The pending unrestricted free agency ofwas made a little more intriguing (about as intriguing as the free agency of a fourth line center can be at least) after the play of Worcester center during the 2011 postseason. With Nichol out of the lineup due to a knee laceration in game two, Desjardins hopped into the lineup and injected an energy that was sorely needed on the Sharks sluggish fourth line. Desjardins added a goal and generated some scoring chances with and , transforming the fourth line into a reliable option for Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan.
In turn, Nichol's future with the club was subsequently thrown into doubt. And with his 37th birthday coming in December of this year, those doubts have increased even more.
Evaluating Nichol solely on merits of his postseason is probably unfair considering he was playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required surgery, but it's not as if his performance was even mediocre-- he finished with zero points in fifteen games, which isn't a real issue for a player of his skill set, but a -7 (tied for worst on the team) sticks out like a sore thumb. Considering his role as a defensive specialist on the bottom line, as well as the fact that he received a paltry 5:11 at evens, the performance freshest in the mind of the organization and its fanbase is that of an aging grinder who may have transitioned from asset to liability.
Further questions can be raised of Nichol's injury history, especially since he will be rehabilitating his aforementioned shoulder this summer. Nichol's career has been one that reflects his small stature and role on a team-- as an undersized energy player who relies on a bulldog mentality to be competitive, his injury list resembles something of thevariety. A concussion, left arm injury, broken thumb, wrist injuries, and strained neck are all ailments Nichol has dealt with over the last six seasons. Expecting Nichol to be healthy throughout an entire season at this stage of his career is not a bet San Jose, or any other team, will be making.
Nichol still has a lot of value for the Sharks however, specifically in the faceoff dot and in the penalty kill department. He led the team with a 59.4% faceoff rate this season, something that been a huge asset to his game throughout his entire career. McLellan clearly trusts him in this role, oftentimes putting Nichol out to take a faceoff withand in the defensive zone on the right side of the ice (where a backhand win would push the puck to the corner and not to the net if he was a lefty), changing on the fly once the puck would come up to the ice.
McLellan's trust in Nichol during these situations was a large part as to why he saw 39.6% of his zone starts in the defensive zone this season, leading the team by a wide margin. Having a right handed faceoff centerman to complimenton a team composed of left-handed centers (Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Desjardins) is a tool the Sharks Head Coach undoubtedly likes to have in his back pocket.
Furthermore, Nichol's penalty kill prowess is something that the organization would like to hold on to, especially if Fear The Fin's suggestions are taken into consideration (which is a laughable assertion of course). We've highlighted the Sharks need for a lower line penalty killer this offseason as one of the team's most pressing concerns due to the team's 24th ranked penalty kill as well as the fact that two of their most gifted offensive performers, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, accounted for the largest amount of ice time a man down.
Nichol's ice time during his two seasons with San Jose speak volumes about how reliable he is in this part of the game. Averaging 2:05 in 2009-2010 and 1:46 in 2010-2011, Nichol has been a regular fixture on the Sharks penalty kill unit and one of it's most trusted performers. His behind the scenes results serve to reinforce that notion as well-- Nichol was first on the team defensively in 09-10, putting up a stellar 4.09 goals against per 60 minutes played. In 10-11 he was equally impressive, posting the third best outcome amongst forwards with 5.50 goals against per 60.
Coupled with his faceoff ability, Nichol clearly has some value for a team that is going to be looking to improve what was a troubling penalty kill throughout the year. And although Andrew Desjardins could jump into the fold, considering he strong from the dot and has ample experience playing on the kill for the Worcester Sharks, San Jose does run a moderate risk when losing Nichol. The Sharks should be adding PK forwards this offseason, not subtracting them-- losing Nichol to free agency only compounds this issue.
Final Word: Nichol seemed to have lost a step this season at even strength, and despite his notable skill set on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle, age is becoming a factor for the energetic forward. Offering him a contract around the League Minimum (which is $550,000 this year according to the CBA*) is the best fit for San Jose; a raise or extension from his salary this year ($760K) should be out of the question.
If the Sharks can procure at least two penalty killing forwards in free agency, Nichol should not be retained-- there is a multitude of intriguing options out there right now if the Sharks decide to make a splash, although that list will grow smaller as July 1st approaches. If Nichol is signed however, expect him to battle with Andrew Desjardins for the fourth line center position in training camp, with a healthy scratch being a possibility throughout the year.
*As an aside-- it's so strange to me that I can casually throw out a number such as $550,000 per year and think of it as chump change when writing about professional athletes, but in the context of my own life (as well as yours), that type of "chump change" for a year's salary would come as a monumental shock. This isn't a criticism of the salary structure in the NHL of course-- as long as there are consumers willing to spend their disposable income on sporting events there is nothing wrong with paying athletes this type of money. Instead, it is merely a thought that occurs this time of year when speaking of players who are considered to be "cheap and affordable" in regards to their compensation.