The postseason is right upon us, so Plank and TCY (Ed. Note: H/T to Ivano who helped us out today) thought it would be prudent to highlight each individual player on the Sharks roster heading into these glorious days. It gives us an opportunity to consolidate all the information we've obtained since the beginning of October, as well as examine the team at a micro-level. Every installment in this series can be found here.
There is literally nothing like the NHL playoffs in the entire world of sports-- the passion, the pain, the hope, the despair, the unrelenting feeling that this year could finally be the one. Each and every goal dictates whether or not you'll end up in some godforsaken alleyway in downtown San Jose singing songs to alley cats, or at home with loved ones singing songs of victory about the heroic undertakings of a team that has given meaning to the wild world in which we live in.
Most fans were up in arms when the forty year old defenseman signed a $3.5MM deal with the San Jose Sharks in the offseason. Many saw the move as a waste of ever precious cap space, and pointed to the move as a failed endeavor even from the onset. Then, the team decided to give him the captaincy, stripping the letter from the ever popular Patrick Marleau and snubbing fan favorite Dan Boyle for the honor. Oh, and did I mention that he needed foot surgery during the offseason? Needless to say, Blake didn't get off to a good start.
For the first half of the season, the dissenters were feeling pretty smug. Blake looked slow, was missing assignments, was not clearing the front of the net and was taking obstruction penalties at an astonishing clip. The staff here bandied about trade proposals for a defenseman, hoping Doug Wilson could swing a deal for someone who could limit Blake's minutes.
Then, the Olympics happened.
Although Blake had been a team Canada stalwart throughout his career (appearing in 1998, 2002 & 2006), the team decided to go in a younger direction. There was little (try zero) chance that Blake would play this year heading into the season, and so Blake looked to the three week break as a time to rest.
Oh, the help that did. Blake looks completely rejuvenated, and reunited with the now healthy Marc-Edouard Vlasic has reestablished the Sharks premier defensive unit. Blake is crashing the net on the power play, making crisp passes, and has pulled out the ever famous hip check from his bag of tricks. He's also continued to mentor the aforementioned Vlasic, an investment for the future that Wilson must have factored into Blake's total value.
Blake is still 40 years old, though, and has most definitely lost a few steps. However, the Sharks don't need him to be the number one defenseman on their unit, as LA or Colorado did during their Stanley Cup runs. Instead, the Sharks are looking for Blake to make smart plays, be disruptive in the defensive zone and contribute on the power play.
It remains to be seen if Blake can keep his continued stretch of strong play going, or if he will again tire down the stretch. I'd bet against it, as his experience and leadership seemed to pull the Sharks out of their recent skid. I don't think he'll keep his point per game pace (9 points in last 9 games), but anything close would be far and away what we expected of him.
There's not much you can say about Dan Boyle that hasn't already been said. He's fast, smart, an experienced leader and an offensive dynamo. He's got the six pack of a Greek god and the eyebrow control of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He's San Jose's de facto #1 on defense, and will probably keep that title until his contract expires in 2046.
San Jose will rely heavily on Dan Boyle in the upcoming playoffs, as they have all year. Statistically, he has had a better season this year than last year, and has taken to his new letter with confidence. Never one to dwell, though, Dan has consistently had his sights set on the playoffs and would most likely trade in all the individual accolades for another chance to hoist the Cup.
The Sharks will need the statistical output, though, if they have any chance of making a long run this year. He's not a defensive defenseman by any stretch of the imagination, and although he can hold his own, that's not what the Sharks are paying him more than $6MM to do. It's is offense and leadership. The power play courses through Boyle, and would be severely hampered if he were to go down for any length of time... there is literally no one else with his skill set on the defensive end, hence the need to run Pavelski on the opposite point for much of the season.
Here enlies the one problem: Dan Boyle hasn't looked like Dan Boyle lately, and that's primarily because he's been forced to play so many minutes. He's played 26:12 on average per game this year (fourth in the league), in addition to playing for Canada in the 2010 Olympic games. As a result, Boyle has just three assists in his last six games, and no points in the last three. He's missing the skating pop that defines him as a player, and the team suffers for it.
Now this may just be a factor of him saving himself for the playoffs; as we don't think he'd let himself come up short on this big of a stage, especially after talking the talk all season. Still, the fatigue remains a concern on an otherwise unblemished player report.
Billed as a potential Dan Boyle upon entering the Sharks system, Jason Demers made a strong case to skate with his puck-moving counterpart by turning a lot of heads during the preseason. His performance in camp was so impressive that he was given a starting role for the season opener against Colorado, and held on to that spot for the next two months.
Demers strengths lie in what he brings to the table offensively. He is extremely adept at moving the puck up the ice, has a strong breakout pass, smooth skating ability, and is no stranger to creating plays for his teammates in the offensive zone. The power play scores at it's highest clip when Demers is on the ice, and that is a definite plus for a team that has historically struggled capitalizing with the man-advantage during the playoffs. He gets his shot on net, and with the team sometimes content to stop moving their feet and pass around the perimeter, his mobility from the point opens up holes in opposing PK units.
Demers biggest weakness is in the defensive zone. He is prone to committing some egregious turnovers in front of Nabokov, and forces passes up through the middle every now and again. We definitely bill him as a riverboat gambler, and that aspect of playing his position on the edge makes it an uncertainty of whether or not he will dress as the sixth defenseman in the playoffs.
During April McLellan chose to dress seven defenseman, but there is no indication if that will continue in game 83. What Demers brings to the table offensively is excellent, but with the double edged sword of relying on him to excel in the defensive end of the ice on a unit that has had some issues this season, the best solution is to insert him into the lineup when the team needs an offensive spark.
Yet another offseason signing that had Sharks fans ready to picket HP Pavilion, the two year $3.4MM contract given to Kent Huskins had the staff at FTF pulling their hair out. After not seeing Huskins play a single game in a San Jose uniform (he was traded along with Travis Moen to the team at the 2009 deadline), Doug Wilson ignored other viable candidates such as Greg Zanon (who signed for a similar price tag) and instead went with Huskins.
Billed as a puck moving defenseman without the offensive firepower, Huskins has a rough few weeks to start his San Jose tenure. He was criticized by coach Todd McLellan during training camp, and was porous defensively in every preseason game we watched him in. Our hopes were that he would become a serviceable bottom pairing defenseman, if that.
Maybe it was the criminally low expectations we set for Huskins that led to this epiphany, but Huskins has not been that bad. In fact, at times, he's been an above average bottom pairing defenseman. He's not the second coming of Scott Stevens, nor will he ever come near it. On the offensive side, he's not Dan Boyle's less attractive twin brother, or even Christian Ehrhoff Junior. But Huskins definitely fills a role on this team and will be relied upon heading into the playoffs.
Although we hate using +/- to prove any point, his +6 can't be overlooked, especially since he's most often playing with the lower lines (his quality of teammates rating according to Behind the Net is second lowest). He's also chipped in 22 points this year, and has been a consistent presence (only Huskins, Clowe, Marleau and Heatley played all 82 games) on a team rife with injuries. He's filled in well in almost any situation. He's also one of the better skaters on the back end, and while he's not fast, he moves well and doesn't make glaring skating mistakes. That skill should help against Colorado's notoriously quick crop of forwards.
The issues we saw before the season are still there, but we might have overplayed them just a tad. He's not to scare anyone trying to cross his blue line, and can be a bit "dainty" in his own zone. His shot isn't strong and his vision isn't great, but again, we're not expecting Dan Boyle here. Just a solid five-six guy who will limit mistakes. Now that he's paired with Wallin, Huskins can get back to a bit more of the puck moving that attracted Doug Wilson to him in the first place.
Back in early December when Doug Wilson announced the acquisition of six-foot-four, 220-pound American player Jay Leach, most Sharks fans had to turn to Google to see what that may mean. Leach joined the Sharks at the age of 30, and after being drafted by Phoenix Coyotes in 1998, has seen action in just 35 NHL games with four different clubs. Doug Wilson claimed that Leach would bring depth to the Sharks defense.
Upon further inspection, it turned out that Leach may play the role that was played by Alexei Semenov in the past two seasons. Semenov was one of the players that the Sharks decided to part ways with when Doug Wilson initiated the roster overhaul, and he eventually ended up playing in the KHL.
The role: Leach would be a spare no. 7 or 8 defenseman who could play on nights when one of the defensemen is resting or injured and try not to embarrass the club.
Leach played this role well throughout the season, and in fact, in many ways better than Semenov did. While the two even look alike, Leach is a better skater and does not take as many risks as did Semenov. He doesn't jump in the rush and stays behind on most plays. He likes to pass the puck more than shoot, because he doesn't have a big shot that we would expect from someone of his size. He is not afraid to drop the gloves when he thinks that someone is trying to run one of his teammates. Finally, he doesn't try to catch any pucks with his gloves in front of Nabokov, or redirect a puck into his own goal with seconds left in a game against Anaheim - something that we'll forever remember Semenov by.
For someone with salary cap hit seven times smaller than Huskins', Jay Leach is one of the more valuable players on this roster (and his 15:11 average time on ice and +3 rating proves it). However, judging by how Semenov only saw action in 2 playoffs games with the Sharks in two years, we likely won't see too much of Jay Leach in the playoffs. But if he has to play, chances are we won't be too afraid of the potential for mistakes.
One of the fan favorites in San Jose, Douglas Murray made a major progress this season. Not only did he see his playing time go up by additional four minutes every night on average, but Murray established himself as a main shut down defenseman for the Sharks. Paired with Dan Boyle, Murray usually sees the time against the opponent's top line. Back in December when Capitals were in town, Ovechkin got so frustrated with Murray and Boyle shutting him down for most of the night that he was ready to drop his gloves. Murray played one of his best games that night, and Sharks cruised to an easy 5-2 win over the eventual regular season champion.
Murray's progress was noticed outside of San Jose, and even Niclas Lidstrom himself said he wanted to see him on Team Sweden roster for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which eventually happened.
Known throughout the league for his bone-crushing hits (he finished the season as 10th player in the league in that category), Murray is a pure blue-collar player who plays hard on every shift in every game. He's not a great skater, and at times is getting caught out of position, but playing next to Dan Boyle the two make a solid defensive unit.
While he saw an increase in power play time this season, this happened mostly because of injuries to other defenesemen; Murray is a defense first (if not only) type. Boyle, Blake, Vlasic and Demers should all see more PP time in playoffs than Murray, or so we hope.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic just might be one of the most underrated defenseman in the game today, and even some Sharks fans have yet to realize the beauty in this man's game. He consistently faces opposing team's top lines and shuts them down, puts in large amounts of PK time, and makes it look nearly effortless in the process.
In terms of the defensive unit, we would argue Vlasic is almost as important as the minute-eater Dan Boyle. When Vlasic was out with a left knee injury sustained in the middle of February, the Sharks were left without a premier shut-down defenseman who could handle the tough minutes. It created matchup problems for Sharks head coach Todd McLellan in that he was faced with a two-pronged decision-- match Boyle up against the opposing team's top line, which will make Boyle's offensive capabilities less of a factor since he will be facing much tougher competition or b) throw out a combination of the remaining blueliners against the top units and hope for the best.
Vlasic is masterful with his stick, forcing forwards to the outside with excellent positioning and strong skating pivots. He rarely gets beat on the rush, but when his teammates do, Vlasic is always there to break up 2 on 1's with the heart of a lion and the power of an eagle.
His weaknesses are well known-- a lack of physical play in the corners, and offensive numbers that declined from last season. He has trouble getting the puck through from the point, and sometimes seems a little too content to send the puck around the boards to re-start the cycle instead of generating a shooting lane.
Despite these weaknesses, Vlasic is a huge player on this roster. The defense will always be a question mark for San Jose, but Vlasic has done more than enough to provide some of those answers.
Lover of hamburgers, hater of oatmeals, Niclas Wallin arrived in San Jose accompanied by a heavy amount of uncertainty and doubt.
A Stanley Cup winner with Bret Hedican's Carolina Hurricanes, the 34 year old Niclas Wallin is a steady, stay at home defenseman in the mold of Douglas Murray. He doesn't hit as hard, but we're trying to paint the picture of a purely defensive defenseman. That's what Wallin is, and pretty much all he's going to be, barring a return to his "Secret Weapon" days with Carolina.
Could Doug Wilson have gotten more than Wallin out of his second round pick? Probably. But that's old news now. What we're left with is a serviceable player who will be on ice for defensive zone draws, punish forwards along the boards, and add more Stanley Cup experience to a team who's fallen on some postseason hardships in the past.
He's slow and lumbering, but San Jose has plenty of guys who can skate the puck up ice. Plus, since he's paired most often with Kent Huskins, he allows Kent to skate up ice and do a little more of what he was brought here to do. I'm fine with Wallin hanging back.
Without the addition of Wallin, the Sharks would have been forced to deploy either Jay Leach or Jason Demers in defensive situations. Instead, they have a proven veteran stopper with some gas left in the tank. He's wont be a star, but he's going to help.