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To Buy Or Not To Buy: Sharks at a crossroads as deadline approaches

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Tough decisions that could shape the future of the franchise need to be made prior to Monday's trade deadline.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Currently sitting outside the Western Conference playoff picture and looking in, the Sharks were also forced to sit and watch as three of their closest competitors for playoff spots added reinforcements this week. Minnesota, currently one point ahead of San Jose in the standings, traded for play-driving winger Sean Bergenheim on Tuesday while Los Angeles added top four defenseman Andrej Sekera and Winnipeg acquired scoring winger Jiri Tlusty yesterday.

That the Sharks haven't responded with a deal of their own isn't surprising in the least given general manager Doug Wilson's repeated assurances dating back to last summer that the team wouldn't be trading picks or prospects for veteran players while in a rebuilding phase. The problem is that it's hard to make the argument the Sharks are actually rebuilding, at least in a conventional sense. They sure as hell aren't contending, either. More than anything, the 2014-15 Sharks are a franchise stuck in neutral. They're neither good enough as currently constructed to seriously contend for a Cup nor are they bad enough to draft in the top ten. They're languishing in mediocrity, as was easily predictable given their offseason moves, and that's the single worst position for a pro sports franchise to be in.

Monday's trade deadline represents the Sharks' last chance to prevent 2014-15 from being a lost season; a year that neither gave San Jose any notable chance to win nor appreciably advanced their rebuild effort. Sure, they still have a chance to make the playoffs as is, provided they can ride their power play to the finish line or some of their scorers enduring season-long slumps catch fire, but does anyone expect them to do something once they get there? And sure, they've integrated young players into the lineup this season but with Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto taking significant steps backwards offensively, Chris Tierney, Barclay Goodrow and Mirco Mueller routinely scratched for inferior veteran players and Matt Tennyson currently in the AHL despite proving a far better partner for Matt Irwin than 36-year-old Scott Hannan, has anyone's development been accelerated this year?

There are three basic options the Sharks have at this point as they attempt to navigate a franchise that sits at a crossroads. They can go for broke, scrapping the rebuild plan for now and instead doing all they can to win a Stanley Cup in the final few seasons for which Joe Thornton is still an elite first-line center. They can tear it down, finishing what they ostensibly started in the offseason by trading key veterans for prospects and picks and committing to a period of finishing well outside the playoffs in order to become a legitimate contender again at a future date. Or they can stay the course, either missing the playoffs outright or sneaking in and losing in the first or second round without accumulating the high-end picks or prospects necessary to get this rebuild done right. Here's what each of those options might look like.

Option 1: Go For Broke

Move #1: Trade Colorado's 2016 2nd round pick and a mid-tier prospect to Columbus for James Wisniewski.
Move #2: Move Brent Burns back to right wing and Joe Pavelski back to center.
Move #3: Trade Scott Hannan and Andrew Desjardins for late round draft picks.

The key to returning the Sharks to the kind of legitimate Stanley Cup contender they were just a season ago is to actually replace Dan Boyle, rather than simply moving one of the league's top power forwards back to defense and calling it a day. Enter James Wisniewski, the disgruntled Blue Jackets defenseman who was recently a healthy scratch and is reportedly on the trading block. He's one of the best passers in the league, has a booming shot from the point and is much better defensively than he's given credit for. He's also not a rental, with two more years on the 31-year-old's contract after this one at a $5.5 million cap hit (a feature rather than a bug for the Sharks, who are swimming in cap space while few other playoff teams will be able to fit that contract into their long-term plans).

San Jose could still do what they did in 2013 and move anchors like Hannan and Desjardins out of town for picks provided there's a market, adding to the team by subtraction while accumulating a late-round pick or two. Under this option, though, they would have to keep Sheppard, Kennedy and Irwin for depth as well as Niemi to have a somewhat reliable starter for a playoff run.

Sample Post-Deadline Roster:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Tomas Hertl Joe Thornton Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau Logan Couture Matt Nieto
James Sheppard Joe Pavelski Tommy Wingels
Melker Karlsson Chris Tierney Tyler Kennedy
Left Defense Right Defense Goaltender
Marc-Edouard Vlasic Justin Braun Antti Niemi
Brenden Dillon James Wisniewski Alex Stalock
Matt Irwin Matt Tennyson

Wisniewski is a definite upgrade on post-concussion Dan Boyle, Dillon is much better than Brad Stuart and Mike Brown is unavailable; at least on paper, this looks like an upgraded version of the 2013-14 Sharks team that, at the end of the day, was one Marc-Edouard Vlasic injury away from dispatching the eventual Stanley Cup champs in the first round. Brent Burns returns to the position he was meant to play, providing the offensive punch he's brought this season (and more) minus the crippling defensive miscues. Joe Pavelski would still get his goals playing with Joe Thornton on the power play but also spearheads a third line that no team can hope to match up against at even-strength. With Patrick Kane out of Chicago's lineup long term and the Kings not quite as strong as they were a season ago, the West is there for the taking this spring and, if Niemi can keep it together and provide the Sharks just average goaltending, I'd give the above lineup a good shot to beat any team.

And if they fall short again, well, at least they tried to salvage one of Thornton's last remaining years as an elite talent and won't have totally mortgaged the future in the process. Again, maybe Wisniewski costs more than a 2nd rounder and a prospect but given that the Sharks are one of just a few teams capable of absorbing his $5.5 million cap hit for two more seasons after this one, I doubt they'll be in much of a bidding war. Colorado's 2nd gained in the Stuart trade and a prospect of, say, Freddie Hamilton or Daniil Tarasov's caliber who seems unlikely to become an impact NHLer is a small price to pay for a top-four puck-mover who allows the Sharks to move Burns back to his optimal position and gives them a few more cracks at the Cup.

This option won't happen.

Option 2: Tear It Down

Move #1: Trade Joe Thornton to the Islanders for Brock Nelson and Josh Ho-Sang.
Move #2: Trade Patrick Marleau to Pittsburgh for Beau Bennett, one of Derrick Pouliot or Simon Despres and Rob Scuderi as a salary dump. Eat up to half of Marleau's salary if necessary.
Move #3: Trade as many of Antti Niemi, Matt Irwin, James Sheppard, Tyler Kennedy and Andrew Desjardins as possible for literally anything.

Due to age, cap hits and no-movement protection, the Sharks aren't going to get full value for Thornton or Marleau no matter what. But if they aren't going all-in for a Stanley Cup, what's the point in keeping them? Let Jumbo and Patty chase championship glory elsewhere while the Sharks begin their rebuild in earnest. I have no idea whether Thornton or Marleau would waive their no-movement clauses for these teams but given that the Islanders are an elite Cup contender set to move into their new Brooklyn digs and the Penguins offer Marleau a chance to play on Sidney Crosby's wing, it seems at least somewhat plausible.

Frankly I'm terrible at constructing trade proposals so these might be entirely unrealistic but they're meant to be more rough estimates of what the Sharks could do rather than exact prescriptions for what they should. Also, deals this big are probably more likely to happen in the offseason but there's value for both the acquiring team in getting three postseasons with Thornton or Marleau rather than two as well as for the Sharks in falling far enough out of contention that they grab a top-ten selection in one of the best entry drafts in over a decade.

Sample Post-Deadline Roster:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Tomas Hertl Joe Pavelski Beau Bennett
Brock Nelson Logan Couture Matt Nieto
Barclay Goodrow Chris Tierney Tommy Wingels
John Scott Freddie Hamilton Melker Karlsson
Left Defense Right Defense Goaltender
Marc-Edouard Vlasic Brent Burns Alex Stalock
Brenden Dillon Justin Braun Troy Grosenick
Rob Scuderi Derrick Pouliot

There's no question this forward corps is ugly and with Stalock in net behind them there's no chance this team makes the playoffs this season. If they're lucky, they might be bad enough down the stretch to get a top-ten pick. But in Vlasic, Burns, Dillon, Braun, Pouliot (or Despres) and Mueller, the Sharks would have six solid, mobile defensemen under the age of 30 who could comprise their blueline for years to come. Their defense will have essentially been rebuilt and they can move on to focusing on finding a true #1 center through the draft and either moving assets for a goalie or rolling the dice on a couple of free agent netminding options to see what sticks without the pressure of having to make the playoffs for the next few seasons.

They can integrate some combination of Ho-Sang, Nikolay Goldobin, Rourke Chartier and Kevin Labanc into the lineup next season as they look to find a forward corps that can lead them back to contender status by the 2017-18 campaign or so, when Hertl, Nelson, Bennett and Nieto should be in their primes while Couture and maybe Pavelski will still be key pieces. It's short-term pain for (hopefully) long-term gain, the way rebuilds should work.

Option 3:  Stay The Course

Move #1: Shop Antti Niemi to see if it's possible to trade him for a 2015 or 2016 3rd round pick or better. If not, keep him as an "own rental."
Move #2: Trade James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy either in a package deal or separately for one 2nd or multiple 3rd round picks, or equivalent value prospects.
Move #3: Trade as many of Scott Hannan, Matt Irwin and Andrew Desjardins as possible for late round draft picks.

This is more of a conventional deadline strategy, selling off the pending unrestricted free agents you can while keeping the ones you can't and largely standing pat otherwise. It's safe, it's conservative and it should net the Sharks at least a few decent picks in the 3rd round range which isn't nothing, especially as the team boasts one of the better scouting staffs in the league.

Sample Post-Deadline Roster:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Joe Pavelski Joe Thornton Melker Karlsson
Patrick Marleau Logan Couture Matt Nieto
Tomas Hertl Chris Tierney Tommy Wingels
John Scott Andrew Desjardins Barclay Goodrow
Left Defense Right Defense Goaltender
Marc-Edouard Vlasic Brent Burns Alex Stalock
Brenden Dillon Justin Braun Troy Grosenick
Matt Irwin Matt Tennyson

Melker Karlsson is still on the first line out of necessity when he's better suited for fourth-line duty, the bottom six is still a mess (though at least Tierney would get regular reps at third-line center with Sheppard gone) and, if Niemi is traded, the goaltending is likely to be a disaster. But with Thornton and Marleau still on the roster and what's likely to be a significantly improved blueline in Hannan's absence (Irwin and Tennyson have been a 57.1% goals for and 53.5% shot attempts for pairing this season), the Sharks would probably remain in contention and possibly still make the playoffs. But, even if they do, what's the absolute upside here for a team that's dead-average in the league in possession and can't score at even-strength? A second round beating at the hands of the Kings? Yeah, I think I'll pass.

Meanwhile they'll have cost themselves an opportunity to seriously contend or begin a serious rebuild this season while kicking the can down the road on Thornton and Marleau's futures, neither surrounding them with the talent necessary to win nor moving them for picks or prospects to a team they're willing to be traded to. Of the three options presented here, staying the course is easily the least palatable. It's also the one the Sharks will almost certainly pursue on Monday.