Inside Sharks

June 4, 2011

Inside Sharks, by Tom Walker

Rush hour traffic on Guadalupe Parkway last Wednesday afternoon was very ordinary. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final had just gotten underway, but there was no buzz outside a dormant HP Pavilion as classic rock played on KFOX 98.7 FM.

About a thousand miles up the coast, the Boston Bruins represented the Eastern Conference in Vancouver, where a week earlier the San Jose Sharks’ season came to an abrupt end in the 2nd overtime period when a fluke ricochet off the stanchion on the side board glass found its way to an open Kevin Bieksa, who “blasted” the puck past netminder Antti Niemi before seemingly anyone else in the building could even figure out where the puck had gone.

Even as confetti descended from the rafters, confusion reigned in the broadcast booth as to what had actually happened and if the goal would stand. But soon it was apparent that the puck had remained in play, and the 2011 President’s Trophy winners would advance to the championship having won four out of five games against the Pacific Division Champions.

The Legendary Mr. Walker

While the goal was under review, I asked myself what exactly would happen if the goal were to be waved off ? After settling down the announced crowd of 18,860, it would have taken an agonizing eternity to clean up the confetti and restore the ice to playing condition. Assuming that the confetti drop was the Canucks organization’s responsibility, could they have been charged with a delay of game penalty for the premature celebration, giving the Sharks a better chance to stay alive? I posed that question to an esteemed Hall of Fame sportswriter who was of the opinion that a penalty probably would only have been assessed if fans continued to throw things onto the ice after a warning had been issued.

At this late date, a game-by-game summary of Round 3 seems pointless. The Sharks management team and fans are already wondering about next year and what exactly it will take to get to the next level. If this team couldn’t get there, what can still be done within the salary cap to improve further?

First things first, let’s take a quick look at this season’s top playoff performers.

Patrick Marleau shook off the now infamous criticism of Jeremy Roenick to net 7 goals in 18 post-season matches. He was equaled by wingers Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture.

Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, and Ryane Clowe led in assists with 14, 12, and 9 as well as overall points with 17, 16, and 15.

In the plus/minus category, Kyle Wellwood (+6), Clowe (+5), and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (+4) led the pack. Unfortunately for the Sharks, the other end of the plus/minus spectrum may ultimately explain the reason the Bruins didn’t open up the Cup Finals in San Jose. Boyle, Setoguchi, Doug Murray, and Scott Nichol each finished the playoffs at minus-7. Following them was Captain Joe Thornton at minus-5. Leading the team with 14 assists and 17 points loses a little luster when balanced against points allowed while on the ice.

With 41 penalty minutes in just 10 games, Ben Eager easily led all Sharks in the sin bin. He was followed by Clowe with 31 PIM in 17 games, and Jamie McGinn with 30 PIM in just 7 games.

Marleau, Clowe, and Setoguchi each ended up with 3 power play goals. Thornton and Setoguchi tied for the squad lead in game-winning goals with 2 each.

Looking ahead to next season, the core of the Sharks’ top performers remains intact.

Among forwards, Clowe, Couture, Marleau, Thornton, Dany Heatley, Torrey Mitchell, and Joe Pavelski are all locked up. Setoguchi is a restricted free agent, but will probably be retained unless some opponent signs him to an unreasonable offer sheet. On defense, Boyle, Murray, Vlasic, and Jason Demers remain under contract for next season, as are goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki.

What will probably capture the primary interest of Sharks fans are the unrestricted free agents.

Forwards: Eager, Nichol, Wellwood, and Jamal Mayers.

Defensemen: Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin, and Ian White.

For Inside Sharks readers, your feedback to the following questions is solicited:

1) Which unrestricted free agent do you consider to be the highest priority to re-sign, and why ?

2) Which unrestricted free agent would you most like to see let go, and why ?

3) Who are your top 3 unrestricted free agents in the NHL that you would like to see the Sharks go after, and why ?

4) To clear cap space to sign a top-tier free agent, who would you be most willing to trade ?

Keep in mind, the Sharks are already flirting with the salary cap limit. According to thehockeygm.com, the Sharks could gain $5.5 million by shedding the salaries of White ($3M in 2011) and Wallin ($2.5M in 2011), but the remaining UFAs all earned less than a million last season.

Heatley and Thornton will make $7.5M and $7.2M the next two seasons respectively, but both have a no-trade clause, as does Boyle ($6.675M). Among those eligible to be traded, Marleau will earn $6.9M each of the next two seasons, followed by Pavelski ($4M) and Clowe ($3.75M).

To have your responses considered for the next column, please comment below or send to insidesharks@live.com within 24 hours of the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final.

Speaking of the finals, there’s that little matter of predictions.

For the Western Conference Final, I predicted San Jose over Vancouver in 6. My coin toss predicted Vancouver. And we all know how that turned out.

For the Eastern Conference Final, I predicted Boston over Tampa Bay in 7. My coin agreed. And if there is any saving grace, the Bruins really did win in 7, but not before the Lightning’s Steve Stamkos showed the world what a tough SOB he is by returning to the ice after having his nose split open when a puck deflected point-blank into his visor between the eyes. If Stamkos hadn’t been wearing his protective gear, there’s no saying what tragedy might have befallen one of the NHL’s most electrifying young stars.

If ever there was a defining moment to spurn the NHL to mandate the wearing of visors, this should be it.

Owing to the fact that the Canucks racked up the most points in the NHL while playing in the weakest division in the league, I picked against them in each round of the playoffs. They have rewarded my pessimism by mocking me with consecutive victories over the competitive Blackhawks, Predators, and Sharks, as if to say, “Just because we pummeled the worst teams in the league during the regular season doesn’t mean that we weren’t necessarily the best team anyway !” Duly noted.

The Bruins, on the other hand, have been the only thing keeping my overall post-season predictions from progressing beyond a mere awful to the status of train wreck. With victories over the Canadiens, Flyers, and Lightning, they have been the silver lining to my inaugural playoff run writing a hockey column.

Though Boston has already fallen in the first two games of the Cup Final, where Timmy Thomas and Roberto Luongo have put on an epic goaltending clinic, I’m already on record with the Inside Sports prognosticators as predicting the Bruins in 6 games over the Canucks. My coin happens to agree. What remains is to sit back in front of the big screen in all its HD glory and wait for the next chapter of history to be made.

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