One potentially exciting side effect of the Sharks trading their 2016 first round pick for Martin Jones is that Doug Wilson will now be forced to abandon any ill-conceived notions of a rebuild and go all in to ensure the team is set up for a return to the playoffs next year. With Jones now in the fold, San Jose's most pressing needs are on the blueline after a season in which they bled shots against and dropped to the middle of the pack in overall puck possession.
Fortunately for the Sharks, they're armed with plenty of cap space (about $9-$10 million to fill two or three roster spots once the Jones contract gets done) while staring down one of the best free agent classes of defensemen in a long time. Here are five UFA blueliners the Sharks should have high on their list when free agency opens tomorrow.
After snatching Jones from right under the Kings' noses, why not also plunder the defenseman Los Angeles gave up a first round pick at the trade deadline to acquire? A 6'0", 200-pound 29-year-old with excellent skating and puck-moving ability, Sekera came into his own with the Hurricanes in 2013-14 when he scored 44 points in 74 games after largely flying under the radar in Buffalo as a solid middle and bottom-pairing defenseman.
Sekera's value mainly stems from his offense but he did well undertaking some tougher defensive assignments in Carolina. A left-handed shot, he has experience playing both the left and right side meaning he could slot in with Justin Braun as the primary puck-mover on a potential second pairing but might also be a nice fit playing his off-side next to Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the team's top pair.
Finding a bargain in unrestricted free agency is a rarer event in the NHL these days than a playoff game that features more than five goals. But after a disastrous end to the 2014-15 season that saw him alternate between third-pairing minutes and stints in the press box with Nashville after being acquired from Toronto at the deadline, Cody Franson's next contract could see him paid a lot less than he's actually worth.
Since he entered the league in 2009, only 10 defensemen have averaged more points per 60 5-on-5 minutes than Franson; one of them is Brent Burns, who played a season and a half up front, and the others are All-Stars ranging from Duncan Keith to Erik Karlsson to Keith Yandle to Alex Pietrangelo. For a team in desperate need of even-strength scoring as well as a secondary threat on the blueline behind Burns, Franson would be a godsend. He's far more than a one-trick pony, too, as he's posted excellent possession numbers relative to his teammates throughout his career and is a solid second-unit penalty killer.
All of Franson's numbers indicate he's a top-pairing defenseman but he almost certainly won't be paid like one, primarily because he's where the eye test and the stats diverge. Franson isn't fast, isn't flashy and, despite his 6'5", 213-pound frame, isn't physical. He's just really good at making outlet passes, keeping the cycle alive and getting his hard, accurate shot on net. In today's NHL, that's worth the Jeff Petry money Franson is reportedly seeking. The Sharks were one of the teams to meet with him this week and they'd be wise to give him the contract he's asking for. He'd be a great partner for Vlasic, allowing Burns to focus on offense and Braun to crush his competition on the third pairing. At just 27, Franson's the kind of player you can sign to a 5- or 6-year deal and not regret it.
Perhaps the most polarizing defenseman in hockey, Green is also the only blueliner to score 30 goals in a season since the 2005 lockout. Concussions and a slew of other injuries mean he's longer the same player who accomplished that but his defensive game (which was never quite as awful as it was made out to be) has improved over the past three seasons, partially because the Capitals have developed the defensive depth to insulate him.
If Braun has a bounceback season, Green could be insulated in San Jose too, logging third-pairing even-strength minutes (although the pairings would be close enough in quality that Peter DeBoer could simply roll them out equally) and, as one of the league's top power play quarterbacks, manning the point on the first unit alongside Burns. Green would give the Sharks a true replacement for Dan Boyle in even-strength and especially power play situations and, in the latter game state, could allow them to move Logan Couture or Patrick Marleau to a perpetually underperforming second unit in order to jump start it.
Green, 29, is still capable of turning a second or third pairing into a puck possession monstrosity and might even be worth experimenting with alongside Vlasic in a tough-minutes role. It won't happen in the near future but Green's presence would also allow the Sharks to consider moving Burns back to forward at some point, though having both of them back there should give San Jose one of the fastest and most productive defense corps in the league.
There are a number of German ex-Sharks available in free agency this summer and the Sharks would be wise to poke around at Marcel Goc for a fourth-line center role as well. Anyway, while Ehrhoff might be synonymous in San Jose with missing the net, he's developed into a well-rounded defenseman since leaving the Sharks in a September 2009 trade. While offense is still Ehrhoff's calling card, his defensive numbers relative to his teammates over the past three seasons has been comparable to guys like Dan Hamhuis, Drew Doughty and Zdeno Chara. You can trust him in a variety of situations.
Like Sekera, Ehrhoff is a left shot who can play either the left or right side and spent much of his final three years in San Jose as well as the entirety of his Vancouver tenure doing the latter. His speed and handedness make him an ideal partner for Braun but he might also look good teeing up one-timers on his off-side across from Vlasic. The main concern with Ehrhoff is that he's coming off a rather underwhelming, and injury-riddled, season with Pittsburgh. Signing the soon-to-be-33-year-old to a deal longer than one or two years would be dicey.
He's played just 112 games over the past three seasons due to a variety of concussions and other injuries, he was knocked out of the Islanders' first-round playoff series by a vicious Tom Wilson hit, and he'll be 39 years old by the time the season starts. Still, Visnovsky has no intention of retiring and he could be a really good low-risk, high-reward gamble for the Sharks' third pairing on a cheap one-year deal. When he's healthy, the Slovak still has game. To the HERO chart:
Visnovsky still excels at both ends of the ice and he'd be a great secondary UFA defenseman signing for the Sharks provided they're able to nab someone else as their big fish. Visnovsky would be a great partner for Braun on what would be one of the best third pairings in the league while also forcing Mirco Mueller to start the season in the AHL with the Barracuda where he belongs. Visnovsky's inevitable injuries would also allow the Sharks to gauge Mueller's developmental progress over the course of the year. The gamble here is that Lubo might be healthy enough for the playoffs, where he could be a potential game-changer.
If Visnovsky is viewed as too big of a risk, re-signing Matt Irwin could be a great third pairing option. Former Bruin Matt Bartkowski doesn't pack anywhere near the offensive punch of Lubo or Irwin but he's a solid, physical, defensive-minded option who won't hurt you with his skating. John Moore, a non-tender by the Coyotes, is a happy medium between Irwin's all-out offense and Bartkowski's defensive tilt.