Doug Wilson has done it again. He's inexplicably turned an immobile, overpaid, past-his-prime defenseman into multiple positive-value assets including a 2nd round pick. A year and a half after dealing Douglas Murray to the Penguins for what turned out to be two second-round selections, Wilson traded Brad Stuart to Colorado yesterday for a 2016 2nd rounder and an additional pick. Honestly, the draft picks are almost gravy; dumping Stuart and his $3.6 million cap hit (without retaining any salary, to boot) alone is addition by subtraction for the Sharks. But the trade does raise some questions about the team's blueline for the coming season: specifically, who's going to play on it?
Mirco Mueller, San Jose's first-round pick a year ago, will likely be given every opportunity to make the opening night roster out of training camp while Konrad Abeltshauser is an intriguing dark horse candidate to do the same. 24-year-old Matt Tennyson is likely closer to NHL-ready than either Mueller or Abeltshauser but as a right-shot defenseman trying to crack a blueline that already features three established righties, he'll be in tough unless Jason Demers or Justin Braun plays their off side. One potential competitor for a top-four spot could be plucked from the free agent market. After the Nashville Predators opted not to tender him a qualifying offer on Monday, Michael Del Zotto is now an unrestricted free agent. And while Wilson stated earlier in the offseason he was unlikely to dabble in free agency this summer, Del Zotto is far from your typical UFA.
For one, he's only 24 years old so he wouldn't really get in the way of the Sharks' general strategy of trying to get younger at key positions. In fact, Del Zotto is actually younger than Tennyson and less than a year older than Taylor Doherty, another defenseman theoretically vying for a roster spot in camp. Unlike with most free agents, Del Zotto wouldn't need to be paid on the basis of past accomplishments while he slowly declines into irrelevance; it's fairly reasonable to expect that Del Zotto's best days as an NHLer are ahead of him. Which is a good thing since the days behind him aren't all that impressive. The 20th overall pick in the 2008 entry draft, Del Zotto burst onto the scene with a 37-point rookie season before regressing the following year, rebounding for a career season in 2011-12 and stringing together two lackluster campaigns that saw him dealt from the Rangers to the Predators this past January.
In many ways, Del Zotto is Stuart's polar opposite; he's young, he can skate, he possesses a great outlet pass and doesn't look out of place running a power play. Despite that, his impact on the rate at which his teams control the flow of play when he's on the ice isn't much different from Stuart's; which is to say, it's not good. Over the past three seasons, Del Zotto's clubs have controlled 49.4% of even-strength shot attempts with him on the ice compared to 51.0% with him off it despite Del Zotto having the advantage of extremely favorable deployment as he's started far more shifts in the offensive zone than his own end of the rink and has mostly squared off with opposing bottom-six forwards. Del Zotto's individual production numbers over that span have also been fairly unimpressive, particularly given his usage. To put it as generously as possible, Del Zotto is a "project."
But he's also a project the Sharks have previously shown interest in undertaking, as CBC's Elliotte Friedman noted in a 30 Thoughts column prior to the defenseman's trade from New York to Nashville. It's also a project that could be worth undertaking if the Sharks are serious about the coming season being a rebuilding year, particularly if Del Zotto is willing to sign a one-year contract. If he lives up to his "Del Zaster" nickname defensively and isn't a potent threat at the other end, the Sharks can always walk away next summer with no harm done. If Del Zotto piles up numbers while occupying Dan Boyle's vacated spot on a power play unit likely in for a huge bounce-back season, the Sharks could sell high and deal him at the trade deadline for picks or prospects. And if, under Larry Robinson's mentorship, he establishes himself as a legitimate top-four defenseman, the Sharks will have finally found a left-side blueliner they can comfortably slot in their lineup behind Marc-Edouard Vlasic for the near future.
Regardless of the scenario, there isn't much of a risk here for the Sharks. Del Zotto's value is at an all-time low and they don't even need to give up assets to acquire him. He's far from a perfect player, or even a good one, but the tools and potential are still there and might be worth taking a shot on. It's a low-risk, potentially high-reward move and those don't come along too often in free agency.