In part one I am examining the blueline and goaltending currently on the Sharks roster. I hope to provide an analysis of the team's forwards once we find out whether they can re-sign Ryan Clowe.
The backbone of every team is its goaltending, and the Sharks are strong in this unit. Not only should Evgeni Nabokov have won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie, leading the league in wins (46) and games played (77-tied with Martin Brodeur, who did win the trophy), but he was only .03 goals per game worse than Brodeur.
There are a handful of goalies I would take over Nabokov despite his career year. I believe that while Nabby deserved the award last year, Brodeur is probably still better than him if for no other reason than playoff experience. I also think that Miikka Kiprusoff is a more tested commodity, and there is no question Jean-Sebastien Giguere has the pedigree and consistent performance to surpass all his peers.
Roberto Luongo is probably better, but a less proven commodity, especially in the playoffs. The same can be said for Henrik Lundqvist. That leaves Nabby as unquestionably a top six goaltender, in the top 20% of the league's starters.
Brian Boucher saw limited action last season, playing mostly in the minors. Despite being the league's record holder for consecutive scoreless minutes in net, he struggled some a couple years back and was out of the NHL for about a year.
However, Boucher played very well in the time he did get, he is still fairly young, and he has playoff experience. This makes him a mixed result projection: could be very good, could be shaky; therefore, he must be considered average.
Moreover, the team has Thomas Greiss as an emergency #3 goalie if there's an injury. He has limited NHL experience and was considered good enough to back up Nabokov a good part of last year.
The #1 goalie needs to be the strongest, so overall this unit is outstanding. Perhaps only Anaheim has a better goaltending unit, since Jonas Hiller is at least as much a sure thing as Boucher and Giguere has an edge on Nabokov. Other teams either lack the outstanding #1 and/or have lesser back-ups.
If net-minding is a team's backbone, the defensemen are its legs. If you have even a mediocre blueline in the West, you will be exposed as the Sharks have been the last couple years in the playoffs. All three teams they fell to had better defensemen on the whole.
So this year general manager Doug Wilson made bold moves to upgrade the unit. In the end, the team was minus tow defensemen who played key roles: gritty leader Craig Rivet and young offensively skilled Matthew Carle. However, Carle could not crack the lineup on a consistent basis, and Rivet's lack of speed was getting exposed from time to time.
In their place, the unit now boasts four Stanley Cup rings. Stay-at-home defensman Brad Lukowich has won two. His old defensemate Dan Boyle, who is among the best in the league at offensive and puck-handling skills that the team needs to play the new style favoured by coach Todd McLellan, has one. Rob Blake, still among the most dangerous power play defensemen in the game, also has one.
Meanwhile, the team was able to re-sign Christian Ehrhoff, who was key defending teams on the move last season, and is improving his physical play and puck-handling. McLellan will also be able to rely on marathon defender Marc-Edouard Vlassic, who is coming off a bit of a sophomore season let-down but still is reliable in his own end.
The unit also features two returning heavy hitters, Kyle McLaren and Douglas Murray. McLaren has struggled to stay healthy the last three years but is a solid seventh defenseman who should see some time with or without injury. Murray has improved greatly in terms of his positioning and even getting the puck out of the defensive end, and is an intimidating presence that keeps opposing forwards from skating boldly into the zone.
One thing the Sharks do not have is more depth. Currently, the next defenseman listed on the depth chart is Derek Joslin, a 21-year old fifth round pick in 2005. He is 6'1" and 210#, but has not played a single NHL game. With the team tight against its budget a key player yet to be signed, it is unlikely there will be any additions to this unit. Thus, I project the pairings to be as follows:
- Boyle-Lukowich puts two players who know one another together with different skill sets, Lukowich can be counted on to be in positions and provide a physical presence while Boyle can be counted on to advance the puck and provide the secondary scoring when the opportunity presents itself. Luke will play on the penalty kill and Boyle the power play. This would be one of the top ten first pairs in the league.
- Blake-Vlassic puts the most experienced player with the least in this unit. Blake provides the offensive capabilities (especially on the power play) and the size to have to be accounted for. Vlassic provides the skating ability and endurance to keep the pair from getting caught flat-footed, and his steady play makes him seem more experienced than he is and a perfect choice for the penalty kill. This would be one of the top five or six second pairs in the league.
- Murray-Ehrhoff puts another hitter with another fast skater, and both have enough experience to be reliable in key situations including helping on the penalty kill. Ehrhoff will also likely see power play time, and that alone shows this would be one of the best third pairs in the league.
- As for the reserves, McLaren may be among the best defensemen not dressed, but obviously since it gets very shaky after that. Therefore, I would have to rate this level of the unit in the bottom half of the league. Fortunately, it is unlikely they will be called on much.
Overall, the Sharks are in the top five of the league in this unit as well. Obviously Anaheim and then Detroit have better bluelines. The Flames and the Rangers have comparable units. The Stars are in the same league, but I think a shade below.
(This article has appeared on The Cold Shoulder on MVN.com and Bleacher Report.)