SAN JOSE, Calif. – When the San Jose Sharks were languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, they were unsure of what their roster would look like after the trade deadline.
Having won 15 of their past 18 games to move to the top of the Pacific Division standings, the Sharks could stand pat at Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
“That was going to be predicated on performance,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “If we hadn’t started going in the right direction today, we might have been more active and not for the right reasons.
“But we’ve added as many players as most teams have.”
Wilson made his moves earlier as the Sharks were struggling during a six-game losing streak. He picked up forward Kyle Wellwood on waivers and traded for forward Ben Eager on Jan. 18—shortly after the losing streak ended.
Wilson then traded for defenceman Ian White and called up defenceman Justin Braun from the minors two weeks ago in moves that have already paid dividends.
Wellwood and Eager have provided needed depth and toughness up front, while White filled San Jose’s need for an offensive-minded defenceman.
“We feel like we’ve added four players to our team,” coach Todd McLellan said. “It didn’t happen on deadline but it happened leading up and it has had a large affect on our team already.
“It’s about growing our team now and keeping it focused in the right direction with the players we have.”
While those additions have helped, the biggest difference has come from the core of players who have been here all year long, led by goalie Antti Niemi. He has started the past 18 games, going 14-2-1 with a 1.91 goals-against average and .934 save percentage as the Sharks have played much stronger defence in front of him.
Devin Setoguchi has scored 11 of his 18 goals over the last 15 games, Logan Couture has kept up his strong rookie season, and the Sharks have gotten better play of late from stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley.
“You can talk about the additions but the majority of the improvement on this hockey team came in this dressing room, our own guys stepping up and playing the way they are capable of,” Wilson said. “You combine it with the four players we added, that was something we were looking to do all along.”
The one move the Sharks could have made was to go after a proven backup goalie with Antero Niittymaki sidelined since Jan. 13 with a groin injury.
But Niittymaki practised for the second straight day Monday and the lack of a deal is a sign of confidence in his ability to return.
“I thought he looked better today than he did yesterday,” McLellan said. “It’s still going to take some time.
“It’s not an injury that we can fool around with. He has to be 100 per cent, especially at this time of year, before he gets back into action.”
After playing 10 of their past 12 games on the road, the Sharks will be home for 13 of the final 19 games of the season. The Sharks have been better this season on the road, having gone 15-10-2 at HP Pavilion, while winning 22 of 37 games away from home—including a pair of games to open the season in Sweden.
The Sharks begin this stretch in third place in the Western Conference and atop the Pacific Division with 78 points. But with only seven points separating third and 11th place, they are far from comfortable.
“We’re not out of the danger zone yet,” Thornton said. “We still have to continue to win and our fate is in our own hands.
“But we can’t stop getting points. Every game is really important right now.”