SAN JOSE – Part of the fun of the NHL’s free agency period, which begins on Friday, is the uncertainty it brings. It’s impossible to precisely predict just what will happen with any of the 30 teams, and that includes the Sharks.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.
When general manager Doug Wilson telegraphed last week that he wouldn’t be re-signing any of the players the Sharks acquired during the season before July 1, and that includes Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, Dainius Zubrus and James Reimer, he essentially revealed that there are spots that the team needs to fill before training camp. The Sharks have enough salary cap space that should allow them to add some role players via free agency.
A backup goalie and a few more options at forward, and perhaps a depth defenseman, should be on the checklist.
In a perfect world, the team would have young players already in house to jump up and grab those open positions. Maybe the Sharks do. Maybe they don’t.
* * *
Defense is the least likely place the Sharks will add someone significant. Dylan DeMelo has earned the trust of coach Pete DeBoer, and now sits sixth on the depth chart. The rookie struggled early in the year, was sent to the minors, but returned and gave the club solid minutes during the stretch run when Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed the last three weeks with a knee injury.
Mirco Mueller spent a much-needed year in the minor leagues. He struggled for a long portion of the year with the Barracuda – and the organization is as much to blame for that as he is, after they rushed him to the league in 2014-15 – but Mueller apparently found his game late in the year in the AHL. He may still be a future top four defender in the NHL, but his stock has fallen some.
That could open the door for the Sharks to add a veteran defenseman, preferably a right-handed shot. The club was fortunate that in 2015-16 none of the defenders suffered any lengthy absences (other than Vlasic’s, which only occurred after it was evident the team would make the playoffs), and having some insurance around might be a good idea if DeMelo struggles or Mueller still isn’t ready.
Possible targets: Tom Gilbert, John-Michael Liles, Yannick Weber.
* * *
At forward, the free agent targets could depend on where the Sharks project a couple of their young, improving players in Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney.
Hertl is supposedly going to be a center at some point, which the Sharks have been talking about since the day he was drafted. Tierney, though, took a huge step in his development throughout the Sharks’ lengthy playoff run. That could mean he starts next season as the third line center rather than Hertl, and it also gives the Sharks the luxury of keeping Hertl on the top line. That may be the better scenario, especially if Tierney is ready to play a bigger role. At this point, after the dominant second half by the Hertl-Thornton-Joe Pavelski line, why break those three up?
If the Sharks see Hertl on the wing, it opens up a vacancy at the fourth line center position. If they see him as a center, a left wing will likely be the priority.
Forward is also the likeliest place that the Sharks could integrate at least one and maybe two prospects. Timo Meier nearly made the team out of training camp last year, and I’d put the odds slightly in his favor of him making the opening night roster. Barclay Goodrow had a strong year in the AHL, and could slot in somewhere in the bottom six. Nikolay Goldobin may also be in the mix, depending on if the undersized winger can get bigger and stronger in the offseason.
There’s always the possibility of a trade, too, especially if the Sharks and Patrick Marleau decide they’ve had enough of each other.
Possible targets: Mikkel Boedker (LW), Mike Richards (C), Matt Cullen (C), Jamie McGinn (LW), Alex Tanguay (LW), Spaling (C/LW).
* * *
The prevailing thought regarding the goalie market is that the advantage lies with the teams looking for one. That’s a plus for San Jose, which now requires a reliable backup for Martin Jones.
Originally, the Sharks hoped that Troy Grosenick would develop into an NHL goalie, since the 26-year-old is signed to a one-way contract for next season. Grosenick, though, didn’t have a good season with the Barracuda, and it was Aaron Dell that was recalled as the emergency goalie in the playoffs. That suggests Grosenick isn’t in their plans, while Dell is currently an unrestricted free agent.
While Dell could be an option to re-sign, the thought here is that Sharks should look for a more experienced goalie that can start approximately 20 games next season. There are 16 back-to-backs on San Jose’s schedule, so going with a guy like Dell, who has no NHL experience, would be a significant risk. There are more reliable veteran options out there.
Possible targets: Anton Khudobin, Chad Johnson, Karri Ramo, Jhonas Enroth.
* * *
One of the primary reasons that DeBoer found success in his first season in San Jose was his ability to quickly identify which young players were ready to play in the NHL last season, and which weren’t. Logan Couture’s first half injuries were a “blessing in disguise,” DeBoer said, in that he had to try certain young guys he didn’t know all that well in different places.
Some proved to the coach they were NHL-ready, like Tierney and DeMelo, while others like Goodrow and Goldobin showed that they weren’t.
“Got to know the young guys, know what they could do, what they couldn't do,” DeBoer said during the Stanley Cup Final. “We got a real good handle on the depth of the organization, which allowed Doug to make some real good acquisitions [during the season] to fill some of the holes that we realized we had.”
The next few weeks will reveal just how ready the Sharks believe their young players are to fill those holes that have opened again. If they consider them legitimately prepared for the NHL, it could be a quiet summer. If it’s the opposite, or if there’s too much uncertainty, expect to see some new faces come September.