With the puck likely to drop on the 2013 regular season sometime next week, it's time to take a closer look at where the Sharks' roster stands heading into this lockout-shortened campaign. We'll work our way up the depth chart, beginning today with the Sharks' third defense pairing, which naturally consists of three players: Justin Braun, Douglas Murray and Jason Demers.
2013 Cap Hit: $1,250,000
Expected Role: Two-way blueliner, infrequent penalty killer
Depth Chart Position: No. 5 defenseman
Justin Braun is another one of those prospects the Doug Wilson regime has become famous for churning out: a largely unheralded low draft pick developed by a collegiate program and Worcester before breaking into the NHL and immediately turning heads. Braun wasn't expected to be a regular contributor last season but with so many of the defensemen above him on the depth chart turning in disappointing campaigns, he managed to get into 66 games and compiled some impressive numbers with his two-way play.
Braun started a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other member of the San Jose blueline and still managed to post the highest Relative Corsi rate among d-men, meaning he improved the Sharks' ability to generate offensive-zone possession to a greater extent than any other defenseman. That's phenomenal stuff from a player who was really in just his first full season in the NHL. It's hard to think of many third-pairing defensemen who were better than Braun last year in the entire league but it's also important to keep in mind that the qualifier there still applies: Braun is a third-pairing defenseman and still has a ways to go in his own zone before it makes sense to trust him against tougher competition. Still, coming off a year in which he certainly earned a good deal of trust from Todd McLellan, it seems likely Braun will be in the opening night lineup if healthy.
2013 Cap Hit: $1,250,000
Expected Role: Even-strength puck mover, 2nd unit power play
Depth Chart Position: No. 6 defenseman
Demers was exactly what the hockey doctor ordered for the Sharks during the 2010-11 season. After losing Rob Blake to retirement in the offseason and Christian Ehrhoff to a salary cap crunch the summer before, the Sharks were forced to ice a fairly underwhelming defense corps that notably featured Niclas Wallin in a top-four role. Enter Demers, just 22 and two years removed from his draft day at the time. The defenseman had been so scarcely used in his rookie season the prior year that he was sometimes dressed as a winger. Given a chance to spell Wallin on the team's second pairing and skate alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Demers was a revelation, moving the puck and creating offense more crisply and effectively than anyone on San Jose's blueline not named Dan Boyle. No Sharks defenseman that season posted a higher on-ice shot or goal differential at even-strength even though only Vlasic started a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than Demers. Jason carried his stellar play into the postseason, where Mike Babcock referred to him as San Jose's best d-man in that inferno of a second round series against Detroit.
And then everything fell apart last season. The addition of Brent Burns meant a slot in the team's top four was no longer a guarantee, although Demers did skate on a pairing with Burns for a decent portion of the year. But having to drag Colin White around the ice on a regular basis isn't an easy job for the best of d-men and proved understandably impossible for Demers to accomplish while remaining a competent option. That's only part of the story, though, as Demers' struggles extended beyond his time with White. As we covered in his season review, Demers was also underwater in possession when paired with Vlasic, Murray and Jim Vandermeer and while he and Burns broke even as a pairing, Burns fared considerably better in his time away from Demers. The only time 2011-12 Demers resembled the 2010-11 iteration was when the Sharks' coaching staff, desperate for standings points with the team clawing its way back into the playoff picture down the stretch, decided to pair him with Braun. In the 168 minutes of even-strength ice time that pairing skated together for, San Jose controlled 56% of all shot attempts. Granted, they were usually seeing other teams' third and fourth lines but barring serious injuries to the top four, neither Braun nor Demers will be expected to take on tougher competition than that in 2013. If that pairing is reunited on a full-time basis Demers, who scored 21 points in 30 games in Finland during the lockout, should enjoy a renaissance season.
2013 Cap Hit: $2,500,000
Expected Role: Defensive stopper, 2nd unit penalty kill
Depth Chart Position: No. 7 defenseman
One of the team's most popular, physically dominant and innovative players is coming off easily the worst full season of his NHL career. Long considered a shutdown defenseman, for mostly solid reasons, Murray was finally deployed more often in the defensive zone than the other team's end in 2011-12 and struggled mightily. Separated from his regular defense partner Dan Boyle and suffering through injuries as gruesome as a fractured Adam's apple, Murray's 2011-12 season resulted in San Jose being dominated territorially whenever the big Swedish blueliner was on the ice. He made every defenseman he was paired with worse and, at 32 years of age and given the uber-physical style he employs, it's tough to be bullish on Murray's chances at a rebound season.
There's one reason Murray merits inclusion in the Sharks' lineup on a regular basis, however, and it's a fairly big one considering where the team has struggled in the recent past: his work on the penalty kill. In each of the last three seasons, Murray has ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd, respectively, among Sharks defensemen in shorthanded goals against per 60 minutes. Murray's an imposing net-front presence who gets the job done at a better rate than most of his teammates when the Sharks are down a man, but does that mean he should be a regular on the third pairing? Some might respond with a resounding yes after living through the horror show that has been San Jose's penalty kill since 2010. I'm not so convinced that the black hole Murray creates at even-strength is counteracted by his work on the PK, which could be replaced by Brad Stuart or made redundant by systemic improvements implemented by Larry Robinson and the team's revamped coaching staff. Regardless, this should be one of the more interesting battles to watch during training camp depending on the availability of Braun and Demers.