Defending Big D concludes it's look towards the 2011-2012 season and the Dallas Stars' Pacific Division competition. Today we look at the team that has pretty much had full ownership of the Pacific division title since the mid 2000's, the
Minnesota Wil... err.. San Jose Sharks.
Heatley is obviously the biggest name on this list and while casual observers might have been shocked that the Sharks would give up a forward which up until last season was a consistent threat to score 40 or more goals a year, his dip in performance and overall stats last year made him expendable while his trade value was still quite high. The Sharks had tremendous depth at forward last season with him and Setoguchi and while the cost of those two players for Brent Burns may have been a tad steep, the exchange for an all-star defenseman may have been well worth it.
The Sharks felt a need to upgrade their defensive core and make it a much tougher group to play against this offseason. With the additions of Burns who is a legitimate top line defenseman on any NHL club and Colin White who is one of the league's better stay-at-home defensemen. Havlat is streakier than Heatley has ever been and hasn't put up the kind of goal scoring numbers Heatley and Setoguchi have, but the Sharks hope a shift to a more offensive minded club can help boost his numbers. The gritty Handzus fits in perfectly with the Sharks new commitment to be a tough team to line up against.
Big Question Mark:
The saying is "defense wins championships" and there is no doubt the Sharks now boast a tough and talented six man unit that is as good as any other team's in the NHL, but was too much team offense at the forward lines sacrificed to bolster the defense?
After the jump, Fear The Fin gives us their take on the Sharks summer and just what we can expect from the boys in teal this coming season.
Mr. Plank from "Fear The Fin":
After San Jose bowed out of the Western Conference Finals for the second straight season in May, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson stated in an interview that one of the things he learned last year was the downside of waiting too long to make a trade when his team was struggling.
Self-reflection is clearly one of the Sharks GM's strong suits, as the San Jose Sharks were one of the most active teams this offseason in terms of blockbuster trades. In two separate deals in late June and early July, the Sharks sent Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, top prospect Charlie Coyle, and a first round round draft pick in 2011 to Minnesota in exchange for Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, and a second round pick in 2012. Burns, a premier offensive defenseman, gives San Jose the number two blueliner they've been looking for ever since Rob Blake retired in 2010, while Havlat will be brought in to replace the underperforming Dany Heatley in San Jose's top six.
Further grit was added when the Sharks signed penalty killing expert Michal Handzus and defensive defenseman Colin White, solidifying one of the better defensive units San Jose has ever put onto the ice. The backend has consistently been one of the weak spots in the organization, but with a backend that now boasts two number one defenseman (Dan Boyle, Brent Burns), an underrated defensive defenseman (Marc-Edouard Vlasic), a bruising destroyer of worlds (Douglas Murray), an up and coming offensive defenseman (Jason Demers), and a veteran defensive specialist who has faced top quality of competition for years (Colin White), that weakness has been turned into one of the team's strengths. It remains to be seen how it will all play out of course, but it's safe to say that the blown third period leads which hurt the Sharks should be far less common than they were last season.
The Sharks top six and goaltending should be familiar to Stars fan at this point-- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, and Logan Couture all return to the team, giving San Jose one of the better top-six forward units in the League. Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki will man the pipes once again, with Niemi projected to carry the torch much in the same way as he did last season.
The only outstanding question mark on the roster (barring injuries) is San Jose's bottom six forward group. The departure of Scott Nichol, Jamal Mayers, Kyle Wellwood, and Ben Eager means that a plethora of young Sharks prospects will receive the opportunity to battle for a spot in training camp. The third line looks to be a work in progress at this point, with Michal Handzus and Torrey Mitchell still needing a winger to play what should be a more defensive role. Burns' addition on the blueline should help keep too much of the offensive burden from falling on San Jose's top six forward group, but it remains to be seen whether or not San Jose will have the scoring depth to make some serious noise in the Western Conference.
Those concerns are slightly premature however-- with nearly $4.0 MM in cap space as of this posting, and the cost of rental third line forwards about a second/third round pick (with maybe a mid-tier prospect tossed in), the Sharks are in good position to seek an upgrade whenever they see fit. Expect the young Sharks to get a shot out of camp and make an impact with the team before the shoe eventually falls.
While it may seem like a broken record at this point of the organization's history, the playoffs are where this team will eventually be judged.
With every major piece in place however, and cap space available to make an upgrade on the lower lines, the 2011-2012 season is looking like it might be San Jose's best shot at the Cup just yet.
Even though for most clubs the thought of back-to-back appearances in a conference final would be considered a resounding success, the Sharks have grown very tired of having a very good team that can go deep into the playoffs, but just not deep enough. Likewise, making the playoffs 12 out of 13 seasons - while impressive - can grow tiring for a team and it's fan base if every one of those playoff runs ends in disappointment and in turn warrant some changes to the lineup even if said lineup was considered one of the league's best.
There is no doubt the Sharks have done just that and the makeup of their team is decidedly different than the one that took the ice a year ago, and while the Sharks should still be swimming around the top of the Pacific division and Western conference, the real test will be to see if all the changes GM Doug Wilson has made will bring better results in the spring when the playoffs are.