The San Jose Sharks completed a trade with the New York Rangers Thursday, January 17. In addition to a seventh-round pick in 2014 and 26-year old forward Tommy Grant in exchange for 24-year old forward Brandon Mashinter.
Mashinter played 13 games in 2010-11, with no points and 17 penalty minutes (PIM). He was never on the ice for more than 10:04, giving him a grand total of 84:54 of NHL experience. But since Grant is older and has never been in the NHL, this was a move to get something for a player buried on the depth chart.
For those reasons, it was no surprise Grant was immediately assigned to Sharks minor league affiliate Worcester. There are already 28 players in San Jose and just two days left before they have to decide which 23 to move forward with. They should have the cap room to buy a little more time for a couple more players while Jason Demers, Brent Burns (not counted among the 28) and perhaps others are nursing injuries, but Grant is clearly not ready to compete for a spot on the team plane.
This means the lower end of the roster is coming into focus, and the picture is something new for San Jose.
Last season, the Sharks got over 40 percent of their goals from just three players: Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. But Tuesday, January 15, CSN Bay Area reported that head coach Todd McLellan will lengthen his bench to prevent players from wearing down from the condensed schedule. Hence, projections of the top skaters tell less than usual about San Jose's chances of capturing the first conference title in franchise history—a minimum for a team in the top 20 percent of the NHL talent for years.
And for the first time since the last lockout, coach Todd McLellan will look to their young players to fill those roles. The Sharks lost far more than they gained from the end of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs to their current roster.
Gone are Danniel Winnik, Dominic Moore, Torrey Mitchell, Brad Winchester, Benn Ferriero, Andrew Murray, Jim Vandermeer and Colin White from the team that died with a whimper nine months ago. With them go 340 total games played (GP), with 28 goals (G), 32 assists (A), not to mention almost 200 blocked shots (BS), over 500 hits (H) and 100 takeaways (T).
The only forward they added was Adam Burish: 65 GP, 6 G, 13 A, 69 H, 36 BS, 17 T. Brad Stuart is the only new face on the blue line: 81 GP, 6 G, 15 A, 177 H, 115 BS, 22 T. Factoring in the shorter season, the resulting hole is still over games, nine goals and two assists, plus almost 50 takeaways, 100 blocks and over 150 hits.
The only players over 30 expected to get any real action are Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray, who in March will turn 36 and 33, respectively. Both those players should be able to set their third line or pair.
Reports of Murray's demise are premature. There is a reason he started last season on the top pair, and even though it got less attention, the Sharks struggled almost as much when he was out of the lineup as they did with Martin Havlat. He also played hurt for part of the season, and his late start to his career suggests he may have mileage left despite his physical style.
He will probably not only miss games due to injury, but if there are no other injuries to the blue line he can be rested occasionally to prevent him from facing three games in four nights. McLellan will want to get both Jason Demers and Justin Braun on the ice as much as possible, too.
Nevertheless, Murray should end up playing in close to 40 games and lead the trio in minutes (but down from his 18:22) because he provides physicality the Sharks lack. He should still push last season's point total (four assists) and its pace in other stats, with about 100 hits, a few more blocks and at least 10 takeaways.
Braun will play more minutes than Demers thanks to his season starting a few games earlier. He is also a better defensive player and a better skater, allowing McLellan to trust him in more situations. He should play over 30 games, get at least one goal and reach about 10 points and takeaways. Look for him to improve his per game production in hits (30-plus) and blocks (50-plus).
Demers was playing well before injuring his hand overseas. If he can recapture that play when he gets healthy, McLellan will find room for him if he has to play seven defensemen or put Demers on the fourth line. Still, he will be lucky if there are 30 games available for him, so it will be good for him to match Braun's scoring even though he is a better offensive player. He will turn it over less than Braun—maybe a dozen times rather than a score—but fall short of the older but less experienced alternative in takeaways and especially blocked shots.
Matt Irwin is the front-runner to start the season on the roster. With Burns doubtful and Demers out, he will probably even get on the ice for both games of the opening road trip. McLellan might want seven on the blue line until he is convinced Burns can handle the grind of game action. Irwin is facing competition in camp from two others named Matt—Tennyson and Pelech.
Tennyson has come on strong after catching the Sharks eye last spring as a college junior, but the 22-year old undrafted free agent is probably not ready yet. Pelech is 25 and has three points in five NHL games for the Calgary Flames in 2008-09 but has not been back to the show. He began camp splitting the eighth spot with Nick Petrecki, who is likely only in San Jose in the hopes he can find the form that made the team draft him at the end of the first round in 2007 because he has shown little in the five-plus years since.
In all likelihood, these three players will only spend time in NHL press boxes, on the roster in case of emergency. It is rare for the Sharks to even need more than eight defencemen in a full season, and even that eighth player (presumably Irwin, who at 25 has yet to play an NHL game) is likely to play too little to make a significant impact.
Add the production of the fifth spot and below on the blue line (100 GP, 2 G, 24 A, 160 H, 180 BS, 25 T) to the third-line production (120 GP, 15 G, 25 A, 200 H, 100 BS, 50 T) and there is a decent supporting cast.
Handzus has the early lead on centering the checking line. As the next-highest paid depth forward, Burish was signed to make his way to the the third line. However, Wingels is the forward that will elevate this line and find time in a scoring role when the inevitable injury happens.
They should mesh well, so expect it to be the standard third line come playoff time. All three are physical: Wingels averaged over three hits a game last season and brings speed to the line, Burish is an enforcer that comes up with the occasional greasy goal around the crease and Handzus is a good passer, especially from behind the net, and should bounce back because he played hurt last season. All three are excellent defenders, and all three are average or better on draws.
The remaining players fighting for fourth line time include T.J. Galiardi, Andrew Desjardins, James Sheppard, Frazer McLaren, John McCarthy and Bracken Kearns.
Kearns has been solid enough at Worcester (35 GP, 8 G, 10 A) to earn a tryout, but played his first five NHL games last year at 30. He is more likely to get an emergency roster spot in the press box while the Sharks try to develop younger players in the minors than actually take the ice for San Jose.
But the Sharks are almost cxertain to employ at least 15 forwards for at least some action in a condensed season. They are known to give many different reserves a trial at the NHL level. Last season, the "McForwards" combined for 17 games and no points. They are unlikely to get that many in this abbreviated season even though they will spend most of the year called up to San Jose. It would appear the drop-off from the top 12 to these two is obvious if not significant.
McLaren started camp skating with the fourth line, perhaps because as an enforcer he is most likely to see time there and because they want to see Sheppard at center. In reality, McCarthy offers more skill. The Sharks showed what they thought of him by signing hoim for two years, with the second being a one-way contract—i.e. if he is reassigned next season he will have to clear waivers. That suggests they see him in an everyday role soon if not now.
Sheppard could be scratched on occasion if the Sharks go with seven defensemen or want to give another forward a shot. He started off quickly in the minors this season, but has been slow coming back from a 2011 injury. But he not only had promise enough to be the ninth pick in the 2006 draft, but has both scored over 20 points and already demonstrated defensive capabilities over his 224-game NHL career. He gives the line another good option in the faceoff circle.
Galiardi is much the same. At one time, he used speed and tenacity to be a pest and score a point per two games. But his last two seasons were increasingly disappointing, and he was almost as likely to be scratched as play after he came to San Jose last season—just one point (a goal) in 14 games. He started camp on the third wing, but is too much like Wingels to put them on the same line and will lose that battle. If he is anything the player he once showed, he will be a regular and give the Sharks have four potent lines.
Meanwhile, Andrew Desjardins already was solid enough to play in 76 games last season, scoring 17 points. He has become adept on draws (plus-22 in faceoffs) and was behind only two current Sharks forwards in hits (93) and blocks (49) for San Jose last season. It would not be a surprise to see him play more on the third line than the fourth.
Either way, the Sharks have more forwards with NHL experience as well as young players with the potential of making the jump to the show. With so many options and even some experience, the Sharks can expect their fourth line to be solid on both ends (10 G, 15 A, 200 H, 80 BS, 80 T), making the depth skaters comparable to last year's.
With the improvement of the second line and second pair plus the improvements to the penalty kill, they need only a modest upgrade in backup goalie Thomas Greiss. He should play in 10 games because of the condensed schedule, so if he can collect five wins, turn away 10 shots for every goal, the Sharks can easily get the extra couple wins it takes to be 2013 Stanley Cup contenders.