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Sharks Show Misguided Focus by Signing Joel Ward

The San Jose Sharks were fairly quiet during the 2015 free-agency period, making only a few key moves to revamp their recently lackluster club.

First came a re-tooling of the goaltending corps, as the Sharks let former starter Antti Niemi walk and instead acquired promising backup Martin Jones from the Boston Bruins – a move that will surely sting for Jones’ former club, the L.A. Kings, who likely didn’t intend for their key trade chip to wind up in the hands of one of their in-state rivals.

Then came the signing of reliable veteran defenseman Paul Martin, who left the Pittsburgh Penguins after five seasons with the club.

With the blue line and goaltending sorted out, the Sharks looked to their roster of forwards, seeking out a name that could help the group get back on track following a 2014-15 campaign that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons.

Former Washington Capital Joel Ward was the one they chose, signing the 34-year-old to a three-year, $9.75 million contract that carries an annual cap hit of $3.25 million.

It was a questionable move by Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson, to say the least.

Forgetting the fact that Ward will be 37 by the time his contract expires, the move represents a misguided focus on the part of Wilson and his management team, in terms of assessing what his club needs in order to contend in the Western Conference.

Ward is a solid NHL forward. He’s racked up 43 goals over the last two seasons (both of which have seen him suit up for all 82 games) and his knack for coming up big in key moments earned him some time with Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom near the end of last season.

Despite the timely goals, Ward is not what the Sharks need.

His most obvious attribute is his intimidating size. Standing 6’1″ and weighing in at 226 pounds, he has a commanding presence on the ice simply due to the fact that he’s tough to push off the puck or out of the crease. While Ward isn’t the most physical player (he had only 53 hits last season and only 54 in the campaign before that), he’s able to use his size effectively when he needs to.

Size is an important attribute for a club to have, but with the game shifting and trending more towards skill and speed, the emphasis on big bodies is much less important than it ever was in the past.

That doesn’t mean a player like Ward has no value in the league anymore. But for a club like the Sharks, adding Ward is a matter of re-stocking on an attribute they already have plenty of.

Veteran forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both weigh 220 pounds, are in their mid-thirties, and remain fairly reliable secondary scorers, finishing third and fifth, respectively, among the Sharks’ scorers last season.

Not to mention 30-year-old hulking defender Brent Burns (6’5″, 230 pounds), who’s no stranger to playing the forward position as well.

Looking at their roster, if there was one thing the Sharks didn’t seem to need heading into 2015-16, it was an older forward with notable size. A look at the top clubs in the Western conference last year paints a pretty clear picture of why this is the case.

The Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who have dominated the league over the past decade, don’t place much of an emphasis on size. Their best three players – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith – are far from being intimidating physical presences, but all three are models of elite speed and skill.

The Anaheim Ducks, who finished atop the Western conference in 2014-15, saw just how ineffective their size was against the skillful Blackhawks when they were ousted by them in the Western conference finals. While the Ducks have been one of the heaviest clubs in the league over the past few seasons – led by big-bodied scorers Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – they’ve taken steps to balance out their roster with small-sized skill, most notably by trading for the Rangers’ Carl Hagelin (5’11”, 186 pounds) this summer.

With the top two clubs in their own conference already well aware that stocking up on size isn’t the answer, the Sharks’ decision to shell out over $3 million per year for Ward – as he approaches 40 years old, no less – doesn’t make much sense.

League-wide it makes even less sense, as the Blackhawks’ foe in the Stanley Cup final, Tampa Bay, is a model for how to find success with undersized skill – notably in the form of their young trio of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat.

There’s a place for size on the roster of any NHL club, but with the game changing in the manner that it is, it’s becoming imperative that said size be balanced with notable speed and skill, whether that come from a big body or a smaller forward.

Outside of Joe Pavelski and a few of the club’s younger players (i.e. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl), the Sharks are fairly slim when it comes to these new-age essential attributes. A changing of the guard is sure to come soon as Thornton and Marleau’s careers both reach their close, but after a trainwreck of a season in 2014-15, it seems Wilson has missed the mark thus far this summer when it comes to giving his team a better chance next season.

  • YANHLTroll

    Sharks didn’t get Ward for his size. They got him for his ability to play the wing on any line and to provide consistency, grit and scoring on a line with Marleau and Couture. Historically, Marleau and Couture have shown that they both perform best when they have a static line for every game, not a line with a different winger every couple of weeks like McLellan did last season. Both players need a consistent right wing that is the same guy every shift for every game and they’ll get that in Ward. Is it a flaw? Sure. But as a GM you have to deal with the flaws of your players and try to find a way to mitigate them.

    As far as contract length goes, Wilson is essentially saying that this season and next the Sharks are going to try and see if they can go on a deep playoff run because these are the last two years of Thornton and Marleau’s contracts. After that, if necessary Ward will end up on the 3rd/4th line for a season.

    But the fact of the matter is that the Sharks needed an experienced right winger on the 2nd line with size and some decent speed, pure and simple. Ward brings this and more. Did they overpay a little? Maybe, but the available pool this year was pretty small.

    In the end, saying the Sharks “show misguided focus” based solely on your issue of Ward’s size is a naive and one dimensional analysis. Stick to writing about the Flames if this is all you are offering Sharks fans.

    • Sonny Sachdeva

      I’m not saying Ward will be a terrible option for the Sharks. I stated very clearly that he’s a solid, reliable goal-scorer and has the potential to do well there. Obviously there’s more to his game than his size – I’m simply suggesting that by adding a player at that age, for that term, at that cost, whose style of play isn’t grounded in speed, it’s unlikely the Sharks see any improvement next season in terms of trending towards contender status.

      That won’t be because they’ll be a horrible team – they’ll just continue to lack key attributes that the top teams in their conference possess.

      The issue is bigger than simply Ward’s size. It’s that the team spent a big chunk of their minimal cap space on a player who brings a very similar dimension to a group that’s already underachieving, instead of helping said group adapt to a style that would allow them to compete with the leaders in their conference.

      Sure, the Sharks could have an improved second line next season (and a better third/fourth in the future, as you’re suggesting?) – great. But they still won’t have what they need to knock off the top clubs in the West, so they aren’t any closer to winning a championship – i.e. misguided focus.

      Thanks for reading – much appreciated.

      • Gabriel Arruda

        I disagree…the sharks acquired two players who have success in the playoffs and can be leaders. They definitely needed that! They also acquired a young talented promising goalie who will be the goalie of the present and future. The sharks will definitely be better than last season. Will they get over the playoff hump…that only time will tell.

  • DeanHI

    Sorry but I too also have to disagree with your assessment. The Sharks’ primary focus was exactly where it needed the most help, on defense and in goal. As always that is what wins championships. They went out and stole their primary rival’s backup with probably the most potential since Kipper and went out and got a very badly needed veteran defenseman. As for upfront, yeah, a team like the Bolts may have the undersized triplets line but they are loaded down with plenty of 6’4″ plus beasts and that size is one of the reasons why they were successful. Also considering the top teams in the Pacific Division and in State continue to emphasize heavy “big boy” hockey, it would be unwise to change focus just because the Flames had one great season and the Oilers will be good in a couple of years. As for the Hawks and their recent history, they are due for a downturn this year and teams like the Blues are not going away. Besides, the Sharks do have skill first guys up front with Courture, Pavelski, Hertl and Karlsson plus it looks like Goldobin is almost ready to jump up to the big club so you need to supplement that speed and skill with some size and grit. Ward will join Wingels with grit as insurance for Torres and Brown. WIth Thornton and Marleau not going anywhere for two more years that gives you pretty good mix of 11 forwards. Most importantly, Ward gives the Sharks the type of “do anything to win” leadership that the club has been missing even when it was piling up regulars season points and that is hard to find. it is not good enough to just make the playoffs but the team wants and needs to go deep, if not to satisfy its fan base but to get much needed revenue. We will see if Jones can be that next huge NHL star goaltender because Niemi was not getting the job done and with Martin joining the back end, once again they decided to focus on the next 2-3 years to see if this team can finally get over the hump. Players like Marleau (and others like Braun on D) are going to have to step up and play a lot better than last year, but you are stuck with him for a couple of seasons so you may as well try to take advantage of his skills and I think a player like Ward does just that. We shall see if Deboer can put the pieces together. That is my two cents worth.

    • Sonny Sachdeva

      This I can agree with, for the most part. I still think speed and skill should have been a bigger priority for the Sharks this summer (regardless of size) but if Karlsson and Goldobin can contribute sooner rather than later, and Hertl can take a significant step forward in 2015-16, then that would help mitigate the issue.

      Definitely agree about the defense and goaltending. I think Martin can have a big impact on that blue line though. Jones could be a great option, but he just hasn’t played enough at the NHL level to know. Quite a gamble there, but the team is handcuffed by those last few Thornton/Marleau years.

      I think Ward definitely brings something to the Sharks that can help them – a while back I wrote about the Caps needing to give him a bigger role – I just think it was a poor decision given the fact that the cost barred other potential moves. If they could’ve added more speed/skill in a separate deal, and brought in Ward as well, then it could have been a great move. Remains to be seen what the club does from here prior to the start of the season, but right now it doesn’t seem like enough to get them over the hump. Hard to bet against Chicago finding a way to navigate their cap issues once again, even with Toews/Kane getting their raises, and the Ducks should be even more formidable next season with their young blue line maturing and Hagelin in the mix.

      The Sharks still have plenty of talent on that roster, so if Ward’s leadership can become his biggest impact then they could get back to the playoffs and through a few rounds, but it seems they need something more to get out of the Western conference finals.

      Thanks for reading!

  • grooves12

    I disagree strongly. Ward is exactly the kind of player the current Sharks roster needs to be effective. Maybe not long term, but right NOW. He is exactly the type of player that thrives alongside Joe Thornton and a piece they were sorely missing last year. He will basically fill the role they lost when Brent Burns went back to defense. A hard checking energy player that can keep the puck in the offensive zone, feed it to Thornton to set up plays, and then be a force in front of the net. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he lines up alongside the Joes on the top line and will have a career year in scoring.

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