#30 ANTERO NIITTYMAKI RETURNED TO PRACTICE AFTER MISSING 16 GAMES
The San Jose Sharks could hold fast at today’s 12PM (PT) NHL trade deadline. Waiver acquisition Kyle Wellwood and a January 18th trade with Atlanta for Ben Eager have already solidified the Sharks forward corps. The addition of offensive defenseman Ian White and Justin Braun, and the possible return of backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki could lead for a quiet trade deadline day in San Jose. If anything, the Sharks could be a minor seller.
Kyle Wellwood was the second forward snatched out of the St. Louis Blues waiver grasp this year after Marek Svatos was also picked up by the Nashville Predators. Svatos was placed on waivers again last week and picked up by the Ottawa Senators. In 15 games since returning from the Atlant of the Kontinental Hockey League, Wellwood has registered 3 goals, 1 assist, and has not taken a single penalty. He has added playmaking and creativity to the Sharks second and third lines, but a more rigid arrangement down the stretch could boost his productivity. Coming off a 4-game suspension for a hit on Colby Armstrong, Eager came to San Jose from Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley for a 5th round draft selection in 2011. Eager was part of the 4-line depth that powered the Chicago Blackhawks to a sweep over San Jose last year in the Conference Finals. Not extraordinarily quick or fluid of stride, Eager utilized a churning, grinding physical style of play to help wear down San Jose. He took smart angles, kept his legs moving to line up hits, and he stayed out of the penalty box. According to the excellent Blueline blog, in Atlanta Eager was not contributing consistently enough on offense, and he was not playing well enough to earn PK time under head coach Craig Ramsay.
In San Jose, Eager found a home and an expanded role. He has played well enough to take shifts on three of four offensive lines, and dropped the gloves twice to help take some of that role out of the hands of power forward Ryane Clowe. Eager may have recently injured his hand in a fight with Flames Winger Tim Jackman, and he has been held out of practice as a precaution. The Sharks played a part in Eager initially being traded to Atlanta. The Sharks acquired a 7th round draft selection and the expiring contracts of Michael Vernace and Brett Sterling, giving Atlanta the roster space they needed to make a blockbuster 9-player deal with Chicago in June 2010. In the post-Stanley Cup salary cap exodus that also saw the Sharks acquire Antti Niemi, the Blackhawks traded Byfuglien-Sopel-Eager-Aliu to Atlanta for Reasoner-Crabb-Morin and two draft selections.
The rumors circulating around San Jose for much of the season was been the need to bring in a puck moving defenseman. After the departure of Rob Blake, the Sharks experimented with increased roles for second year blueliner Jason Demers and rookie Justin Braun. While Demers has been a relevation on the defensive side of the ice, and Braun has shown the natural ability on the point to be coveted by 29 other NHL teams, game-in and game-out it fell to Dan Boyle to initiate the offense from the backend. As he logged nearly 30 minutes a night, it may have taken its toll. Boyle went 18 games without a goal, and has scored only 2 points in his last 10. Boyle suffered an undisclosed upper body injury after being sandwiched by a pair of Pittsburgh Penguins in a 3-2 overtime win. He sat out his first game of the season Friday in Calgary.
San Jose Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson shrewdly bypassed a sellers market at the trade deadline, acquiring Ian White from the Carolina Hurricanes on February 18th for a second round selection in 2012. Defenseman Derek Joslin was also traded to Carolina in a second trade for future considerations. White fills a number of needs. He adds a puck moving element to each defensive pair, bolstering the Sharks transition game. It gives opponents a fraction of a second less to hinder them on the breakout. He also adds another accurate right shot on the point, giving San Jose a left-right combination on all three defensive units. From ice level, a right shot also takes a fraction of a second less pulling the puck off the wall on the power play. Against his former team Calgary on Friday, a pair of heavy shots by White created scoring chances down low. White has an assist, and 7 shots on goal in 4 games played with San Jose. Somewhat aggressive defensively, White has 19 games left in the regular season to gauge how much risk the team wants him to take in his own end. The Sharks are playing a much tighter defensive game than they were at the start of the season, and White has yet to adapt.
The rumor du jour over the last week has been the nebulous injury situation for backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki. Lost in the recent accolades for Antti Niemi, who was Sharks player of the month in January and who could earn back-to-back NHL player of the week honors this week, was the stellar play of Niittyami as San Jose treaded water to start the season. Antero earned a 4-0-1 mark in October, earning him Sharks POTM honors, as well as a 1.88GAA and .929SV%. Niittymaki injured his groin in a pregame skate January 20th in Vancouver, and he suffered a second undisclosed injury as he tried to come back. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound native of Turku, Finland returned to practice Sunday after he sat out 16 games. Asked about how he felt on the ice, “I still have a ways to go,” Niittymaki told SJsharks.com. “It was good to see him out there. From what I’m told, he will be indefinite until we can confirm his health is where it needs to be and he can get back to game shape and game timing,” San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said of Niittymaki.
In Niittymaki’s absence, and with a season ending injury to Alex Stalock, Niemi has been backed up by first year pro and Umass Lowell alumni Carter Hutton. With 18 straight starts and slight hints of fatigue by the starting goaltender, rumors the Sharks would be in the market for a veteran backup goaltender started to make their way around the league. SF Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse writer Susan Slusser noted the Sharks could be in the market for a goaltender, and possibly defensive depth. San Jose Mercury News beat writer David Pollak believes the Sharks are not poised to make a deadline deal, having reversed themselves after up and down play early and a 6-game losing streak. Pollak noted that Niittymaki is out at least one more game due to his being placed on long term injured reserve, and that the goaltender said his injury has been improving this week.
The Sharks play their next 6 games home at HP Pavilion in San Jose. Their first opponent on Tuesday, the reeling Colorado Avalanche, may be the best opportunity for Carter Hutton to give Niemi a break between the pipes. In their last meeting on February 19th after the blockbuster but disasterous Stewart-Shattenkirk for Johnson-McClement trade, Colorado took several heavy runs at Antti Niemi in the crease. Several times Niemi had to pick himself up off the ice after collisions, shining a light on how much the Sharks do rely on their #1 goaltender. Another long range option for the NHL or AHL could be former Sharks goaltender Thomas Griess. Currently on loan to Brynas of the Swedish Elite League, Greiss could conceivably re-join the team after the playoffs which start this week. He would need to clear waivers, but with backup goaltenders dropping like flies it is an option that should be considered.
Trade deadline options are also limited by the salary cap. The Sharks are one of 8 NHL teams with no cap space, or negative cap space according to Capgeek.com: Washington -$57k (pending LTIR adjustments), San Jose 0, Vancouver 0, Boston 0, Montreal 0, New Jersey 0, Calgary 0 and Pittsburgh 0. The Sharks have a manageable 5 no-trade or no-movement clauses (NMC: Marleau, Thornton, Heatley, NTC: Boyle, Wallin). Compared with Calgary (10), New Jersey (8), Pittsburgh (8) and Vancouver (8), San Jose is more flexible in that regard.
If anything, the Sharks could be sellers at the trade deadline considering the depth they currently have on defense. Defenseman Kent Huskins and Scott Nichol are recovering from recent injuries, but with Huskins in the lineup the Sharks have 8 NHL caliber blueliners: Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers, Ian White, Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins and Justin Braun. Prior to his recent injury, Huskins was one of the hottest offensive blueliners on the season long 7 game road trip. Huskins registered 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games. With several teams in the market for defensive depth, it is something to keep an eye on for today’s NHL trade deadline.
NHL.com is streaming NHL Network coverage of the trade deadline, and will air a 2-hour post-deadline recap show. Links to the programming can be found online at the NHL Videocenter.
[Update] Phoenix Coyotes acquire defenseman Rostislav Klesla for Scottie Upshall, Sami Lepisto – Arizona Republic.
[Update3] No Late Moves at Trade Deadline – Mark Emmons for the San Jose Mercury News Working the Corners blog.
Wilson isn’t one to worry about reacting to what others do, but would rather just focus on being satisfied internally.
“I think this is the final day you can alter your team, so that plays into it, but you start building your team in July,” Wilson said. “You identify what your needs are and you forecast the growth of some of your younger players. The Western Conference in particular, you have to play very, very well just to get into the playoffs.”