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Coming off a disappointing season and heading into a potentially make-or-break contract year, an expanded role and more minutes in the Finnish league during the lockout could be just what the hockey doctor ordered for Jason Demers.
In our review of Jason Demers' 2011-12 season, I compared the just-completed third year of the Sharks defenseman's career to the third installment in the Star Wars trilogy (singular, as there was only one trilogy and nobody can convince me otherwise); a decided step down from the prior iteration, although Demers' season featured mercifully fewer singing muppets than Return of the Jedi did.
To sloppily extend the Star Wars metaphor even further, Demers' lockout travels that find him in Oulu, Finland playing for Karpat of the SM-liiga as the lockout rages on are reminiscent of Luke Skywalker's sojourn on the swamp planet Dagobah (no offense intended to any of our Finnish readers). Only instead of training under Yoda to realize his potential as a Jedi Knight, Demers has the opportunity to play a featured role in Karpat's defense corps that could prove invaluable in preparation for his next, and most important, NHL season. With Mikko Lehtonen being the only other defenseman on the Karpat roster with any NHL experience, Demers has a real chance here to receive minutes and responsibility he would likely never get in San Jose. It can sometimes be a vicious cycle for younger players on contending teams: if they fail to show improvement, their minutes are cut back which rarely leads to them taking a step forward given less of an opportunity.
Demers hasn't even skated in 200 NHL games yet but he already finds himself at something of a crossroads in his career. After arguably being the Sharks' second-most valuable defenseman in the 2010-11 season, Demers was a liability more often than not last year as his inability to drive play in easy minutes most nights was characterized by sub-par defensive-zone coverage and neutral zone turnovers. A lot of that had to do with Demers having the unenviable task of dragging Colin White around the ice quite often (the Sharks were outscored 6-2 and outshot 128-101 when those two were paired at even-strength) but even in his time away from White, Demers was rarely spectacular.
In fact, the only defense partner with whom Demers enjoyed substantial success was the one he's likely to be in the most direct competition with for ice time in 2012-13: Justin Braun. The emergence of Braun and the Sharks' additions of Brent Burns and Brad Stuart over the past two summers has downgraded Demers' role on the club from solidified top-four blueliner early in the 2011 calendar year to either a number six or seven heading into the coming season.
That's why it's imperative that Demers seize this opportunity to develop his game by playing ample minutes in all situations on Karpat. With one year remaining on his contract that will pay him $1.4 million in its final season, Demers could be rewarded handsomely if he manages to regain his 2010-11 form, cement his place in the lineup on a nightly basis and even push Stuart for inclusion in the team's top four. If next year turns out to be a repeat of the last, however, it's easy to see Demers becoming tradebait to fix San Jose's woeful forward depth. Apart from Logan Couture, there probably isn't a more talented player than Demers under the age of 25 in the Sharks organization. It's time for him to harness that talent into results once again and there's no better place for him to refine his skillset and gain experience than by playing big minutes in Finland.