As David Pollak reported yesterday, Jamie McGinn and Frazer McLaren were sent down to Worcester for what seems like the thirty seventh time this season. The basis behind this move, and the ones preceding it, lie in San Jose's tight fit under the $58.6 million dollar salary cap-- those eying the team with even a cursory glance are well aware of the ramifications of dancing with the salary ceiling, as it played a part in the trade of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff earlier this summer.
Salary cap space is accrued on a day by day basis in the NHL. Each day the Sharks rid themselves of unneeded contracts on the big club, the more room they have to make a deal before the March 3rd trade deadline in 2010. It's a sound strategy from that standpoint, but the physical toll it takes on players as they jump from coast to coast on a bi-weekly basis will likely increase exponentially as the season drags along.
With that in mind:
I think now is the perfect time to utilize the Worcester Shuttle. I'm not talking about it's creepy uncle the Worcester Salary Shuffle, I'm talking about the honest and pure Worcester "I Run Off Results" Shuttle. Logan Couture has been tearing it up in the AHL this season and leads the team in goals. Benn Ferriero had a two goal game against Manchester earlier this month and has eight points in ten games. Give the team a little kick in the pants and bring in some forwards who a) have been up here for an extended period of time this season b) are familiar with their role on this team and c) will provide a scoring threat.
San Jose's bottom six once again drew a blank against the Anaheim Ducks, making that one goal from the lower lines in the last six games. The role of these forwards extends far beyond scoring goals of course, and the defensive/grit aspects of Mitchell's, Malhotra's, Nichol's, and Ortmeyer's game brings a lot of value to the San Jose Sharks as a whole. These should not be cast aside as unimportant.
That being said, the reliance on the team's top line for goal scoring is troubling. Marleau and Heatley have accounted for roughly 40% of the team's goal output this season; when they fail to score the team drops to an unimpressive 2-4-2 [link]. It's an issue that needs to be addressed, and without the aforementioned salary cap space, it's an issue that will have to be taken care of in-house.
Here's a short term solution that potentially kills two birds with one stone.
When a player is constantly riding the Worcester Shuttle, he misses out on practice time with the same roster that he plays games with. For example, McGinn was sent down to Worcester yesterday, and will not see his teammates again before lacing up the skates on Monday against the Dallas Stars. That makes it harder for a player to improve his skills, as well as establish and/or improve chemistry with his linemates. Those riding the shuttle have no advantage over their peers in Worcester other than the fact they accrue valuable NHL experience in games with San Jose.
The advantage those in Worcester have over their peers riding the shuttle however, is a lack of cross-country flights, as well as increased ice time in practice and games. While the AHL does not keep track of TOI on their official stats, one could safely assume that they will be getting a bump of at least five shifts when playing in the minors-- they're the cream of the crop on the minor league affiliate, which is the reason they are playing with San Jose in the first place.
In order to reduce effects of riding the Worcester Shuttle takes on the relevant parties, I propose a rotating cast of players to make the trek in three-four game increments. With San Jose struggling for output right now in regards to their lower lines, reduced ice time (both in practice and in games) for those shuttle bound vagabonds, and the physical toll it takes on players, this seems like a perfect time in the season to get back to the "running off results" ideals GM Doug Wilson proposed at the beginning of the season. Keep in mind that this is a short term solution-- following the March 3rd trade deadline, the shuttle will no longer provide any salary cap benefits, allowing San Jose to avoid unneeded cross-country travel and begin to solidify their playoff roster.
If a player shoots the lights out at the NHL level, he would be rewarded with a longer stay than the three-four games. Worcester Sharks play by play commentator Eric Lindquist told Fear The Fin in October that the shuttle keeps players hungry-- "They know that they are all just a real good stretch of games away from playing in the NHL." San Jose has gotten away from that lately, and it's an aspect of roster management I think they should pursue once again.
Here are the daily cap hits for candidates who would be making the trek:
- Logan Couture, $6,434
- Jamie McGinn, $5,164
- Steven Zalewski, $3,420
- Benn Ferriero, $3,290
- Brandon Mashinter, $2,901
- Ryan Vesce, $2,850
- Frazer McLaren, $2,815
San Jose is saturated with centers right now, making Couture an unlikely call up barring injury. While I prefer McLaren over both Staubitz and Shelley, the return from injury for both of those players in the near future unfortunately makes him the odd man out on the fourth line.
When looking at the list, you have to figure this rotation would run pretty much through Ferriero and McGinn. I'm a huge fan of Jamie, and believe that he's going to be a staple on that third line after March 3rd, but reducing his travel (as well as saving a little coin with Ferriero's daily cap hit) is an enticing opportunity that I think should be explored.
At the end of the day what this team does in the playoffs is the ultimate measuring stick of a successful campaign. By spreading out the travel burden, and still remaining competitive, you put yourself in the best position to do so.