Yesterday, the Sharks became one of the last teams to announce which of their restricted free agents they tendered qualifying offers to, ensuring those players would remain under team control and not hit the unrestricted free agency market on July 1st. As is the case every year, some of the players teams opted not to qualify prior to Monday's deadline are legitimate NHLers who at least represent an upgrade over several bottom-six forwards and third-pairing defensemen currently employed around the league. Some of them will no doubt re-up with their old clubs despite not being qualified, as was the case a year ago with Tyler Kennedy and the Penguins as well as Matt D'Agostini and the Blues, among others. But until that happens, it's worth sifting through the pile of newly-available free agents to figure out if any of them merit consideration from San Jose.
Mueller might be the most intriguing and widely-discussed name on the list of RFAs who weren't qualified this week. The 8th overall pick in the 2006 draft, Mueller raised expectations through the roof when he scored 22 goals and 54 points as a rookie in Phoenix during the 2007-08 season. While about a fourth of his goal production that year came on the power play, Mueller generated even-strength shots at an impressive rate for a 19-year-old, getting the puck on net an average of 8.5 times per 60 minutes of 5v5 hockey. Every facet of his game suffered during his sophomore campaign which is also when Mueller sustained the first of several concussions that have tragically kept him out of NHL action for much of his career since. After continuing to struggle in 09-10, the Coyotes traded Mueller to Colorado at the 2010 trade deadline where he promptly caught fire, scoring 9 goals and 20 points in 15 games, although a lot of that was thanks to a ridiculous 26% shooting percentage. It was while wearing an Avs sweater that Mueller suffered the worst injury of his career in a game against the Sharks when then-San Jose captain Rob Blake checked Mueller head-first into the glass. He missed the rest of that season as well as Colorado's playoff series against the Sharks and then proceeded to miss the entire 2010-11 season and the first 41 games of the 2011-12 season.
After returning to the Avalanche lineup midway through last year, Mueller posted some underwhelming counting stats but they belied a fantastic shot rate as the winger generated a whopping 10 shots per sixty 5v5 minutes. I'd advise against reading too much into a 32-game sample size but that does seem like an indicator that Mueller is capable of once again being the impact forward he was before his last concussion even if his goal total didn't impress. There are some concerns with Mueller's game even beyond his concussion history as he's played extremely sheltered minutes at even-strength throughout his career without ever posting great puck possession numbers. Mueller's coaches have consistently started him in the offensive zone far more often than the defensive end and he's generally been out against the opposing teams' lesser lights but has only managed to turn those advantages into modest play-driving numbers, never posting a Relative Corsi rate higher than +3.5 per 60. Still, he's played on some dreadful possession teams so I wouldn't be awfully concerned, particularly considering the impressive shot rates he's managed when healthy. As I wrote in the Alexei Ponikarovsky article yesterday, the Sharks would be able to provide their third line with shelter based on the way Todd McLellan deploys his top six. As long as Mueller's injury history scares off enough teams to keep the price tag under $2 million a year, I think the Sharks should take a chance on Mueller. The organization has precious little forward talent in the 21-25 age range and, if Mueller can regain his form as a player who can create opportunities for himself, the team will have improved in the short and long term.
For a 26-year-old, Johnson doesn't have much of an NHL track record with the 2011-12 season being his first full one in the league. However, he performed well in extremely tough minutes on a terrible Minnesota Wild team this past year. Johnson and his usual center Kyle Brodziak were thrown to the wolves by head coach Mike Yeo, facing the toughest competition among Wild forwards and starting close to 60% of their non-neutral 5v5 shifts in the defensive end. Despite the difficulty of his minutes, Johnson nearly broke even compared to his teammates, posting a Relative Corsi rate of -0.3 per 60, meaning the Wild were only ever-so-slightly worse at controlling possession with Johnson on the ice even though, if Johnson was on the ice, so were the Sedin twins, Jarome Iginla, Taylor Hall and the rest of the Western Conference's elite. Johnson posted respectable offensive numbers at Dartmouth but wasn't anything to write home about in that area last year. He could be a dependable defensive winger for the Sharks, potentially on the fourth line if the team decides to give Tommy Wingels an expanded role as a top-nine forward.
When you're so bad that the New York Islanders no longer want you, you know you're having an awful season. But while Comeau's 2011-12 can't be described as anything other than a failure (in 16 games on Long Island, he scored 0 points and was -11), a lot of it was the result of some atrociously unlucky percentages. Comeau averaged well over 2 shots a game (and 7 shots per 60 minutes 5v5) in Calgary but scored on just 4.3% of those with him and his teammates combining to score on just 4.8% of the shots they were on the ice for at even-strength. That kind of bad luck probably won't continue, especially considering it's not something Comeau has been plagued by in the past--certainly not in 2010-11 when he scored 24 goals playing with nobodies. At 5v5, Comeau has started more shifts in his own end of the rink than the offensive zone every season of his career but has still managed to post a positive Relative Corsi rate each of the past three seasons. He's a good skater who can be effective on the forecheck and with the season he just had, there's unlikely to be much of a market for him. While he shouldn't be Plan A for Doug Wilson and co., I wouldn't mind seeing the Sharks take a flier on him in the $1 million range on a one-year deal.
Wolski was actually the player that went from Colorado to Phoenix in the Peter Mueller trade in 2010 and, although he's a few years older, he's probably the better player. His career has been marred by questions about attitude and work ethic but all he's done on the ice is produce. Believe it or not, Wolski was actually 10th in the entire NHL in 5v5 scoring per 60 minutes in 09-10, directly ahead of players like Joe Thornton, Loui Eriksson, Evgeni Malkin, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane. While a lot of that was courtesy a very high on-ice shooting percentage, Wolski finished 26th by that measure in 07-08 and 88th in 2010-11, both of which are still first-line territory from purely a production standpoint. Wolski has been a plus-possession player at nearly every stop during his NHL career although he's coming off a poor season by any measure that he split between Florida and New York and has been somewhat sheltered in terms of starting position the last couple of seasons. As mentioned earlier, the Sharks can continue to afford whoever they acquire to play on their third line reasonably cushy minutes and I'd disregard Wolski's 31-game 2011-12 season entirely as he was barely given a chance by either the Panthers' or Rangers' coaching staffs, averaging fewer than 12 5v5 minutes per game. While I think his 09-10 year was a bit of a mirage in the sense that absolutely everything went right for Wolski, he'd still provide a lot of what the Sharks should be looking to add on their third line; namely, offensive creativity, possession skills and production. He's probably the player I'd be most interested in out of everyone on this list if I were Doug Wilson.
Pouliot has gone from a punchline to one of the more quietly effective forwards in the league in a few short seasons. While he'll likely never live up to the offensive potential scouts saw in him when he was selected 4th overall in the 2005 draft, Pouliot has made the most of limited minutes for three seasons running, finishing 4th and 2nd, respectively, among Habs forwards in Relative Corsi during the 09-10 and 10-11 seasons and 6th on a stacked Bruins team this past year. Granted, he's accomplished that in mostly butter-soft minutes (save for 09-10) but he'd be a decent depth option for the Sharks, much in the vein of Wolski although with nowhere near as much upside. What's concerning about Pouliot is that the Bruins actually traded his rights to Tampa Bay at the draft...who then proceeded not to qualify him, presumably because his contract demands were much higher than they expected although I guess it's also possible he really didn't want to play for the Lightning. If it's the former, San Jose shouldn't bother--Pouliot adds value but there are better options out there for lesser cap hits.
Hahaha. Just kidding. He's terrible.
There aren't many NHL-calibre defensemen who were left unqualified, especially compared to last offseason when legitimately useful blueliners like Mike Lundin, Anton Stralman and Sami Lepisto were allowed to test free agency through this process. Picard was left standing without a qualifying offer last year too, back when he was a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization. The only reason for the Sharks to even bother wading into the free agency pool for defense is if they plan to trade Douglas Murray and his $2.5 million cap hit. The objective of such a move would be to clear space to beef up the bottom six which makes a guy like Picard, who could presumably be had for dirt-cheap, somewhat attractive as a 7th defenseman who would allow the team to spend the vast majority of Murray's salary on acquiring actual talent rather than simply replacing him on the blueline.
Picard was heavily sheltered to the tune of a 70% offensive zone start rate last season with the Pens but, to his credit, he hit it out of the park with one of the better raw Corsi rates in the league, a feat he also accomplished the previous year. Picard only makes sense if Todd McLellan intends to shelter a third defense pair of Jason Demers and Justin Braun; Picard could sub in for either one in a pinch, either due to injuries or one of the blueliners struggling, and replace a good amount of what both players bring in terms of moving the puck north. Although I think the Sharks should target someone like the aforementioned Lundin as a depth defenseman in the event that Murray is traded so that they have another body to potentially assist the woeful penalty kill, Picard is worth contemplating.
Failing to qualify Gragnani was a very curious decision by the Canucks brass, who touted the 25-year-old defenseman as an integral piece of the Cody Hodgson/Zack Kassian trade back in February. At the time, he seemed like a solid (and exponentially cheaper) Christian Ehrhoff replacement for Vancouver. Gragnani is a smooth-skating puck-mover who creates a lot of offense, especially on the power play, with his superb passing ability. Unfortunately, he's also a complete mess in his own zone. As a result, he played very sheltered minutes on both the Sabres and Canucks last year, with a 63% offensive-zone start rate 5v5 while facing a below-average quality of competition. He's somewhat similar to Picard in terms of the situations in which he'd need to be deployed to be effective and in what he brings to the table although I think Gragnani has the potential to quarterback at least the second unit of an NHL power play somewhere down the road. He could be worth taking a chance on for his potential alone but, again, it's probable the team would prefer to add a low-event, defense-first blueliner in a 7th D spot should they move Murray.