With the Stanley Cup final set to commence between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, the NHL season will soon be coming to a close.
In about two weeks, all 31 NHL clubs will be focused on 2017-18.
Not only is the 2017 NHL Entry Draft on the horizon (June 23-24), but the Vegas Golden Knights Expansion Draft (June 21) will also make this summer a bit more interesting.
Now with each team looking to better their rosters, what exactly should the Sharks be looking to do this offseason?
After losing in the first round this year, it is a popular opinion among fans and experts that San Jose will take a step back this upcoming season. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be capable of another deep playoff run. Their 2015-16 run to the Stanley Cup final came on the heels of a season where they didn't even qualify for the playoffs, ending a streak of 10-straight playoff appearances.
More often than not the Sharks most successful seasons have come when expectations outside the locker room are rather muted.
Obviously the biggest question facing the Sharks is whether or not their biggest two names will return. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both set to become unrestricted free agents.
That said, the three key changes this writer wishes to see are mostly independent on whether or not Marleau and Thornton return.
Change No. 1: Get Younger, Faster and More Offensive on Defense
Outside of Brent Burns, the Sharks blue line did not produce much in the way of scoring this past season. Burns scored a whopping 29-goals, a career-high helping him finish the season as a Norris trophy finalist. He will likely win the award come the NHL Awards ceremony in June. However, the rest of the Sharks defense corps combined to score just 19 goals. In the past, the Sharks had Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, and Dan Boyle and Burns on the back end. This past season they didn't have a second offensive weapon on the back end.
While Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are mainstays who will all be protected come the expansion draft, the rest of the defense could use a shake up. Most notably, Burns’ defense partner Paul Martin looked every bit like a 35-year-old defenseman last season. He looked slow moving his feet and sloppy handling the puck, making numerous bad pinches. Unlike the previous season where Martin was bailing Burns out regularly, it was Burns often bailing Martin out in 2016-17.
The Sharks should leave Martin unprotected and should be ecstatic if Vegas takes him off their hands. In no way, shape or form should Martin be playing top-four minutes again next season. Unfortunately he is under contract at a whopping $4.85 million. If Vegas doesn’t select him, the Sharks ought to consider buying him out.
In today’s NHL, all defenseman need to be able to skate. Martin simply can’t keep up with the speed of today’s game anymore. In his place among the top-four should be David Schlemko. The journeyman veteran is a terrific two-way defenseman who can sit back and play a bit more reserved next to Burns, but he also has the offensive creativity to help Burns be even better at the offensive end. Instead of Burns being the predictable point shooter, Schlemko can help alleviate the defensive pressure on 88 with his crafty puck skills.
And finally, the Sharks third pair next season should be the San Jose Barracuda’s top-pair from this past season. Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed are two of the biggest reasons the Barracuda won the AHL’s Pacific Division this season. They are both solid two-way defenseman and both can play on the power play. The Sharks’ second-unit power play is certainly in need of improvement, particularly on the back end. They really shouldn’t be using Vlasic on the man advantage. Ryan and Heed finished sixth and fourth respectively this season in AHL points by defenseman. Heed tallied 56 points, with Ryan picking up 49 of his own. These two could slide in perfectly onto the Sharks second power play.
In an ideal world, the Sharks will find a way to move on from Martin and Brenden Dillon, the latter of whom makes far too much at $3.25 million. For a defensive defenseman who hasn’t performed when moved into a top-four role, the Sharks need to cut bait.
The Sharks could easily roll out a very impressive defense core 1-6 by going with:
All six of these defenseman are solid skaters. They can each make amazing plays at both ends of the ice. The days of having stay-at-home-only defenders are coming to a close. Martin’s lack of foot speed, and Dillon’s lack of offensive ability really hindered the Sharks this season. They will not be successful in 2017-18 with multiple one-trick pony defenders playing regular minutes.
Unfortunately, Heed is set to be a free agent and will need to be resigned and Schlemko will likely be unprotected going into the expansion draft. Hopefully both of them will remain with the organization for next season.
Change No. 2: A Significant Increase in Aaron Dell’s Workload
Aaron Dell was one of the most impressive goaltenders in all of the NHL in 2016-17. While Dell’s sample size was extremely small at just 17 starts, he led the entire NHL among goalies who appeared in at least 20 games with a .946 even-strength save percentage. Martin Jones meanwhile finished 44th at just .916. Jones' ranking was lower than that of former Sharks James Reimer (11th at .929), and Thomas Greiss (31st at .920). Even much-maligned Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen ended up ahead of Jones, tied with Greiss at .920.
The point to be had here is that Martin Jones had a disappointing season and not many Sharks fans are willing to admit that fact. Jones no doubt had a solid first year with the Sharks and was terrific in the 2016 playoffs. However, he certainly has yet to earn a big pay raise and 2017-18 will be the final year of his three-year contract.
Admittedly a big Dell fan, this does not mean I’m sold on him either. Former Sharks backup Alex Stalock also had a really good first full season as a backup behind Antti Niemi and that proved to be nothing but a flash in the pan. Perhaps Dell just had a fluky strong season. He was never a true elite goaltending prospect. But what if he is just a late bloomer? The Sharks need to find out whether or not Dell can have a second straight strong season with an increased workload. At minimum 25 starts, with wiggle room to increase to 30, depending on how he performs.
Change No. 3:: Transfer of Power Among Forwards
This is where the Thornton and Marleau conversation comes into play. If the Sharks are smart about things, they can start to move on from the Thornton and Marleau era without actually letting them go. However, in order to start moving on while still bringing them back, two things need to happen.
First, Thornton and Marleau need to be signed to contracts which signify that they are no longer primary players. That means, they should be signed to, at an absolute max, $4.9 million per season. Based off the fact Thornton made a smidge more than Marleau last season, it would be realistic to see Thornton sign for $4.75 million and Marleau at $4.5 million, each to two-year deals.
If Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson can convince the pair of soon-to-be 38-year olds to take said discounted deals, that will make the next thing they need to do, much easier. If Thornton and Marleau do indeed return, both should be taken off the top power play. How bout this for a second power-play unit?: Thornton, Marleau, Heed, Ryan and perhaps Kevin Labanc?
Taking the place of Thornton on the No. 1 unit absolutely must be Tomas Hertl. Another knee injury limited him this past season, but Hertl was extremely effective against the Oilers in the playoffs. The Czech native is right smack in the middle of his prime as he will be turning 24 next season. Given some better luck in the health department next season, Hertl has the skills to become a 60-point player if utilized on the No. 1 power play. He is tenacious on the puck, tough to move along the boards, and has equally a terrific shot and passing vision. Quite honestly, (outside of Burns’s brief stint at forward) Hertl might be the closest thing the Sharks have had to an Owen Nolan-type power forward in quite some time. Ryane Clowe also comes to mind, but even with his history of knee injuries, Hertl is a step faster and a bit more dynamic with the puck than Clowe was during his NHL career. The point to be had is that Hertl needs to be given the opportunity to become “the guy” for the Sharks. In San Jose’s most recent two playoff series against Pittsburgh and Edmonton, Hertl was easily the team’s best forward, and he only played two games in that Penguins series.
Along with Hertl, the other open spot on the top power play should be taken by either Joonas Donskoi, Timo Meier or the aforementioned Labanc. My preference would be to start out with Meier on the top unit. Meier would be a perfect big body to park net front with Hertl playing the Thornton-esque role on the half wall. At the points will be Logan Couture and Brent Burns with Joe Pavelski on his off-wing side.
After years of a great power play, the Sharks stunk on the man advantage in 2016-17. The only significant personnel tweak they made all season was to briefly drop Marleau down to the second unit with Joel Ward going to the top unit. However, that only lasted a few games. Otherwise it was the same status quo units that struggled all season. It is time for the Sharks to truly balance out their units. This would be the ideal formula for doing just that.
If the Sharks make these three changes, they will be able to both compete for another Stanley Cup this season and develop their young talent. Continuing to get younger and faster while keeping Thornton and Marleau around is a recipe for a bounce-back season.