June 19, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Adding Blue Line Depth A Priority For Sharks Heading Into Draft, Free Agency

SAN JOSE — Former-Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan asked his team to play with pride as the window closed on its playoff chances down the stretch last March. His players responded and, unfortunately, it probably cost them a spot or two in next week’s NHL entry draft.

The Sharks compiled a 5-3-1 record over their last nine games, landing the ninth pick in the draft, which may have hurt their chances of grabbing one of three blue liners who are expected to be franchise defensemen in the future.

While the Sharks would have had a better chance of plucking Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski if they’d landed the No.7 or No.8 pick in this year’s draft, general manager Doug Wilson is optimistic that he will be able to acquire an impact player with the team’s first top-ten pick in eight years next week.

“Honestly, we were very fortunate to fall to nine, which was really important,” Wilson said, noting that the Colorado Avalanche finished a mere point ahead of the Sharks in the Western Conference standings, while the Dallas Stars bested them by three points. “We’re very pleased to be at nine. You wouldn’t want to be outside of a certain range.”

Like every general manager, Wilson is keeping his cards close to his chest as draft day approaches. But he did indicate that the Sharks will be looking to add depth to the blue line this offseason through the draft, trade or free agency after the team finished 24th (2.76) in goals-against average last year.

“We’re looking to add to our defense, potentially,” Wilson said, adding: “We need to have better structure in our Dzone.”

Wilson said he’s parting ways with veteran blue liner Scott Hannan, and unrestricted free agent Matt Irwin’s future with the team is cloudy, so the Sharks will need to plug at least one hole on the back end via trade or free agency this offseason, as rookie defensemen can’t be expected to jump into the lineup and contribute right away.

“Drafting an 18-year-old kid and thinking that he’s going to come in and be your answer for that specific role, some people would say defensemen take a little longer to develop, goaltenders might take a little bit longer,” Wilson said. “The easiest position to integrate into this league is the wing position.”

With 26 picks in the next three drafts, Wilson has the currency in his pocket to swing a deal in the trade market if he’s unimpressed with the unrestricted free agents that will become available on July 1.

But a team can never have too much depth on the blue line, which is why most pundits think the Sharks are eyeing Hanifin, Provorov or Werenski in the draft to bolster their young-defensive core of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Mirco Mueller, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and Brent Burns.

Hanifin isn’t likely to fall into the Sharks hands unless the team makes a deal to move up in the draft. The 18-year-old defenseman out of Boston College is considered one of the top blue line prospects to come out in recent years and he’s been slotted as the No.3 pick in mock drafts throughout the season, sitting behind prodigies Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

But the Arizona Coyotes, who hold the third pick, are also rumored to be in the market for a forward in this year’s draft, and thus, potentially,  looking to trade down. While Wilson said the Sharks won’t be looking to trade down or move a key-young player, he didn’t dismiss the idea of moving up if the price is right.

In reality, moving up to No.3 would cost the Sharks a fair penny they probably aren’t willing to give away, especially to a division rival. The question then is whether they believe Provorov or Werenski will fall to No.9.

Provorov is probably the most NHL-ready defenseman in the draft. The skilled blue liner finished fourth among WHL defensemen in points last season (61) with the Brandon Wheat Kings and his work ethic is said to be off the charts. He moved to Pennsylvania from Russia at age 14 to learn the North American game and his puck moving skills would complement Vlasic’s stay home style and Burns’ offensive gifts on the Sharks blue line.

But the Sharks would probably need to move up a few spots to snag Provorov, whom some pundits now have being picked ahead of Hanifin, so Werenski is a more realistic option in the No. 9 spot.

The Michigan Wolverines freshman was the youngest player in NCAA hockey last year, starting classes as a 17-year-old last fall after finishing high school early to play college hockey. A lot of pundits believe Werenski is the most talented blue liner in this year’s draft, but he would be a more long-term investment because of his youth.

Until recently, most experts had Werenski falling to the Sharks at No.9. But Sportnet’s Damien Cox now has all three defensemen getting scooped up in the first eight picks in his mock draft with the Columbus Blue Jackets drafting Werenski with the eighth selection, one spot ahead of the Sharks. If the Sharks had lost one more game last season, a shot at Provorov or Werenski would be close to a slam dunk.

With a huge drop off between Hanafin, Provorov, Werenski and the rest of the defensemen in the draft, the Sharks will likely go with a power forward, like Timo Meier (Halifax), Lawson Crouse (Kingston) or Pavel Zacha (Sarnia) if the three aforementioned blue liners aren’t available.

Likewise, if Wilson believes he can fill out the blue line via trade or free agency, he might decide to draft an NHL-ready wingman, like Meier, who would integrate into the league more quickly than a defenseman.

Either way, solving the team’s defensive woes will be a top priority this offseason

“We need to add a couple of pieces, there’s no doubt,” Wilson said, adding: “We’re putting this team in a position to bounce back and be very competitive come September. Will we explore everything? Yeah, we will.”