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.
BREAKING: #SJSharks sign unrestricted free agent forward Joel Ward to a three-year contract. http://t.co/eKvCvOwQuq pic.twitter.com/nvkmGRAOhx
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) July 3, 2015
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.