Coupled with the Paul Martin signing, the Joel Ward acquisition leaves no doubt the Sharks intend to push for the playoffs in 2015-16.
It sure seemed like the San Jose Sharks were poised to start a rebuild just a couple weeks ago. They’d missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03. They’d fired coach Todd McLellan. Goalie Antti Niemi was set to walk as an unrestricted free agent. Former captain Joe Thornton was publicly at odds with GM Doug Wilson. The Sharks even had their first top-10 draft selection since 2007, nabbing Timo Meier ninth overall. It all screamed turning over a new leaf.
But everything Wilson has done since last week’s draft suggests otherwise. Acquiring Martin Jones and signing him to a three-year extension worked whether San Jose was rebuilding or retooling, as Jones is only 25 and someone had to start in net for them in 2015-16. That said, getting him from Boston cost the Sharks a 2016 first-round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly.
Then came July 1 and defenseman Paul Martin signing at $19.4 million over four years. Friday, the next hammer dropped: right winger Joel Ward at $9.825 million over three years. Martin earns $4.85 million per season, and Ward’s cap hit is $3.275 million.
The message is clear: the Sharks refuse to roll over. Martin and Ward are both 34 and received multi-year commitments. It’s “win now,” or Wilson at least believes this team can win now.
Martin, hardly a flashy D-man but still a fairly effective two-way guy, makes the Sharks blueline well-rounded and deep. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Mirco Mueller, Justin Braun, Martin…that ain’t half bad. Ward, an outstanding forechecker, solidifies San Jose’s top nine. He’ll slot somewhere into a group that includes Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Tommy Wingels and Melker Karlsson.
That Ward is a significantly better performer in the playoffs, averaging 0.66 points per game versus 0.43 in the regular season, all but confirms the Sharks intend to play deep into next spring. But can they? The Pacific Division looks deadly as ever. The Anaheim Ducks remain a powerhouse and have added Carl Hagelin, Shawn Horcoff and Kevin Bieksa, albeit while losing Matt Beleskey, Francois Beauchemin, Emerson Etem, James Wisniewski and Kyle Palmieri. The Calgary Flames are vastly improved, having landed Dougie friggin’ Hamilton and Michael Frolik. Edmonton has a long way to go, but, sheesh, Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot, Andrej Sekera, Mark Letestu, Griffin Reinhart and Lauri Korpikoski help.
Los Angeles is a strong bet to bounce back, especially after acquiring Milan Lucic to play on its top line. But, sure, the Kings have lost some bodies too and could still be vulnerable. And, yes, the Vancouver Canucks haven’t improved much this off-season. Arizona, while building nicely for the future, isn’t a threat in 2015-16.
So maybe Martin and Ward help inch the Sharks back into a playoff spot. But this team still doesn’t look like a serious contender, and the free agent moves clearly represent Wilson’s last stand. Maybe the philosophy is to kick at the can as long as Thornton and Marleau remain in town. They have two years left on their deals. But if the 2015-16 experiment fails, Wilson is a strong bet to go down with the ship.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin