Sharks

Analysis: It's time for Sharks, Wilson to make a big move again

Analysis: It's time for Sharks, Wilson to make a big move again

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.

* * *

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.

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley traded to Peterborough Petes of OHL

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AP

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley traded to Peterborough Petes of OHL

Last time we checked in on Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley, he was being overlooked for Canada's World Junior Championships roster. At the time, the skilled 18-year-old defensemen had more points to his name than all but one under-20 Canadian defenseman playing in Canada's top three major-junior leagues.

All of those points had been accrued with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, where Merkley was reassigned after making it to the final stages of Sharks training camp back in September. He won't be scoring any more points for Guelph -- he had five goals and 34 assists in 28 games -- this season, however. 

On Friday, Merkley was traded from Guelph to the Peterborough Petes (also of the OHL) in exchange for highly-regarded forward Pavel Gogolev and five draft picks. In 159 career games with the Storm, Merkley totaled 167 points.

“Ryan’s been a tremendous player for the Guelph Storm for the past two and a half seasons,” Guelph general manager George Burnette said.  “We wish him well with his new opportunity in Peterborough.”

Ironically, the Storm and Petes faced each other Friday night, though none of the players involved in the trade played in the game. The haul the Storm received in exchange for Merkley speaks to how the young defenseman is viewed across the hockey landscape.

“In Ryan, we’re acquiring an elite-level defenseman that has excellent offensive abilities,” Petes general manager Michael Oke said. “We look forward to him joining our group.”

Merkley, who won't turn 19 until August, figures prominently into the Sharks' future plans, and they clearly think highly of him. He was the last junior-eligible player standing at Sharks training camp, and his production with Guelph can only make them feel better about their choice to select him with the 21st overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

San Jose, of course, made NHL waves right before the start of the regular season when they acquired star defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. After a slow start, Karlsson has been finding his stride as of late, and -- alongside Marc-Edward Vlasic and Brent Burns -- gives the Sharks arguably the most talented defensive group in the league.

[RELATED: Wins show positive trend in Sharks' evolving defense]

Merkley figures to be at least one season away from joining the big club, but the faster he develops, the more likely he can make that fearsome threesome a foursome. Or, perhaps, make one of those veteran defensemen more expendable down the line.
 

How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins

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USATSI

How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins

SAN JOSE -- Remember way back in September, when the Sharks’ defense was the talk of the town?

It wasn’t that long ago they had a whole season ahead of them, and talking heads were calling them Cup contenders before a single puck had dropped -- and a lot of that hype was geared toward the Sharks' blue line. The trade for Erik Karlsson sent expectations into the stratosphere, as if it guaranteed San Jose’s blue line wouldn’t ever lose a puck battle.

With 33 games in the bag, it’s pretty safe to say that bar was set unrealistically high. But after a much-needed win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, it became clear: As the Sharks' collective game moves in the right direction, their D-corps is following suit and trending in a positive way. Now, it’s just a matter of building on that.

When the Sharks had trouble getting in the win column earlier this season, they struggled to defend chances in five-on-five situations and committed defensive turnovers, losing battles and having trouble helping their out goaltender. The result? Three or more goals finding the back of San Jose’s net on a regular basis. After a particularly difficult 4-1 loss to Ottawa Senators, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic stated: “If you’re letting in six goals, we better score seven.”

To a degree, the Sharks' defense has done that, whether it’s by tightening up in their own zone or capitalizing on more offensive chances. As San Jose tries to string more wins together before the Christmas break, it has cut back on the number of goals that get by, minimizing turnovers and odd-man rushes. The Sharks now are ranked 11th in the NHL in goals against with 98 allowed, an average 2.97 goals per game -- which is an improvement over their previous 3.0-plus mark.

It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to tightening up in their own zone, the Sharks’ defense also is contributing to the offense.

Brent Burns, who's only one off the team lead with 31 points, is leading the charge with 27 assists on the season. While fans might view him as a goal scorer, Burns' abilities as a set-up guy -- especially on a few of Joe Pavelski’s big goals --- have been big for Team Teal. (It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that Pavelski and some of San Jose’s other dynamic forwards have no problem posting up at the doorstep in an attempt to redirect one of Burns’ lethal one-timers into the back of the net.)

No. 88 has helped generate offense on the back end as well, ranking fourth among NHL defensemen with 32 takeaways.

[RELATED: Sharks growing into the team they want to be]

Burns isn’t the only Norris Trophy winner who's contributing. Karlsson’s level of play has been trending upward, particularly in the Sharks' most recent stretch of games. After tallying an assist in the win over the Stars, EK65 has six assists through seven games and a plus-4 rating in the month of December.

In fact, Karlsson and linemate Brenden Dillon have joined forces to set up a couple goals over the last stretch of games. The duo set up Pavelski in back-to-back games, with the opening goal in last Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes and the first-period marker in Monday’s 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. Dillon also led the Sharks’ physical game Monday, leading all skaters that evening with four hits.

San Jose's blue line recently has added a little punch with Radim Simek recalled from the AHL. The Czech product has found almost instant chemistry with Burns and so far has successfully used his heavy game to slow down the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that Simek also has gotten on the scoreboard, tallying three points (one goal, two assists) in six NHL games played.

All in all, it’s forward motion that looks very position for the Sharks’ blue line. While there still are aspects of its game the team no doubt wants to improve on, things are trending in the right direction.