Another year, another playoff disappointment for the San Jose Sharks.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what promises to be a challenging summer for Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson.
After losing in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, the Sharks went out and added three new defencemen, a rather dramatic facelift. One can only wonder what the fallout will be when the President's Trophy winners hit the golf course after just six games in the 2009 playoffs.
While the rash decision might be to blow it up and start over, the Sharks were a dominant team through the 2008-2009 season, so it would seem to make more sense to tweak a powerhouse squad rather than try to re-build one.
But change is coming and the critics immediately set their sights on the Sharks' leading scorers, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
"They are the leaders," head coach Todd McLellan told the San Jose Mercury News. "One wears the 'C' and one wears the 'A.' They're the focal point of our organization. Frankly, the team hasn't succeeded with them driving the bus. The questions grow every year that you don't succeed."
Those questions make for a challenging summer for Wilson, who didn't mince words, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "Everything will be evaluated. There's nothing that's off the table. This is going to be a tough, painful summer, and it should be."
Yes, that sounds like change is coming.
Doug Wilson/Todd McLellan
Top Prospects: Logan Couture (39-48-87, plus-27 in 62 GP; Ottawa-OHL), Steven Zalewski (13-26-39, plus-5 in 75 GP; Worcester-AHL), Lukas Kaspar (17-27-44, plus-11 in 65 GP; Worcester-AHL), Riley Armstrong (25-17-42, plus-8 in 71 GP; Worcester-AHL)
Patrick Marleau engineered a terrific comeback season, tallying a career-high 38 goals, while posting a career-best plus-16 rating. Marleau may come under fire for a lack of postseason production (three points in six games), but a late-season knee injury surely played a role in his performance.
Going into the final season of his contract, the not-yet-30-year-old would have value on the trade market, if the Sharks were to look in that direction for a shake-up and Marleau would consider waiving his no-trade clause.
The criticism is going to only get louder about Joe Thornton's lack of playoff success until he actually slays the beast and, outperformed by the Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf in Round One, it didn't happen last season. Thornton is an elite setup man, but has a tendency to remain on the perimeter -- too often for a guy who goes 6-foot-4, 230 pounds -- and his point totals have declined in every season since the lockout, from 115 in 2005-2006 to 86 points in 2008-2009.
Thornton has two more years left on his contract and could be a marketable commodity if, like Marleau, he was willing to waive his no-trade clause, but there doesn't appear to be any inclination in Sharks' front office to make that move.
A breakthrough season for Devin Setoguchi lifted him to first-line scorer for much of the year and only three other forwards (Phil Kessel, Jonathan Toews and Bobby Ryan) in the league were younger than Setoguchi last season while scoring at least 30 goals and recording a double-digit plus rating.
Still streaky in his third NHL season, Joe Pavelski has continued to improve and is a legitimate second line scoring centre who plays well in all zones.
Milan Michalek has an enticing combination of size and skill, but despite three straight seasons in which he's topped 20 goals and put up a double-digit plus rating, Michalek still leaves the team wanting more, particularly in the postseason, where his production has been spotty.
Miscast in a checking role when he couldn't crack the top six Sharks forwards, Jonathan Cheechoo had a miserable season, finishing with just 12 goals and 29 points. In the right situation, Cheechoo could regain some of his offensive flair, but the Sharks can't plan on him being a $3.5-million/season checker.
Jody Shelley handles the role of a heavyweight and little else, contributing four points and a minus-6 rating. But, there aren't a lot of guys who can go toe-to-toe with the biggest and toughest in the league and Shelley (who has 142 regular-season fights in his NHL career) is one of them.
Jamie McGinn works hard, but needs to make more of an impact when he's on the ice. Another year of seasoning in the AHL could serve him well, yet there could be a fourth-line role available for the taking too.
Healthy for much of the season, power forward Ryane Clowe stormed his way to 22 goals and 52 points. He's a physical presence and showed a surprising knack around the net, which makes him an excellent complementary player to San Jose's playmaking centres.
Through four NHL seasons, Marcel Goc hasn't developed much since his rookie campaign. However, he is an ace in the face-off circle, winning 58.2% of his draws last season, so there may be room for him on the fourth line again.
While he didn't play a lot, Tomas Plihal did show some potential as a rookie and figures to be in the fourth line mix again.
Out for the entire regular season with an ankle injury, Torrey Mitchell returned for four games in the playoffs, performing notably well in the last couple. Going into next season, the Sharks have to expect that they will have Mitchell's speed and tenacious checking available on the third line.
A part-time tough guy, Brad Staubitz adds some insurance in the fisticuffs department and managed all of three points in 35 games. He would seem to be on the roster fringe again next year.
There figures to be at least one trade involving a Sharks forward and that will certainly determine needs for next season but the current lineup could use a solid two-way forward like Mikael Samuelsson, Chad LaRose or Tomas Kopecky. Perhaps re-uniting Joe Thornton with Mike Knuble may hold some appeal as well.
Top Prospects: Nick Petrecki (0-7-7 in 35 GP; Boston College-HE), Derek Joslin (11-19-30, minus-6 in 63 GP; Worcester-AHL), Jason Demers (2-31-33, plus-15 in 78 GP; Worcester-AHL)
Dan Boyle's first season in San Jose represented a marvelous bounceback from his injury-marred 2007-2008 campaign. He was in fine form, quarterbacking the power play and joining in the attack as well as any defenceman outside of Washington's Mike Green. Boyle figures to be an integral part of the Sharks lineup for several more seasons.
Just 22, Marc-Edouard Vlasic already has 245 NHL games under his belt and he took a big step forward in his third season, putting up 36 points and a plus-15 rating, both career bests for a player who is responsible beyond his years. At the same time, Vlasic was minus-6 in the Sharks' six-game first-round playoff defeat, so he'll need to continue improving in order to become a true impact player.
Consistency hasn't been the hallmark of Christian Ehrhoff's game and last season was no exception, as Ehrhoff coupled a career-high 42 points (25 on the power play) with a career-low minus-12 rating. He has decent size (could use it more), skates well and owns a booming shot, but it seems he's not as effective as the sum of his overall skills.
Veteran Brad Lukowich has moved around a bit, playing for four teams in the last four seasons, but he provides steady, physical defensive play as part of the third pairing.
Sturdy Douglas Murray is a real physical presence, delivering punishing hits while not attempting to do much offensively (he has one goal in 210 career games). Murray's lack of mobility and aggressiveness can work against him at times, but he has the size and toughness to go into battle with anyone.
Perhaps most valuable contributor on the Sharks blueline last season was 39-year-old Rob Blake, who turned in 45 points and a plus-15 rating while logging more than 21 minutes per game. If the Sharks can't find the room to re-sign Blake, then surely other suitors will come calling.
That could leave the Sharks needing a top-for calibre defenceman to help fill the void. Mattias Ohlund, Mike Komisarek or Johnny Oduya would all be viable alternatives who would likely provide better long-term value if not the immediate value that Blake would provide.
Top Prospects: Thomas Greiss (30-24-2, 2.47 GAA, .907 SVPCT, 1 SO in 57 GP; Worcester-AHL), Tyson Sexsmith (39-9-4, 2.26 GAA, .898 SVPCT, 6 SO in 52 GP; Vancouver-WHL), Harri Sateri (6-12-3, 2.30 GAA, .921 SVPCT, 2 SO-Tappara Tampere-FNL)
Despite compiling 87 regular season wins over the past two seasons, Evgeni Nabokov hasn't been able to lift the Sharks beyond the second round of the playoffs since the lockout. He's provided consistently strong goaltending, yet is heading into the final year of his contract, so there ought to be a heightened sense of urgency next season.
Brian Boucher was excellent as Nabokov's backup, playing in his most games since the lockout and establishing some value on the free agent market. If the Sharks don't retain Boucher's services or sign a veteran free agent, they could give prospect Thomas Greiss, who has been mentoring on the farm for three seasons, a shot at the backup job.
No first-round pick
The Sharks have approximately $47-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Sharks needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman, depth defenceman
Who did they add? Tomas Plihal, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich.
Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Christian Ehrhoff.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca