Potential Sharks trade targets Matt Cullen and Mikael Backlund look longingly into each other's eyes.
It's not exactly a secret that the weakest link on the Sharks' roster as it currently stands is presumptive third-line center Michal Handzus. For those who didn't have the immense pleasure of watching him closely last season, here's the gist of it: despite deploying him against worse opposing players on average than every regular Sharks forward save for fourth-liners Andrew Desjardins and Brad Winchester, San Jose was dominated on the shot clock to a greater extent when Handzus was on the ice than any other regular forward. No one who spent the full season with the team was even close to Handzus' abysmal shot differential; for every 60 minutes that Handzus was on the ice 5v5 last year, a whopping 10 more shot attempts were directed at the Sharks' net than the opposition's. Unsurprisingly, he also made every Shark he skated with worse. At 35 years old, it just isn't a solid bet to make that Handzus will be able to rebound to any significant degree next season and should not be seen as a real option to center the third line of a team looking to contend for the Stanley Cup.
Wilson and company still have plenty of time to decide who a better option for that role will be (perhaps a lot more time than we expected given how well the CBA negotiations appear to be going) and there are probably three reasonable pools of talent to draw from in order to find one. They could find a third-line center internally, likely either Desjardins or Joe Pavelski. Although Pavelski excelled in that role in 2010-11, the team had a surplus of top-six forwards at the time that they no longer enjoy and splitting up Pavelski and Joe Thornton after they ran the show night after night against some of the best players in the league seems like a terrible idea. While Desjardins did everything you could ask for from a fourth-line center last season, especially down the stretch when paired with competent linemates in Daniel Winnik and Tommy Wingels, it's a stretch to suggest he could handle a substantially increased role next year. They could find a third-line center on the free agent market, either choosing to bring back Dominic Moore or adding someone like Daymond Langkow or Jason Arnott, both of whom have a recent track record of crushing the soft minutes Handzus struggled in last year. Or, and here's the option this post looks at if you hadn't already guessed from the title, they could part with assets to acquire one via trade. After the jump, I'll look at five players who should interest the Sharks if available.
Well, here's a familiar face. Goc, of course, was drafted by the Sharks in 2001 and spent parts of four seasons with the team. While he was a capable two-way forward in teal, he's really evolved into one of the best defensive specialists in the NHL since leaving the club and had the best season of his career in Florida this past year. Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen leaned on Goc in difficult situations, hard-matching him against opposing top lines and starting him predominantly in the defensive zone. In fact, only 22 regular forwards in the NHL last season started a greater percentage of their 5v5 shifts in their own end than Goc. As we'd expect, all of them were heavily outshot. With Goc on the ice, on the other hand, the Panthers outshot the opposition--and, again, the opposition in his case was the likes of Steven Stamkos, Alexander Ovechkin and Eric Staal. Goc also contributed at a good clip offensively in 2011-12, with only the Panthers' first line of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann (all of whom were granted cushy zone starts thanks to Goc's work) scoring more 5v5 points per 60 minutes than Goc.
So why would the Panthers trade their best defensive center signed to a bargain cap hit of $1.7 million each of the next two seasons? Well, for starters, Dale Tallon is probably due for a stupid move in the midst of what's been an uncharacteristically uneventful offseason for him. More seriously, the team could be trying to make room for uber-prospect Jonathan Huberdeau although it really isn't Goc's minutes Huberdeau would be taking; he'll almost certainly be protected by the Panthers' coaching staff, making what Goc provides even more valuable. The best reason I can think of is that Tallon might be interested in Douglas Murray to replace some of what he lost when Jason Garrison signed in Vancouver. Murray isn't going to score 9 power play goals but, let's be honest, neither is Garrison. What Murray would provide if healthy is the type of stable own-zone presence Garrison brought during the 2010-11 season. He's also had success alongside Brian Campbell in the past; although the two were only paired for a total of 210 5v5 minutes at the end of the 2007-08 campaign, the Sharks earned 60.5% of the shot attempts when Murray and Campbell were on the ice together. If Goc is available, he's an ideal option for the Sharks and well worth dealing Murray for.
According to Jason Botchford, the Blackhawks dangled Bolland in trade talks with the Vancouver Canucks for Roberto Luongo. While that doesn't necessarily mean Bolland is widely available on the trade market, he's certainly the type of player the Sharks should be kicking the tires on. As Derek Zona of The Copper & Blue demonstrated, Bolland might have been the best defensive forward in the league last season, playing the toughs to nearly a draw despite seeing Manny Malhotra-esque zone starts. Like Goc, Bolland is versatile enough to be effective in whatever role the Sharks' coaching staff decides to use their third line in.
The issue with acquiring Bolland would of course be the return. The Sharks don't have a Luongo-caliber goaltender to offer but it's entirely possible the Hawks would be receptive to re-acquiring Antti Niemi. Niemi clearly doesn't have the pedigree of Luongo but he also doesn't have the contract of Luongo which would definitely be viewed as a positive. It would also make a ton more sense from a PR standpoint for Chicago to add the beloved goaltender that helped deliver a Cup to their city instead of the reviled one who's backstopped their biggest rival. While I think Niemi for Bolland would be fair from a value perspective, the Sharks don't really have any palatable options to replace Niemi and the free agent market for goaltending is razor-thin at the moment. If the Blackhawks happen to solve their goaltending through another route, an offer of Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray for Bolland and Michael Frolik would likely be enticing for both teams.
Backlund might be the most intriguing option on this list. A first-round pick of the Flames in 2007, Backlund's lack of offensive production thus far in his career has disappointed many in Calgary but what's been largely overlooked is the tremendous value he's provided through his defensive play. Despite playing difficult minutes last year--starting over 63% of his non-neutral 5v5 shifts in the defensive end and facing the 24th-highest quality of competition among forwards in the league--Backlund pushed the play forward to a greater extent than anyone else on the Flames. And he accomplished that while primarily playing with Lee Stempniak and Blake Comeau, neither of whom is known for their defensive prowess.
He needs to improve at getting the puck into more dangerous locations in the offensive zone but, even if he never does, Backlund already provides an invaluable service with his ability to take on the toughs and win. By acquiring him, the Sharks would, at worst, get a young, cost-controlled Marcel Goc. If he develops the offensive tools that made him a first-round pick, they could have, along with Logan Couture, two of the three or four best players to come out of that draft. Unfortunately, it's hard to say that Backlund is available. He was once being shopped in tandem with Jay Bouwmeester but with Backlund and the Flames having recently agreed on a one-year, $725,000 contract, it makes little sense for the cap-strapped Flames to part with one of their most affordable assets.
A 35-year-old below-average skater sounds like Handzus 2.0 and it's true that Cullen is probably the least appealing player on this list. The only compelling reason to add Cullen is his impressive penalty-killing acumen. Since 2008, 65 forwards in the NHL have spent at least 500 minutes killing penalties and only 9 have been on the ice for fewer goals against per 60 minutes in that game state than Cullen. He's split that time between Carolina and Minnesota, so it's unlikely team effects are what are predominantly driving that. Cullen isn't, however, a terrifically valuable player at even-strength. He was one of the better 5v5 outshooters on the Wild last season but that's a lot like being the tallest pygmy. He's more of a player worth targeting at the deadline if the changes to the Sharks' coaching staff fail to have an effect on the penalty kill.
A left-shoulder injury has kept Regin out of NHL action for much of the last two seasons but, before then, he was terrific. His raw possession numbers were sixth-best in the entire league in 09-10, his last full season, although he was playing very sheltered minutes. The Sharks could largely afford him those minutes, constructing a protected scoring line of Regin, T.J. Galiardi and Tommy Wingels. In addition to having a track record as a possession monster, Regin also has tremendous puck skills in the offensive zone (this is still an awesome goal) and has just one year left on his contract at $800,000. With the additions of Marc Methot and Mike Lundin, the Senators likely wouldn't be interested in Douglas Murray but it's similarly likely that they'd accept a lower-round draft pick or two for Regin if he doesn't fit into their plans.