Defense, Marleau hot topics as Sharks approach trade deadline


Defense, Marleau hot topics as Sharks approach trade deadline

NASHVILLE –- Now that the All-Star Game has come and gone, the next big event on the NHL’s yearly calendar is just ahead on the horizon.

The 2015-16 trade deadline is on leap day, Feb. 29, just three weeks and three days from Friday.

Will the Sharks’ roster look any different by the time the calendar flips to March? There’s always that possibility.

A case can be made that the Sharks -– as well as they’ve been playing for the past month –- are thin at left wing, defense and backup goaltender. Part of the reason they’re on an impressive 9-1-2 run in their last 12 games is that they are remarkably healthy for this time of year, with not a single name on the injury report. There are sure to be some bumps and bruises, at the very least, over the final 10 weeks of the regular season.

Unlike last season there’s no question that the team will be buyers rather than sellers, considering the position they’ve put themselves in and how important it is for Doug Wilson and his staff to make it back to the playoffs.

Coach Pete DeBoer, though, suggested that his frequent communication with Wilson hasn’t deviated from the norm with the deadline creeping up.

“We have daily discussions on where our team is at, what our strengths and weaknesses are, what holes we would like to fill,” DeBoer said. “We’ve had those since day one. It’s not like those conversations are ramping up now. We’re on the same page, we both see it the same way. I really don’t have a lot to do with it. We know where we’re at. I really like our group, and we’ll see what happens.”

If the Sharks are to make a big move, it will almost certainly involve Patrick Marleau. The 36-year-old forward’s agent has reportedly been exploring options for Marleau, who earlier in the season was willing to accept a trade to either the Kings, Ducks or Rangers. New York, in particular, has been scouting the Sharks frequently in recent weeks.

When asked on Friday in Nashville if he expected to be with the Sharks after the deadline, Marleau replied: “I just worry about playing.”

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The Sharks’ most pressing need is probably on the blue line. While rookie Dylan DeMelo has made a good account of himself in 25 games, the Sharks have struggled when Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Justin Braun has been hurt. Their record when down one of their top four is just 1-6-1 with an abysmal goals-against average of 4.00. They haven’t had to play short recently, as DeBoer has had the luxury of dressing the same six blueliners for the past 23 games, but they could be one key injury away from defensive disaster.

That group could also arguably use a little more physicality. Although Brenden Dillon is always on the lookout for a big hit, the Sharks really haven’t had the kind of defenseman that can deliver a game-changing blow since Brad Stuart or Douglas Murray.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, though, disputes that notion that the Sharks’ defense core isn’t physical enough -– a necessity come playoff time.

“Physical is being hard on your stick, hard in front of your net – not necessary running guys through the boards. Winning the 50-50 battles. Sure, sometimes you want to make a big hit to get your team into it, but physicality most of the time is just being strong on the puck, strong on your stick, boxing out, getting guys sticks out from in front of the net. That’s physical. We can do that.”

Vlasic senses the Sharks can contend even if the current roster, defensemen or otherwise, is unchanged between now and Feb. 29. Considering the Sharks haven’t played a stinker since Jan. 2 against Winnipeg, he may be right.

“I think if [Wilson] wants to add, that’s up to him, but for now we have to concentrate on playing well and keep playing the way we have,” Vlasic said. “If this is the team we have going into playoffs, I feel really confident.”

Epilogue or prologue? Answer will determine Sharks' summer


Epilogue or prologue? Answer will determine Sharks' summer

The Sharks will have to answer a lot of questions this summer, but their offseason's overarching one will determine how everything else is answered.

Was the 2017-18 season an epilogue or a prologue for San Jose? There's ample evidence for both options.

The Sharks entered their 26th season with Patrick Marleau, the franchise's leader in every conceivable offensive category and one-time face, in Toronto. They ended it with Joe Thornton, the club's all-time assists leader and Marleau's fellow face of the franchise for a decade, out of the lineup. He was working his way back from what he revealed to reporters on Tuesday were full tears of the ACL and MCL in his right knee, the same injuries the 38-year-old suffered in his left knee a year ago.

Sunday's Game 6 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights ended the club's first playoff run without either player in the lineup since 1995.

But the Sharks also started the regular season relying on young players to improve and veterans to bounce back in order to offset Marleau's departure, and ultimately Thornton's absence. They ended it with five, 25-and-under players scoring 30-plus points, tying a franchise record, and 12 players in total hitting that threshold, setting a new one. 

San Jose made it to the second round, winning (at least) one playoff series for the ninth time in general manager Doug Wilson's 14-year tenure. That's more than any other team in the league during that time, and the latest came at least partially on the backs of players stepping into bigger roles. 

There are compelling arguments either way, especially within the Sharks' cap flexibility this summer and beyond.

As the roster stands right now, San Jose will have between $17.5-and-$21.5 million in salary cap space this summer, according to Cap Friendly. Assuming prospects Dylan Gambrell and Max Letunov plus defenseman Tim Heed start next season in the minors (or elsewhere, in Heed's case), the Sharks will have an additional $2.4 million to spend, plus nearly $5 million more if Paul Martin is moved. 

Thornton, Eric Fehr, Jannik Hansen, Evander Kane, and Joel Ward are the team's only unrestricted free agents, while Dylan DeMelo, Tomas Hertl, and Chris Tierney will need new contracts as restricted free agents. The latter contracts likely won't break the bank, while Thornton said Tuesday he's willing to come back on a one-year deal and at a reduced rate, too boot. That should leave plenty of cap space to re-sign Kane, if the Sharks choose, as well as land another free-agent forward in a class headlined by New York Islanders center John Tavares. 

Wilson will have to walk a tightrope, though, as cap space that's abundant this summer could dwindle as soon as the next. Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic's extensions kick in next season. Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi, and Joe Pavelski are eligible to sign contract extensions this summer. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Joakim Ryan are, too, ahead of restricted free agency in 2019. 

If 2017-18 was the postscript of the Thornton/Marleau era, Wilson can truly start to strip things down. But if it marked the start of a new one, he has the flexibility to double down, possibly even if Thornton comes back.  

So what did the 26th season in Sharks history ultimately signify? We may know as soon as July 1. 

At times, Sharks showed they were better than Vegas, they 'just didn’t do it long enough'

At times, Sharks showed they were better than Vegas, they 'just didn’t do it long enough'

SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl had the first goal of Game 6 on his stick with about nine minutes left in the first period.

With the Vegas Golden Knights in the midst of a line change, San Jose defenseman Brent Burns back-handed a blueline-to-blueline to a wide open Hertl. Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury challenged, but Hertl’s shot beat Fleury over his right shoulder.

The puck then pinged off the crossbar, and Hertl fed the rebound to Logan Couture in the slot. But Hertl’s pass rolled helplessly off of Couture’s stick, and Vegas dodged a first-period bullet.

The 0-0 scoreline held into the second period, where the Golden Knights scored twice en route to a 3-0 Game 6 win on Sunday, their fourth of the series. That left the Sharks to ruminate on early, missed opportunities on the night their season ended.

“We just didn’t find a way to put any pucks in the net,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We had some opportunities early; a couple of power plays and some really good looks. Whether the puck spun off, or [we] got a skate on it, or whatever kind of happened … I think our opportunities early were there to take that lead and get control of that game.”

San Jose out-chanced Vegas 17-9 in all situations in the first period, according to Natural Stat Trick. That included a 9-5 edge at even strength, but the Sharks were held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes for the fifth time in six games.

They finished the series with a first-period goal-differential of minus-four across all situations, despite out-attempting (137-121), outshooting (71-60), and out-chancing the Golden Knights (62-57) in the six first periods.

Fleury stopped 70 of 71 first-period shots in total, good for a .986 first-period save percentage.

“I thought we had some good starts,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said. “Had some quality chances early in a lot of those games. [I thought Fleury] was great in a lot of those games, allowed them to get their feet under them, and we were chasing five of the six games.”

That was the case again in Game 6. As statistician Darin Stephens noted with an assist from Natural Stat Trick, Vegas controlled play the rest of the way after absorbing San Jose’s early offense.

The Golden Knights especially stymied the Sharks in the third period. As was the case for most of the matchups between the two clubs this season, Vegas was the better team over the final 20 minutes, and held San Jose to just seven, five-on-five shots as its season wound down.

Trailing by two, the Sharks only shot three times in the first 13-and-a-half minutes of the third period.

“I think if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t have [had our defensemen join the rush] so early in the third,” Couture said. “We should have gotten back to what led to success this series, and that was chipping [the puck] in, going to get it, forcing them to play in the [defensive] zone and taking pucks to the net, and for some reason, we didn’t want to do that.”

With better finishing at the start, and better starts to their finishes, San Jose may very well still be playing. Instead, the story of the season continues unabated, and Vegas is deservedly headed to the Western Conference finals.

“For periods of the series, I thought we were the better team,” Couture said. “We played the game we know we’re capable of. We showed we could beat them.

“We just didn’t do it long enough.”