In an ideal world the San Jose Sharks would have a new head coach in place before evaluating their free-agent talent. Since general manager Doug Wilson has said he will take his time replacing the departed Todd McLellan, they have to start making decisions for players pictured with caption summaries further examined below. Antti Niemi was covered in detail by CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz Tuesday, April 28.
The first step in any off-season plan is to be careful with re-signed personnel. The player typically either most expensive to retain or easiest to replace with another affordable role-playing veteran is the unrestricted free agent (UFA).
In San Jose’s case, the typical UFA falls into the latter category. Niemi was the only one to make more than $1.1 million during the 2014-15 NHL season and his departure would be the biggest change the team is likely to make. The other seven were skaters playing a total of 167 games and scoring 35 points.
Niemi has been the best option for the Sharks, but the only way Wilson should re-sign him is if there is no significant upgrade he can sign to a good contract. The 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist was a Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, and has shown he can be among the best in the world. He also can be below average, as he was for most of the 2014-15 NHL season—albeit with poor blue-line support.
He has had enough time to show he can be the anchor of a good team, but it appears only a great team of skaters like Chicago is sufficient. He will be 32 before training camp, so his best days are probably behind him. That does not make him much of an option for a developing San Jose team.
On the other hand, the Sharks would have to roll the dice on some other goalie like Jonathan Bernier or hope to find the next Tim Thomas (or Devan Dubnyk) off a scrap heap as an alternative because teams are not letting franchise goalies under 30 years old go. If there is not going to be much of an upgrade from Niemi via free agency, the only goalie that even might be ready for a starting role is Alex Stalock. Two other goalies the team could retain might be capable of being backups at best, leaving this a position of need.
Niemi is popular in San Jose’s dressing room. If it is between him and some young player that is not ready (which certainly may include Stalock) or another inconsistent or pedestrian veteran, better to keep him. The position would be among the 10 worst in the NHL, but lose him without an equivalent replacement and it is the absolute worst. If he takes a deal for one or two years for less than he has been earning, there is a good chance the team cannot do better.
The next highest-paid UFA the Sharks must decide whether or not to re-sign is Matt Irwin. His two-year, $2 million contract paid him $1.1 million on the 2014-15 NHL season in which he played just 53 games because he was often scratched even though he was healthy.
Yet Irwin’s 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) were only four behind Marc-Edouard Vlasic (nine, 14) and Justin Braun (one, 22) for second on the blue line. While he struggles to turn in transition, he made great strides by the end of the season toward being a solid defender and would have been dressed more than the fading Scott Hannan (another UFA examined below) but for McLellan’s subjective preference for veterans.
Considering Irwin has only 153 games of NHL experience and will not even turn 28 until after American Thanksgiving, he may be worth more of a look. He is already a dangerous offensive talent, averaged more blocked shots and hits than Hannan this season while being a positive player in relative 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage (RSA%5 that compares San Jose’s shots-for vs. shots-against percentage while both teams are at full strength when he is on the ice and when he is not).
Hannan’s RSA%5 was 26th among those to play any games for the Sharks during the 2014-15 NHL season, 14 places behind Irwin. There are also nearly nine years difference in their ages and probable arc for the future.
Hannan is a great presence in the dressing room and a mentor to young blue-line teammates. He can defend and play smart enough to be a great emergency guy. The going rate for that kind of veteran is about $1 million without strings attached like limited-trade clauses, but there may be better options out there at that rate for a franchise that wants to change its culture.
Irwin would be a much better option but will command more. He has not done enough to warrant more than a couple years unless he is taking a discount rate, nor get $2 million-plus dollars. However, he offers decent third-pair talent for something more like two years, $3 million.
It is possible both could be back, but San Jose would be better off not clogging up the bottom of the depth chart so more young players can be rotated in. Surely Karl Stollery and Taylor Fedun will not cost much and could either be given short-term, prove-it contracts or be locked up at a bargain rate if director of player development Larry Robinson thinks it worthwhile to bet on their upside.
Stollery does not seem to offer as much scoring potential as Fedun but seems to be further along defensively. The Sharks lacked both offensive and defensive play on the third pair during the 2014-15 NHL season, so either or both would be worth UFA contracts more than Hannan—since neither is even six months older than Irwin, they should at least get better rather than older as the contract runs its course.
Between the two and with small sample sizes to examine, Stollery ranked much better (five games, 18 hits, 14 blocks, five giveaways and a takeaway) with a plus-6.7 RSA%5. Fedun (seven games, no hits, eight blocks, two giveaways and three takeaways) was minus-6.6, but the value of his right-handed shot was corroborated with four assists. That is far less likely an anomaly as the advanced statistics.
The only other blue-line UFA has been playing more as a forward mostly because being the fourth-line wing requires far less ice time: John Scott is an enforcer and not an asset to a team’s talent pool, and the less frequently those players take the ice the better for all parties.
Much to the dismay of many San Jose fans obsessed with his signing being an indication that Wilson should be fired, he was not brought in for possession (30th in RSA%5 on the team at minus-6.6) or to score (three goals, one assist in 38 games on the 2014-15 NHL season). Scott’s shortcomings certainly contributed to being forced to defend more, but that is generally the case with fourth-line players and he is a strong defender (94 hits, 14 blocks, seven takeaways) and can usually be counted on to make the right play (11 giveaways).
Add to that the positive presence in the dressing room and protection for younger players and that is worth the lowest-paid contract on the roster. That being said, the 32-year old Scott could easily be replaced by another enforcer that can bring the same things to the table (and hopefully more) for the same amount of money.
Moreover, Wilson need not clog a roster spot for him if he thinks Raffi Torres is going to finally return and that his presence will make teams think twice about taking a run at young players. Mike Brown is at the very least less of a liability than Scott (though still minus-6.5 RSA%5) and might also suffice as a second enforcer option even though he is not going to intimidate as well (42 hits, seven blocks, one takeaway and four wins in seven faceoffs over 12 games).
The other player Wilson brought in for his punch was Micheal Haley. The 29-year old career reserve was 31st in RSA%5 at minus-8.6 in the very small sample size of four games on the 2014-15 NHL season.
Haley has just two goals and an assist in just 56 league games over his career and has shown only modest offensive skill even in the AHL. A low-priced, two-way contract (allowing them to pay less if he is in the minors) might make sense, but in all likelihood he will never be more than a reserve and is not the intimidating physical presence Scott is.
Finally, Bryan Lerg makes a better story than player. He does have some potential as he was once a promising prospect before having his career derailed by injury. On the other hand, not many 29-year old players with two games of NHL experience go on to have much of a career (Bracken Kearns, anyone?).
Lerg would almost certainly be affordable to keep, but the Sharks have to ask themselves if he would just be clogging their roster and in the way of developing young talent. Unless he is willing to take a two-way, minimum contract that might amount to mentoring AHL players that have more NHL potential, this does not seem a fit.
In the end, all eight UFA options would only be worth keeping at the right price. That depends on the allowing the fair-market value to be established, which cannot be fully determined until their contracts expire July 1.
Only players signing below that value should be retained before their current contract expires. Even then, most should be allowed to leave to open up the bottom of the depth chart for developing players like Chris Tierney, Barclay Goodrow, Daniil Tarasov, Mirco Mueller, Matt Tennyson and Dylan DeMelo. The goal or two margin a young defenseman may give up compared to Hannan early in the season becomes growth by the end of it.
If San Jose is truly a tomorrow team as Wilson has said it is and he now can pick a coach that takes that approach, the moves he makes this summer should be consistent with it: zoomdune.com would not retain Hannan, Scott, Haley or Lerg even for below-market deals; Irwin, Stollery and even Fedun are relatively expendable, too.