NHL free agency was underway at 9:00 a.m. PDT Tuesday, July 1. Instead of making early headlines for signing stars or even complimentary players, the San Jose Sharks made the news for traded blue-line veterans landing in new homes.
The photos list the significance of the blue-line makeover for the five likely returning players. The examination of the effect these changes have on the unit as a whole starts with detail about the biggest component of the transformation—trading the player that got his start with San Jose longer ago than anyone but Patrick Marleau.
Brad Stuart was the second overall pick in the 1999 NHL draft by the Sharks and was traded to the Boston Bruins as part of a package for Joe Thornton. He won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 before being traded back to the team that drafted him two summers ago.
Stuart never wanted to leave San Jose but will be debuting with his fifth team. Just over an hour into the free agency period Tuesday, the Colorado Avalanche posted their trade for the blue-line veteran. They will send a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL draft and a sixth-round pick in 2017.
There are several things that can be ascertained from this move. More of them are good for the Sharks than bad.
First, the bad: San Jose does not even get a pick in the 2015 NHL draft general manager Doug Wilson and director of scouting Tim Burke have been drooling over. This is beyond trading away someone that absolutely would have been a regular if not everyday player for future talent. This is dumping someone for way down the line and just does not make sense.
Could Stuart be one of the players Wilson spoke about when he said, "we want players that want to play here, not just live here" after the 2014 Stanley Cup debacle? The Sharks are too humbled from The Choke to take on a champion in their own family.
Even accounting for public relations permeating terms like "true professional" and statements like, "I want to express our sincere thanks for everything he has done for our team," the official explanation is consistent with the team's stated vision and their actions to date:
Brad understands that we have made a commitment to give our younger players the opportunity to play and it was important to us to put Brad in a position where he has a chance to be successful.
The best news may be an indication the coaching staff—including 10-time champion and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson—thinks enough of the young blue-line talent. It is unlikely Wilson thinks he can fill the void of the unit's best hitter that was third on San Jose in blocked shots during the 2013-14 NHL season with young and/or bargain free agents that do not clash with his rebuild.
Is it possible that Hasso Plattner has decided to dump payroll? Sure, but new team owners do not usually consider it good business to anger their fans. The ninth-richest man in the world may be willing to make painful business decisions (like a rebuild), but knows better than to go cheap in his second summer with a new team.
The Sharks ended the 2013-14 NHL season with three veterans whose 34th birthdays were in their rear-view mirrors manning important blue-line positions. No one remaining will see their 30th until after the 2015 NHL trade deadline.
The first departure was Dan Boyle. His rights were traded to the New York Islanders for a fifth-round pick in 2015. They cannot be happy he signed with the rival New York Rangers even though it is for a value he may struggle to reach (two years, $9 million according to the linked piece, citing Larry Brooks of the New York Post).
San Jose had already said they would move on from the soon-to-be 38-year old, but he had been the team's best defenseman for his five seasons prior to last. With Boyle gone, Stuart now traded and a Scott Hannan return unlikely, only four defensemen remain with NHL experience. Jason Demers is likely to return to give the unit five veterans, but that is not certain.
Likewise, Matt Tennyson can be added to that list once his restricted free agent contract is settled on...if four career games can be considered experience. With the Sharks not even signing a complimentary piece on the first day of NHL free agency and Wilson's stated commitment to a rebuild, at least one of three talented rookies will be on the active roster all season.
Taylor Doherty was also extended a tender and is likely to be signed to a two-way contract long before camp. He has played well in the AHL and is expected to be ready for the next level.
Then there is San Jose's first pick in the 2013 NHL draft. It is rare for defensemen to make the transition to the NHL that quickly, but Mirco Mueller is clearly ahead of schedule. He has elite talent if it can be developed well, and that could be at the elite level if he good enough to make the everyday roster.
All three may well be called upon at some point before the 2014-15 NHL season ends. Instead of wearing down at the end of the season, they will be getting their games down for the distant future as well as the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. That is a good thing where there is plenty of time to go in a different direction if things do not work out.