Nashville general manager David Poile has made some blockbuster trades in recent years. He acquired a number one center in Ryan Johansen from Columbus midway through the 2015-16 season, sending highly regarded young prospect Seth Jones to the Blue Jackets, and last summer dealt captain Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban in a move that shocked the hockey world.
The high-risk decisions are paying off. Nashville has advanced to its first Western Conference Final, while playing all season in front of a raucous, capacity crowd in the Music City.
Just like Poile, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has never shied away from shaking up the roster to acquire top talent. His biggest move, of course, was snagging Joe Thornton from the Bruins back in 2005, but there have been plenty of other high profile attainments along the way – Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns among them. Recall last summer, too, when the Sharks were reportedly making a push for Steven Stamkos before he re-signed with Tampa Bay.
This offseason is a unique one for San Jose. The two best players in franchise history, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are pending unrestricted free agents that may or may not return. There is offseason flexibility that the Sharks have rarely enjoyed during Wilson’s tenure.
The Sharks could bring one or both of the cornerstones back. That would at least keep them competitive in 2017-18. But if Thornton, Marleau, and the majority of the 2016-17 team returns next season without any major changes, it’s difficult to envision the aging club suddenly being a Stanley Cup contender again.
In their own division, Anaheim is still strong while young Calgary and Edmonton are quickly improving. If the Sharks do decide to bring Thornton and Marleau back, they’re returning two soon-to-be 38-year-olds that while still effective, are not at the stages of their careers where they’re going to get dramatically better.
Even without Thornton and/or Marleau, the club still has several key pieces in place. Wilson has already called it a priority to re-sign Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the two biggest reasons the Sharks finished fifth in the league in goals-against this season. Likely Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns is not going anywhere. Joe Pavelski is one of the best captains in the NHL, commanding the dressing room with his win-at-all-costs attitude and tireless work ethic. Other than those guys, though, there may not be any other untouchables on the Sharks roster.
The Sharks can still be a competitive team without one or both of Thornton and Marleau, if they make the right moves.
Which brings us back to Nashville.
The two cities are comparable in that neither is a traditional hockey market. Both teams play in buildings that aren’t exactly state-of-the-art anymore. Both need to be winning teams on the ice in order to put fans in the seats.
Despite the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, there didn’t seem to be much of a surge in interest. There were still plenty of empty seats in key home games over the second half of the season, even with the Sharks in first place in the division (officially, the Sharks sold out 26 of their 41 home games, but many of the announced sellouts didn’t appear to be capacity crowds).
In that sense, this is an organization in desperate need of a jolt. The Predators got one when they acquired Subban, selling out all 41 of their regular season games for the first time in the history of the franchise. They also remained competitive.
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Whether the business side factors into hockey decisions likely varies from club to club, and it’s impossible to know whether that plays a role in the Sharks’ front office. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Sharks owner Hasso Plattner expressed concern in January 2016 about all the empty seats at SAP Center that year.
“I'm really concerned about the situation,” he said at the Sharks’ 25th-anniversary celebration.
Plattner has to be wondering why a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in June didn’t prevent many of those seats from going unoccupied in 2016-17, too.
Could he be pushing for the kind of trade that sparks more interest, thereby selling more tickets? Again, we can only speculate. But, recall a press conference in May 2015 when the Sharks were announcing their new lease at SAP Center, when the owner mentioned Evgeni Malkin’s name before quickly checking himself and saying he was using Malkin’s name “just for an example.”
The point here is that Plattner and Wilson do discuss potential offseason moves, as the owner made clear that day. And if Plattner is concerned about the empty seats, that undoubtedly comes up during his conversations with the hockey department.
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Talking about a blockbuster trade is plainly much easier than making one. It’s still too early to predict which names might be on the market this summer, and if those potential names would make sense for the Sharks.
A top center would likely be at the top of the list. Perhaps the Sharks will get involved in discussions for Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon or Matt Duchene. Maybe the Islanders won’t be able to re-sign Jonathan Tavares, and will deal him instead. Perhaps Philadelphia, which got lucky in the draft lottery with the second overall pick, will look to move captain Claude Giroux to make way for Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.
If the Sharks were to go after a player like that they would have to part with at least one or two key pieces, just like Nashville did when it sacrificed Weber and and Jones. Think along the lines of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Justin Braun or Timo Meier going the other way.
And, to be clear, we’re not suggesting that both Thornton and Marleau need to depart in order to facilitate a big trade. Acquiring a top line center might allow Thornton to center the third line, where he’s probably better suited at this stage of his career, anyway.
Of course, it’s possible no big names become available. But, one thing is for sure – Wilson, a notorious worker of the phones, will explore. The general manager has mentioned before that he’s made a trade with every other NHL team during his 14 years in charge, and history shows he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on a major trade.
Now would be a logical time for him to do it again, for the benefit of the team both on the ice and off of it.