The dust is starting to settle. The pain of another baffling 'shot-yourselves-in-the-foot' playoff ouster is starting to subside. We're not even to training camp yet, but we've had a chance to reflect on a season that was disappointing in result but promising to build on. If you feel like you've had that thought before about the Sharks, you aren't alone. But reflecting on a season that could have ended better can renew your faith in your team when your team goes down swinging two seasons in a row, instead of failing to match the compete level of the opposition. Retaining optimism as a Sharks fan is difficult, with nearly a decade's worth of playoff ousters that defy logic. The Sharks were a great team this past season, but they didn't make the jump to the Finals that we've been waiting for. The ongoing pursuit of making that jump begins with Doug Wilson and company analyzing and addressing the team's weaknesses and have a successful offseason. Did he ever.
Let's start with the weaknesses of the 2010-2011 Sharks. Without going into graphic detail, their defensive unit was not nearly up to par with other contending teams. Their penalty kill was ranked 24th out of 30 in the league, which was made worse by the fact that the Sharks had the 6th most penalty minutes. The inability of our defensemen to execute consistently clean break outs of the defensive zone, with the exception of Boyle and Demers(and late-season acquisition White), led to an alarmingly high rate of turnovers; The Sharks were 27th in the league in giveaways. And it's not just the giveaways, but the kind of giveaways...inexcusable opportunities forfeited to the opposition right infront of the net, leaving Niemi out to dry. The inconsistency of our defense led to the season-long theme of our forwards playing deep in their own zone to compensate for the lack of defensive talent, and essentially the demise of odd-man rushes and breakaways. As a result, the point totals of key players dropped signifficantly. Every one of these problems showed up conspicuously in the season ending series loss to Vancouver.
And yet, despite all those shortcomings, the Sharks did make the Conference Finals in an ultra competitive Western Conference. The forwards unit was so elite that they almost overcame the worst defensive unit in the playoffs against Vancouver. How many teams actually have 7 forwards deserving of top 6 minutes? Most deep playoff teams have 3-4 35-45pt, limited potential role players filling in on the top 6. 7 legitimate top 6 forwards is elite. Throughout the playoffs, the Sharks won when they were able to consistently clear their own zone cleanly without turning the puck over or taking penalties. That sounds like common sense, but this was a real problem for the Sharks and one that heavily contributed to the end of their season. Put simply: You can't be sloppy in your own end if you expect to win in the playoffs. Simple. Fundamental. These problems were evident against LA, almost cost us the series against the best team in making you pay for mistakes in Detroit, and were a huge factor in the self-induced implosion against Vancouver. It's not out of the realm of reason that the Sharks could have beaten the Canucks had the Sharks not shot themselves in the foot in each of the games that Vancouver won.
As a general manager, you don't blow up a team that just went to the conference finals. Some teams, namely Philly, gutted their core to address a specific need. Philly's addition of a goaltender who just singlehandedly lost a playoff series against Detroit and some young, and unproven, talent cost them two legitimate 1st line players. In return for those players, they got some great young talent, high draft picks, and Jagr, who hasn't played in the NHL in 4 years. This is a team that made the Cup finals just 2 seasons ago. They were a quality team this season that lost faith in their young goaltender Bobrovski prior to the postseason. Instead of developing him like they were in the beginning of the season, they gutted their core to replace him. Philly may be really good...in 2-3 years, longer if Pronger has a noticable fall-off in his game, which is more likely than not. They may have acquired some quality young players, but their time to win was now. In essense, Philly gave up two high quality players to address something they certainly could have fixed in a less-risky deal or better management of their goaltending prospects. And even then, they addressed their main need with someone who choked in Game 7 of the first round 2 seasons ago and was the main reason his team got swept in the first round last season. Considering how inexpensive Guigere/Varlamov/Theodore were...There's no other way to state it: There were better options. Many hockeyminds feel like this was a grossly miscalculated gamble by the Philadelphia general manager.
So Philly gave up two top 6 forwards to address their problems. Maybe it will work. It probably won't pay off this season.
Which leads me to the Sharks, which gave up two top 6 forwards to address their problems. Here's why it should work.
First, the Sharks traded Setoguchi, Coyle, and a 1st round pick for Brent Burns and a 2nd round pick next year. In other words, we traded away a talented and proven, though very inconsistent, top 6-forward, our top prospect(Coyle), and a 1st round pick for an All-star defenseman. That's a very steep price to pay for any single player in an offseason. However, Burns is a very unique player. He's 6'5", he's physical, he's a phenominal skater, and he brings a special skill-set to our defense. He ranked 3rd in the entire league in goals from defenseman while playing for a team that scored amongst the lowest goal totals in the league. Now he's about to bring is talents to south beach. Er, south bay. The holes we had in our defense revolved around having only 3 D-men worthy of playing top 4 minutes. White could have qualified, but he was paired with the worst acquisition in Doug Wilson's tenure, Niclas Wallin. Burns will fix this. He will immedietely be our 2nd best D-man, if not our best. What we have to understand is that there is a very real chance that he's going to be better than Boyle. Burns was among the league leaders in even strength shot differential, ice time, didn't pile up penalty minutes, killed penalties, and provided a boatload of goals. Considering Coach Mclellan's 'Get the D involved on offense' philosophy, he'll get just as many, if not more, opportunities to shoot on this team and will now have multiple legitimate scoring threat passing options whenever he is on the ice, as opposed to often times having one or none in Minnesota. And to top it off, Doug Wilson got Burns to sign an extension, which keeps him a Shark during the prime of his career, on a contract that will prove to be one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts in the entire league should Burns elevate his game further.
Second, we signed Handzus, who logged the most ice time amongst forwards on the penalty kill of one of the top penalty killing units in the league in LA. Handzus was also among the leaders for even strength shots for/against ratio, which shows that he's very sound defensively in all situations. For a team that finished 24th on the PK, this is a tremendous addition. Handzus is a great net-front player and a great defensive zone face-off specialist. If we're moving Pavelski from the 3rd line, the ideal replacement would be someone just like Handzus.
Third, we traded Heatley for Havlat.
I think this will be a win/win for both teams. Havlat will come in and be one of the most technically talented players that I can remember the Sharks ever having. There was a bit of backlash when the trade was announced from San Jose fans. People here don’t seem to understand the quality of a passer that Havlat is, as he’s been a part of a crappy Minnesota team and was a part of mostly crappy Chicago team as it rebuilded. He made it through that rebuild and was the team MVP on Chicago when they made the conference finals against Detroit. He’s easily our second best passer now, behind only one of the games best passers of his generation in Thornton. Havlat has led his team in points in 3 of the past 5 seasons while playing against the other teams' top defensive units. On the Sharks, he'll have the best linemates of his career and will almost surely be against the lesser-quality opposition as teams will be forced to put their best defensive units out against the Thornton line.
Lets face it…We never used Heatley properly and we never gave him a chance to play up to his potential. He whiffed on too many shots(while he had a broken hand), I'll admit...But we gave up a whole bunch of players to get him and then said ‘Oh, by the way, you’re great and all but we’re not going to change a single thing about our system to fit your strengths.’ Sure, he’s got to play within the system, but you don’t just go out and acquire an elite player with a specific skill-set and change NOTHING of your system to fit their strengths. In that respect, I feel the Sharks did a disservice to Heatley’s skills. Given that he is now the undoubted #1 option in Minnesota, I expect him to put up numbers north of a point-per-game.
That said, that doesn’t mean that the Sharks are on the losing end of the trade should Heatley regain 90+ point form. Havlat’s best linemates of his career were teenage Kane/Toews and Handzus on Chicago, who were all very good...but Kane/Toews, at the time, were not at the same level of the linemates he’s about to have in Clowe/Couture. He wasn’t with the big guns on Ottawa, but he would have been a top-line player there if not for that monster line they had, which included...you guessed it...Dany Heatley. And yeah, Heatley at 25 years old > Havlat at 25 years old. No question. But at 30, it’s much more even.
If I look at the Sharks top 6, I see all of them achieving 60+pts, with 3 of them(Marleau/Pavelski/Couture) having 35+ goal potential. Thornton gets the most out of right-handed wingers(Cheechoo and Setoguchi)/defensemen(Blake/Ehrhoff/Boyle) and I’m guessing they will put Pavelski on right wing with Marleau and Thornton. Pavelski shoots relentlessly as is, and I really see him having a breakout season points-wise playing with Thornton. I'm talking 80+pts. He’ll go to all the tough areas Cheechoo was willing to go to and Seto wasn’t willing to go to. Pavelski’s hockey IQ dwarfs both Cheech and Seto. Plus, Thornton may not have to be the low-forward on D if Pavelski is on his line. How many players thrive in the late-man-on-the-attack better than Pavelski? How many playoff goals have come directly off ot him being the late man in? How many playoff OT goals? Pavelski on a line with Thornton certainly has potential to turn Pavelski into a 40 goal scorer. And that would be a vicious line to put out against the other teams' top lines...Unlike with Seto or Cheechoo, there are no defensive liabilities on that line. You could argue that each forward is upper-echelon defensively. Couture has potential, as well, to hit 35 goals, though he’s the furthest stretch(even though it’s not really that far fetched). If he didn't go through a 2 month slump around mid-season, he could have hit the 40 goal mark. I think having someone like Havlat, a great passer, on a line with Couture could help progress Logan’s development even more rapidly. At worst, we have 6 potential 25+goal scorers. How many teams can say that?
Further, we just got rid of our 2 worst defensive forwards. Every player we have on our top 6 is responsible defensively, which is something that very few teams can say. I think this perspective of the trades has gone unnoticed…Our top 2 lines will, more than likely, be capable of shutting down opponents. There’s just not much weakness defensively there, whereas both Setoguchi and Heatley were liabilities to not backcheck or lose their man on defense based on a mental cramp.
Combine this with a MUCH improved defense?
The last time we had an upper-echelon defense, Thornton was being consistently mentioned amongst the top 10 players in the world. He was consistently above 65 assists and, during a 2 year stretch, was pushing 90+ assists alone. With a highly improved defensive unit, a triggerman on point for the powerplay in Burns, and a more consistent, high-IQ RW like Pavelsi...and considering that we just saw some of the best hockey of Joe Thornton's career in these past playoffs...how can you not see Thornton’s point totals skyrocketting when compared to last season? If there were ever a perfect mixture of circumstances to lead to Thornton returning to the 'Top 10 players on the planet' conversation, wouldn't this be it? I'll take 90+pt Thornton with a complete 2-way game over 120pt Thornton who doesn't play any defense. Every day, no question. And 120pt Thornton who doesn't play any defense won an MVP award.
This has been a very busy offseason and I can’t wait to see this team on the ice. On paper, this is already one of the best lineups the Sharks have ever had, certainly the best defensive unit the team has ever put forth. They are once again a legitimate Cup contender, only this time they don't have any liabilities in their top 6 forwards and have a great defensive group. The only improvements they can make now is with depth, and they'll have until the trade deadline in February to set that in stone. On paper, they are 1 quality 3rd line player from being unquestionably the best lineup the Sharks have ever had from top to bottom. And there are plenty of viable options to fill this hole by the trade deadline. The Pacific division got weaker this offseason with Dallas re-tooling a roster that didn't make the playoffs, Phoenix blowing up their team, and Anaheim potentially losing Selanne to retirement, which, combined with the aging Blake/Koivu, would effectively turn the Ducks offense into a one-line team. The Kings did a great job this offseason and should threaten for the Pacific Division title, but they cannot be considered favorites when the reigning division champion just beat them in the playoffs AND plugged all their major flaws.
As a die-hard Sharks fan, I greatly approve what Doug Wilson has done for this team this offseason. On paper, the teams he has put together over the years should have won 2 or 3 championships by now. They didn't, but that was ALWAYS the players' faults and not his. I may not have agreed with every decision he's made over the years, but one thing stands as fact: He has always put forth a legitimate Cup contender. Every year. And this team looks like his best to date.