The San Jose Sharks are a machine when it comes to the regular season. A well oiled, mean, machine at that, and a perennial division and conference contender in the challenging Western conference.
And yet each year, they seem to fall short of expectations by fans, media, and the team itself.
Since the lockout, the Sharks have not finished lower than 5th place in the conference, winning the Pacific division title the past three years. They’ve averaged almost 50 wins and 109 points over those five years; simply astounding regular season numbers. The only team with better average win and point totals is the Detroit Red Wings; a team most NHL fans associate greatness with over the past fifteen years. Yet the distinction between the two is simple: the Wings have been to the finals three times and brought home the cup. The Sharks have not.
As we head into the 2010-11 regular season, the Sharks are again seen as the favorite to repeat as Pacific division champions and challenge for the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team. This is a talented team, losing just three players over the offseason. Now they were big ticket names in Rob Blake and Evgeni Nabokov, which is where it could get interesting. As of August 31st the team was heading into the season with journeyman Antero Niittymaki and youngster Thomas Greiss. That is not a situation that many cup hopefuls would be fond of having to rely on to win in the Stanley cup playoffs. All of that changed of course on September 1st when cup winning goalie Antti Niemi signed with the Sharks for a measly $2 million on a one year deal. This now may be one of the better bang for your buck 1-2 tandems in the NHL this year.
From the Sharks’ point of view, this deal was a no brainer; you get a cup winner who is out to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke to try and find a long term contract as the likes of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak did after being traded to the Blues this offseason. Niemi and Niittymaki will be as good as Nabokov was last year, and cost less.
The loss of Blake is devastating. That might come off a bit over dramatic or harsh: he was 40, he has not played more than 73 games in any of the past four years, and he had slowed ever so noticeably making him slightly less effective than when he was in his early to mid 30s. But more importantly, he was a dman making $3.5 million playing top three minutes on a cup contending team scoring just 30 points. And although those 30 points are not great numbers, they were second on the team for defencemen (even if you average up Jason Demers ppg). In a league that is currently hyped on getting the puck up the ice as soon as possible, Blake’s skill set and toughness will be missed.
In a nut shell, San Jose’s defence is not solid. They have a hole, but they only have somewhere between 1.6 and 2.3 million left in cap space for the upcoming season. In addition, they have Devon Setoguchi, Joe Thornton, and Niemi up for contract next offseason. So to bring on a qualified defencemen, like a Robyn Regehr, might prove difficult without trading some capital back, which a lot of teams are unable to take on right now. Currently, Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are the two defencemen San Jose wants to rely on for big minutes and big plays. Unfortunately, they have to rely on Nic Wallin and Kent Huskins to be their three-four, hoping that Jason Demers or some other rookie performs vastly beyond their capabilities.
This is a great team, but their defence will let them down. If it doesn’t happen in the regular season, then you can bet it happens again in the playoffs, one more time.