It was about this time last year that the San Jose Sharks decided that seven experienced NHL defensemen on the roster just wasnt enough.
Currently, the blue line consists of Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart, Brent Burns, Douglas Murray, Justin Braun and Jason Demers. Those are, however, the only defensemen in the system with any significant NHL experience. Should the Sharks stand pat with that group, they may be taking a significant risk when the 2012-13 season gets underway.
While the Sharks top five is among the strongest in the league, questions surround the remaining two in Murray and Demers. The 32-year-old Murray suffered through a number of injuries last season, missing 22 games total, and at times had trouble keeping up with the pace of play even when he was in the lineup. The Sharks are expected to have a much more aggressive approach to their penalty killing next season, too, and Murray's role could be reduced in that regard when you consider his lack of foot-speed.
Demers, although still just 24, saw his game take a step backwards last season after a fairly promising 2010-11 campaign. His stats fell from 24 points and a 19 rating in 75 games two seasons ago, to just 13 points and a -8 rating in 57 games last year.
The Sharks do have some young defensemen in the system that were recently high draft picks in Nick Petrecki (first round, 2007) and Taylor Doherty (second round, 2009), both of whom now have an extra year of experience under their belts. A veteran NHL scout recently told me that while Doherty could get in some games next season, Petrecki (still a restricted free agent) looks a ways off from being NHL-ready.
The 21-year-old Doherty, a 67, 235-pounder, had six assists and 76 penalty minutes in 63 games with Worcester last season. He has two years remaining on his entry-level deal, and the Sharks may be better served letting him grow his game in the AHL for one more complete season.
So, what do they do?
Last year, the Sharks decided to sign the veteran Colin White to a one-year deal on August 3, after the New Jersey Devils bought him out of his contract. Hes still an unrestricted free agent, but its highly unlikely the Sharks will consider White after he struggled mightily for most of the season.
There are more attractive options still on the market.
One name that immediately jumps out is Phoenixs Michal Rozsival. The 33-year-old was a top-four defenseman on one of the NHLs strongest defensive clubs, playing more than 19 minutes a night on the reigning Pacific Division champions. As long as hes recovered from a hit he took from Dustin Brown late in the concluding game of Western Conference Finals (which reportedly caused no structural damage), Rozsival would be a solid fifth defender for the Sharks with the ability to jump up and play in one of the top two pairs if necessary.
While Rozsival would be an upgrade to the stay-at-home Murray, St. Louis Carlo Colaiacovo is a veteran of 370 NHL games over parts of nine seasons and is a puck-moving type that would be an improvement over Demers, who plays a similar style.
Sharks fans got a chance to see Colaiacovo first hand in the first round last season, when he had an effective series for the Blues in their five-game triumph over San Jose. A left-handed shot, Colaiacovo has the ability to play on the man advantage and might look good paired with the right-handed Braun on the teams bottom pair.
A more familiar name with a chance to return and provide some depth (and cost much less than either Rozsival or Colaiacovo) is Jim Vandermeer. Even with White struggling and Murray battling injuries, Vandermeer somewhat oddly played in just 25 games last season, but brought a physical edge to the blue line (and even a few times as a fourth-line forward).
Other notable free agent defensemen include Scott Hannan, Brett Clark, Matt Gilroy, Jaroslav Spacek, Pavel Kubina, Steve Eminger and Kurtis Foster. If the Sharks arent looking to sign a defenseman to a long-term deal with a salary cap rollback likely on the way, they may be able to get one of the veterans listed above to sign a one-year deal at a reasonable cost, much like White did this time last year.