Weighing the Sharks' trade deadline options

Weighing the Sharks' trade deadline options
March 21, 2013, 2:15 pm
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The Sharks' front office has imporant decisions to make before the April 3 trade deadline. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Which course do you think the Sharks' front office should take?

MINNEAPOLIS -- The NHL’s trade deadline has become one of the true holidays of the professional sports world. It’s the day that a team can declare in one bold move that it’s making a hard push towards a championship, or a day when a general manager decides to throw in the towel on the current campaign and add pieces for the future.

In recent years, though – particularly the last two – the deadline has come and gone without much activity. Sure, there have been some notable deals involving key players, but nothing resembling what used to go on a decade ago, and especially before the implementation of the salary cap in 2005-06.

This year’s deadline is on April 3, less than two weeks away, and there’s already been educated speculation that it could be another dud. The NHL’s wacky points system means more teams than ever are still in the race, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that 12 or 13 teams in each conference will still be alive headed into the final weekend of the regular season, let alone at the deadline. Logic dictates that if you’re still in the race, you’re not going to be dealing your key players, or even your role players.

(By the way, couldn’t they have fixed the points system in the realignment meeting? Three-point regulation wins should be the law of the land. I still find it humorous that an 11-11-7 record is somehow considered .500. But, I digress…)

The San Jose Sharks sit in eighth place in the Western Conference, and are generally viewed as a team on the decline. After two straight trips to the conference finals in 2010 and 2011, San Jose struggled in the second half of last season and was whipped in the first round by St. Louis. A 7-0-0 start out of the gate in January gave the impression that a shortened season could benefit the veteran-laden club, but since then, the Sharks are just 6-10-6, and have won in regulation three times in their last 24 games.

[RELATED: NHL standings]

Again, that’s three regulation wins. In two dozen games.

So, yeah, it’s easy to see why the Sharks might be viewed as potential sellers as the deadline approaches. Eighth place for a team that used to be among the NHL’s titans feels a whole lot different than eighth place for a team like Wednesday’s opponent in Edmonton, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006 and is looking to break through from a rebuild.

The conundrum for management is that the team is still somehow clinging to that eighth and final spot. After what the Los Angeles Kings did last season, winning the Cup as an eight-seed, a fair argument can be made that any team can get scorching hot come playoff time, particularly after a lockout-shortened regular season. Maybe the Sharks will revert back to the cub that blitzed through its first five games, winning by multiple goals every night. There’s a chance, right?

It’s hard to imagine, though, the Sharks would have a shot in a seven-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks (and other than Anaheim in the Western Conference, who would?) In fact, based on their performance since February 2012, the Sharks appear to be a significant step below the West's top tier. That includes those two aforementioned clubs as well as the red-hot Minnesota Wild, the defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings, the improving St. Louis Blues, the injury-riddled Vancouver Canucks, and the Detroit Red Wings, who should still have enough star power to keep them in a playoff position.

That’s seven teams, leaving the Sharks to battle the Coyotes, Stars, and even the streaking Blue Jackets, among others, for that eighth and final spot.

Using that logic the question becomes, is it worth it to try and sneak into the postseason, only to get smoked again in an early round? It’s a question that Sharks management is likely wrestling with right now.

On paper, and considering how the Sharks have been going lately, it’s a monumental stretch to suggest that this team is a Stanley Cup contender at it stands right.

So, what to do?

There are essentially three choices. Stay the course, make minor tweaks to the current roster, or start blowing it up now. There are arguments to be made for each:

Stay the course – The Sharks still possess a veteran roster that should know how to win when everything is on the line. There are Stanley Cup winners (Brad Stuart, Antti Niemi, Dan Boyle); Olympic gold-medalists (Boyle, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau) and young up-and-comers (Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic). There are enough players on the roster that have proven in key moments, over and over again, that they can win when the lights are shining brightest. While they may have been inconsistent in the past calendar year, the Sharks’ early 7-0-0 start showed that when firing on all cylinders, San Jose is still among the NHL’s best teams. Brent Burns has surprisingly emerged as a force up front, and Matt Irwin’s rapid development has helped to fill the vacant spot on the blue line. Defensively, the Sharks have been one of the best teams in the NHL all season long anchored by Niemi, who was putting up Vezina-type numbers until just recently.

Make minor tweaks – This is the route Doug Wilson is most likely to take. The Sharks obviously need help, as evidenced by their continual struggles since the calendar flipped to February. They have some attractive pieces that many clubs, particularly in the Eastern Conference, might overpay for in Ryane Clowe, Jason Demers, Douglas Murray or even Dan Boyle. Depth scoring continues to be an issue even with players like Scott Gomez starting to put up some points, but other players like Clowe, James Sheppard, Tim Kennedy, Andrew Desjardins, Adam Burish, Michal Handzus, Tommy Wingels and Marty Havlat have all failed to produce on a regular basis. Havlat, especially, has been a huge disappointment. Collectively, that group is biggest reason why the Sharks are 29th in the NHL in scoring. Unless they get more firepower up front without sacrificing too much on the blue line, the Sharks just don’t have enough talent at the forward position to consider themselves a contender. Furthermore, the Sharks probably don’t want to start trading away key pieces like Boyle, which would be a pretty clear indication they're giving up on the season. As CBC’s Elliotte Freidman recently pointed out, the last time the Sharks missed the playoffs, 3,000 season ticket holders cancelled their seats. Don’t think that doesn’t play a role in how decisions are made these days by professional sports teams. Wilson recently said he doesn’t believe in rebuilding; instead he prefers to “reset and refresh.” That’s not surprising, as the word rebuild is essentially code for “we’re going to stink for the next five years.”

Blow it up now – The party’s over. The Sharks’ window has closed, and although the Thornton-Marleau years were productive and exciting, they’ve proven that they simply can’t get over that final hump a hoist the Stanley Cup in front of the HP Pavilion faithful. No-trade clauses aside, it’s time to move on from the current captain and the franchise’s all-time scorer, both of whom would fetch an enormous price from a team that is trying to get that one final piece. How many teams would love to have Thornton as a second-line center and on the power play, without him being burdened by wearing the C; or Marleau providing that extra speed and scoring ability in a top-six role? Moving both Thornton and Marleau would also pave the way to make emerging star Couture the next captain, a role in which he would embrace and thrive. Boyle could also get at least good young prospect and a high draft pick in return, and several teams in the defensively deficient Eastern Conference are already drooling over putting Boyle on their blue line. Sure, the Sharks will be waving a white flag on the 2013 season, but adding a cluster of good young players and draft picks to a system that is consistently ranked as one the NHL’s worst will provide a needed jolt of excitement for the future.

Decisions need to be made, and soon. What would you do?