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Defensive questions abound
Sharks need to speed up quest for quickness
7/27/10 - By Mike Lee -

Much can be said about how the Sharks defense failed to contain the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Many expected the Blackhawks to create mismatch issues because of their team speed, but when the dust settled, the Sharks succumbed to a flurry of point deflections and interior goal scoring by Chicago’s 2nd and 3rd line forwards.

Team captain Rob Blake’s retired shortly after the Sharks were eliminated by Chicago , created a bigger void in the blueline corps. The retirement leaves the sharks without a captain, a power play quarterback, a locker room presence, and most importantly, a defender that brought tons of experience to the ice night after night.

Time caught up to Blake, who wasn’t the Norris trophy winning defender that he was in 1998. He was however, a serviceable defender that provided a better option that what the Sharks are left with.

That is unless one of the younger defensive prospects starts to produce.

San Jose tried to address some of their defensive deficiencies early this summer by signing Blackhawks restricted free-agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a 4-year, $14 million dollar contract. That was voided when the Blackhawks matched the Sharks offer, retaining the rights to the young defender.

San Jose must now decide if the 7 defenders that they have under contract will suffice, or if they want to supplement their roster via free agency or trade. Outside of Dan Boyle, the Sharks lack an offensive minded defenseman that can produce on a consistent basis.

Jason Demers looked like a promising candidate to replace Blake, but he struggled after the first two months of the season. He’ll certainly get his shot to pick some of the offensive slack vacated by Blake, but that’s a lot to ask from a young player with 51 NHL games under his belt.

General Manager Doug Wilson also must decide if he’s willing to start the season with a defensive corps that lacks in speed. Niclas Wallin, Douglas Murray, Kent Huskins and Jay Leach aren’t exactly speed-burners on the backend. Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will see the majority of ice time this season, but it’s hard to believe that Wilson will stand pat with that group of defensemen.

If Wilson were to go the free agent route, the pickings are slim. Former Sharks Andy Sutton is rumored to be negotiating with a Pacific Division team, which could well be the Sharks. Marc-Andre Bergeron is also another enticing option, who would fill more of an offensive role than Sutton and would come at a lower price tag.

Beyond those two players, you’d be looking at lesser caliber free agents that provide no more of an upgrade over the current group already in San Jose ’s stable. Names like Shane Hnidy and Willie Mitchell just don’t seem like an upgrade.

Sean Sullivan, Derek Joslin (assuming he re-signs with San Jose ), Nick Petrecki, and Taylor Doherty will all be given a shot to make the NHL roster, but if the Sharks waver early, those guys may not solve the problem.

Tomas Kaberle’s name is linked to the Sharks constantly, because the Sharks are seeking a defenseman and Kaberle is on the block in Toronto , but if that happens, Wilson needs to get ultra creative with his budget. Devin Setoguchi still isn’t signed and is likely to receive a raise from his $1.2 million pay check last season, but the Sharks only have $5.5 million in cap space to play with.

San Jose has 19 players signed and if Setoguchi commands $2 to $2.5 million in salary, there’s no way Kaberle’s $4.25 million cap hit fits in the Sharks payroll. That $5.5 million has to spread across at least three more roster players, so the impending Setoguchi contract will leave you with roughly $3 to $3.5 million to spread across two more roster spots. That assumes of course that Wilson doesn’t burn through that cap buffer by throwing a fat contract at Setoguchi.

Canucks blueliner Kevin Bieksa’s name has also been tossed out given Vancouver ’s spending spree on defensive help. His $3.75 million cap hit also doesn’t work without another contract getting moved. The Canucks are carrying nine defenseman (although Sami Salo is out at least 6 months after tearing an Achilles tendon) on the roster and will surely move someone in order to get under the cap (they need to shed $2.7 million).

With two months to go before the start of training cap, Wilson will need to be creative in how he addresses his defensive problem. He’s also competing against teams that are in similar situations. Anaheim , Chicago , Nashville , and New Jersey still have to decide on how they will round out their defenses.


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