Sharks should still be looking for PK Help as offseason rolls along

As the slow San Jose summer burns along at a lethargic pace, you have to figure Doug Wilson is methodically working the phones attempting to find a solution for the blueline. After Chicago matched an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson two weeks ago news out of the Sharks camp has been brutally quiet, but it's clear he has identified this position as a need for the right price. At this point one can only point to the calendar, softly bat sleepy eyelashes, and methodically nod in response to the realization that there remains precisely fifty seven days until training camp begins.

It's brutal, and it's no fun. But it's the way things always are this time of year. And there's still time to improve.

At any rate, riffing one more time about the need for a defenseman to be signed serves little purpose except to rehash old arguments that I've been cranking out for an entire year now. It's a tired exercise (one that I would have no trouble re-visiting tomorrow, mind), but today let's turn our attention to something that has flown under the radar a bit in our discussions concerning the 2010-2011 manifestation of the San Jose Sharks.

Forwards who can log shorthanded minutes.

With the departure of Manny Malhotra to the Vancouver Canucks, and the loss of Jed Ortmeyer due to budget/personnel decisions, there remains a bit of a hole in the Sharks penalty kill. Both of those individuals contributed a combined 3:36 per night during the regular season, were third (Malhotra) and fifth (Ortmeyer) in SH TOI per game, and went up against the toughest (Malhotra) and fourth toughest (Ortmeyer) quality of competition for Sharks players with at least 1:00 per on the kill.

Furthermore, Malhotra's prowess from the faceoff circle will be sorely missed from the shorthanded unit next season. He was 62.5% from the circle last season, and an even more astounding 65.3% on the kill (!!!), by far the most effective player in this area for San Jose. Although I have shown before that a team's faceoff ability does not correlate with a successful penalty kill (read: there are other factors, such as goaltender performance, shot blocking, pressuring the puck carrier, and getting sticks in passing lanes that seem to have a greater effect on the success of the kill), it's no secret that winning a draw in the defensive end does a lot of good in cutting down opponent's zone possession time with the man advantage.

With that established, let's examine the current Sharks roster as it stands and see what kind of in-house upgrades could be available for McLellan to utilize when attempting to make up the 3:36 lost when Malhotra and Ortmeyer vacated the the Sharks locker room:

Sharks Penalty Kill (Forwards)

09-10 TOI#
Player Pos
SH FO% 09-10 TOI
1 Patrick Marleau
2 Joe Pavelski
4 Scott Nichol
6 Joe Thornton
7 Dany Heatley
8 Torrey Mitchell
9 Jamie McGinn

Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley shouldn't see an increase in minutes on the kill next year-- although they're phenomenal offensive players, defensively there are some question marks with both. Less than a minute is ideal for their services, where they would hop on at the end of shifts when the penalized player is due to come out of the box. This allows San Jose to potentially capitalize on a team that has primarily offensive players on the ice who are tired from their man advantage excursions, or in other words, personnel that would be at a disadvantage when attempting to defend against the Sharks two most potent offensive weapons.

Taking that into account, of the seven players who logged significant shorthanded time, the only individuals I could see making a jump up in minutes is Torrey Mitchell, and on some level, Jamie McGinn. McGinn seems to be on the road to becoming a decent two way guy with some scoring pop, and could probably log two shifts on the kill next year. We'll plug him into Mitchell's spot next season, giving him 0:45 a night and a net gain of roughly 20 seconds for San Jose.

This leaves us with about 3:16 left of shorthanded time the Sharks need to make up.

Now on to Torrey Mitchell. Astute fans will remember his brilliance under Ron Wilson during 07-08, where Mitchell and former Shark Mike Grier composed a dangerous 1-2 punch on the kill that was very effective in their time spent together. Although McLellan didn't utilize Mitchell that often during the regular season, possibly due to health concerns stemming from his broken leg sustained before the 08-09 year, McLellan did plug him into that role during the playoffs where Mitchell logged 1:24 (4th overall). For the sake of this study we will assume he takes Jed Ortmeyer's spot on the kill next season and logs somewhere between his 07-08 TOI (2:36) and Jed Ortmeyer's 09-10 TOI (1:30). That gives us an estimate of about 2:00 for Mitchell, which when subtracted from his 09-10 ice time (0:45) nets us a gain of 1:15. It's a bold estimate considering the ice time he has seen in this area under McLellan, but one I'm willing to make in order for us to understand that even in the best possible situation the Sharks will need to bring in another forward who can kill penalties.

This leaves us with about 2:00 of shorthanded time the Sharks need to make up.

At this point, you can go two routes. Attempt to sign a free agent who can come in and log some big minutes on the kill, or throw a guy like Logan Couture into the fire, bump up Thornton/Heatley's minutes, add another Worcester player into the mix, and roll with what you have within the system. While I think Couture could contribute to the kill next season (and likely will), the amount of things that need to break correctly for the Sharks in this area is considerable in that you're relying on some unproven NHL talent to fill these holes (Couture, Worcester) alongside players who haven't demonstrated a real knack for the defensive zone (Thornton, Heatley).

Furthermore, although Scott Nichol was healthy last season, he has been plagued with injuries throughout his entire career, and at his age (35 years old) there needs to be a safety blanket of sorts in the event he goes down for a significant amount of time. Add in the fact that two of your best offensive players (Marleau, Pavelski) will be leaned on heavily to play the tough shorthanded minutes for the team, possibly decreasing their effectiveness as the year goes along, and it seems fairly clear to me that signing a guy outside of the organization is the best route to take to fill the hole.

Although we're not focusing on defenseman today, Rob Blake's retirement (2:53 in 09-10, second on the blueline) and a below average defensive core also indicates a need for a forward that can play the kill. It's a team game out there, and with the defensive situation still unresolved, there remains a good chunk of uncertainty as to just how effective the kill would be next season if a defensive minded blueliner and a penalty killing forward are not brought into the mix.

In summation, replacing Malhotra's defensive presence on the kill seems like the most effective way to approach this issue. Although the Sharks have some quality centers at the top, Marleau's porous shorthanded faceoff percentage (43.0%) allows you a good opportunity to add a center to make the lineup as strong down the middle as it could be. This benefits the even strength area as well, by making it easier to put the blossoming Logan Couture into a swing role where he could play as a second line winger/third line center-- as it stands now he would be required to play as a pivot on the third line, but if Ryane Clowe is traded in order to beef up the blueline, there is an opportunity for Couture to make a jump into the top six (Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Setoguchi, Heatley as your remaining top five). The addition of a penalty killing center helps to ease that transition, and allows McLellan much more flexibility when composing his lineup on any given night.

Potential targets will be covered in the coming weeks, but Eric Belanger (who James Mirtle reports is close to signing with an undisclosed team), John Madden (who we covered in our podcast two weeks ago), and Jeff Halpern are the three targets who should be getting the most attention for teams attempting to obtain a solid penalty killing center with some offensive upside. All three of these players would get a big thumbs from yours truly, and immediately improve the Sharks roster if obtained at the right price.

Go Sharks.