Friday, September 26, 2008

San Jose Camp Week One Wrap-up

Alexei Semenov
Photo by Dinur, courtesy of

How appropriate this picture is. Alexei Semenov, inexplicably back in camp despite being a complete waste of money and a uniform, not in focus with his surroundings.

The Sharks need to add a little help to their blueline, especially if they do what is expected and waive or trade oft-injured Kyle McLaren and his $2.5 million contract. His skill set does not fit in with the team's needs on that unit anymore, especially at that price.

Of course, either does Douglas Murray, who has the same skills (big hitting, stay-at-home defenceman with limited offensive skill) and whose extension means he will be playing for the same money next year. But Murray has stayed healthy and is three years younger.

With McLaren likely gone, the Sharks only have six defencemen with NHL experience and one prospect, Derik Joslin, ready to step up. You need to have one or two others, and maybe the team felt they were that desperate.

They're not.

Semenov looked lost on the ice, played in only about 30 games yet was directly responsible for two big goals in the last minute of the third that I can remember. He is as big and as slow as a Zamboni but doesn't use his size well, is not a good puck-mover nor does he have a dangerous shot.

He is a completely wrong fit for Todd McLellan's coaching style. If we need someone that badly, I would rather re-sign Sandis Ozolinsh--at least he can move his feet and the puck.

But the blueline is only one of the most interesting battles shaking up in Sharks camp. Another is former Sharks first-round pick Jeff Friesen returning.

So far, that seemed to be going well until he took a nasty spill on the ice in the first exhibition game that required stitches. Nothing a hockey player cannot handle.

Friesen was always a good skater, and at 32-years old, should have plenty left in the tank. However, he was out of the game completely last season, and reports are he was struggling with health issues. Now, he is 20 pounds lighter than when he last played in Calgary and looking to rejoin the team that drafted him.

The injury to Torrey Mitchell makes room on the roster for Friesen, so I expect him to make the team. In fact, I expect him to be a steal for whatever he is eventually signed for, and believe he will record between a dozen and a score goals and assists.

Since most of the other players are relatively known commodities or role-players, I don't expect anyone to come out of nowhere. However, this is not to say that there won't be some players bouncing back (Patrick Marleau) and some new performance plateaus reached.

Ryan Clowe should exceed 20 goals if he stays healthy, and I expect much more scoring out of the blueline--Marc-Eduoard Vlasic should begin to contribute on the offensive end. Also, Rob Blake uses the same trainer as Chris Chelios and is almost eight years younger: his production decline in Los Angeles was related to the young team around him, and he will thrive in this offence.

The Sharks have only 12 healthy forwards in camp with significant NHL experience. Thus, it will also be interesting to see who catches on with the club. The team is still negotiating with Tomas Plihal, and he would be the best option for a couple reasons: he has the most experience, and he needs the least playing to continue to get better time because he is in lis late 20's--i.e. not as much upside.

However, I would rather see the team make room for new kids to show what they can do than hold onto someone who is what he will ever be, even if he's a little better. With so many prospects (Riley Armstrong, Logan Couture, Tom Cavanagh, Steven Zalewski, Lukas Kaspar, and Jamie McGinn), a backlog of career role-players can stunt progress.

With the team over the cap, this could turn into a financial decision, in which case Armstrong has the inside track: he is under contract for just $450,000, the lowest of the prospects who seem ready to step up.

But if the team rids itself of McLaren's contract, finances should not be an issue in determining roster spots; expect them to do that, one way or another (for their options, see my last Sharks article:

If they can get McLaren through to the minors and don't mind paying that kind of scratch to a minor leaguer, they have eight defencemen. If he is off the team, there are plenty of out-of-work defencemen available, some even young enough to possibly be developed into solid players.

Thus, either way San Jose should not feel the need to keep Semenov. But what should and what will happen are not the same thing. General Manager Doug Wilson is under such pressure to win now that I expect he will have more faith in the proven than the unknown.

If it's proven bad, how is that better than the unknown? I cannot answer that, except to say Wilson would not have gone after Semenov if he was not somehow deluded into thinking that was best. And he has been a shrewd GM, so I think he should be allowed this one mistake--I mean, how many games can Semenov really affect?

This is how I see the lines breaking out prior to Mitchell's return mid-November:

  1. Michalek-Thornton-Cheechoo, Blake-Vlasic
  2. Clowe-Marleau-Setoguchi, Boyle-Lukowich
  3. Friesen-Pavelski-Grier, Ehrhoff-Murray
  4. Shelley-Goc-Roenick; scratched: Plihal, Semenov, Joslin; goalies: Nabokov, Boucher.

Once Mitchell returns, I expect it to look like this:

  1. Michalek-Thornton-Cheechoo, Blake Vlasic
  2. Marleau-Pavelski-Clowe, Boyle-Lukowich
  3. Friesen-Mitchell-Grier, Ehrhoff-Murray
  4. Shelley-Roenick-Setoguchi; Goc, Plihal, Semenov (Joslin returns to minors to continue developing); Nabby, Boucher

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