, is the more skilled and speedier of the two, but his smaller frame could prevent him from keeping up with the rigors of an NHL schedule, at least for now.
Oh, and highly regarded rookie Tomas Hertl? Any doubt he'd make the opening night roster is gone. He's on the team.
Bracken Kearns, Matt Pelech and John McCarthy are also still in San Jose, but it’s hard to imagine any of those players being more than a temporary solution.
Regardless of what transpires over the next week-and-a-half before the season opens on Oct. 3, McLellan is hopeful that the Sharks are better prepared to deal with Torres’ absence after not having him in the second round last season due to suspension. That could mean he’ll leave Pavelski in the third line center role, and hope he has enough scoring at the wing position to generate even-strength offense.
Against the Kings, and already down a couple other forwards in Marty Havlat and Adam Burish, Pavelski skated on the wing instead of remaining in the middle of the third line. The result was a top-heavy offense that struggled against the defensively stingy Kings.
Logan Couture said: “I think we played well when we had three, four solid lines. Pavs feels comfortable playing center and does a good job playing center, but ultimately, that’s the coaching staff’s decision.”
“At the end of the day, we’re just excited to play. I’ll be out there, and when you get your ice time you’ve got to make the most of it,” Pavelski said. “Whether it’s third line or playing wing somewhere, you’ve got to produce.”
McLellan and Doug Wilson have said over and over since last season ended that they’d like to maintain their identity headed into 2013-14.
Without Torres, that just became much more difficult.