A glance at the San Jose Sharks defensemen depth chart reveals a glaring hole.
Behind Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the right side, San Jose has Ryan Merkley, and then…
Nicolas Meloche is a 23-year-old that the Sharks acquired last summer by sending goalie Antoine Bibeau to the Avalanche. The 26-year-old goaltender is currently without a contract, if that tells you anything about Meloche’s trade value. Nick DeSimone turns 26 in November and has played as many NHL games as you or I.
San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson referenced this last Friday: “You want to have a spot of competition for people. Pasichnuk signed with us. Merkley is obviously a first-round pick. [Jake Middleton] is a quality veteran who’s paid his dues. So you want them to be able to compete. But you also want to have competition.
“You don’t want to give spots away. We’ve got five NHL-quality d-men.”
So while Merkley and recently signed Brinson Pasichnuk (a lefty) offer exciting statistical profiles, it would be a major surprise if the Sharks went into the season with those two duking it out for the sixth defense spot. After the organization misevaluated its own prospects ahead of the 2019-20 season, it seems near impossible that Wilson will go into next year without a veteran defenseman in that role.
And there aren’t many veteran blueliners left on the free agent market, especially in San Jose’s price range. So who could Wilson possibly be targeting?
Wilson’s quote after signing bottom-pairing defender Dalton Prout last year may indicate the type of player he’s looking for:
“Dalton is a very smart defenseman who has shown he can move the puck cleanly under pressure and keep his turnover rates low,” said Wilson, “We believe his ability to hold the defensive zone blue line is underrated and that he is one of the best at limiting net-front rebounds by effectively using his size and stick. We’re excited to add his responsible defensive play to our blue line.”
It’s difficult to quantify that player profile.
Analyst CJ Turtoro has visualized Corey Sznajder‘s manually tracked data, which may help. Prout’s sample size of tracked data is small, so the caveat exists that these results have not stabilized yet. What the recorded data we have from the 2016 through 2018-19 seasons shows is that Prout did well when asked to break up plays at his own blueline. Among the defenders Corey tracked, Prout ranked in the 72nd percentile in terms of blueline entry attempts broken up.
The rest of his tracked data leaves something to be desired. Whatever Sznajder saw while re-watching Prout’s games, it certainly wasn’t a defenseman who “can move the puck cleanly under pressure” — and that’s not all that differed from Wilson’s assessment of the player. According to the NHL.com, Prout had one of the worst giveaway rates of all defensemen who played at least 20 games between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
So it appears the one thing we have that may help us tie Wilson’s player assessment to quantifiable information is the blueline breakup ability.
Which Available Defensemen Fit Prout’s Profile?
Armed with Doug Wilson’s quote and Dalton Prout’s micro data profile, we can peruse the remaining free agents to see who the San Jose Sharks might have a contract for. Along with being steady at the blueline, we’re probably also looking for a player with size. Wilson believed Prout was good a “limiting net-front rebounds with his size and his stick,” after all. Though the Sharks don’t necessarily need to solve their right-shot blueline conundrum now — lefty Mario Ferraro, for example, played on the right side for a lot of the year — we’ll start with right-handed UFAs.
Puckpedia, as always, is a wonderful resource for this type of research. Here are the remaining UFA right-shot defensemen, sorted by games played in 2019-20.
In a word, this list isn’t most appetizing. Alex Pietrangelo will probably have a contract by the time you read this, and he wasn’t coming to San Jose anyway. Mike Green has retired. Prout, of course, is a UFA, but as Sheng Peng noted, he’s not quite ready to join an NHL team yet:
Here's an update on one #SJSharks UFA: Dalton Prout, who had his lone SJS season cut short by 2 concussions, is going to continue to train & see where things are when we get closer to season. Good luck to Dalton, those were some unfortunate injuries last year!
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) October 9, 2020
By process of elimination, we can cut this list down to three players who may fit the Prout mold.
Jan Rutta has performed well at the blueline the last three seasons disrupting would-be entries.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound sturdy right shot played depth minutes for the recently crowned Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Though he was known for his fluid skating and ability to move the puck while playing overseas, it’s likely that the depth defender’s reach and strength are what draw NHL teams to him. Of the 285 defensemen to suit up for at least 20 games during the past two seasons, Rutta’s rate of giveaways is the 16th-best, in the event Wilson is counting. Evolving Wild’s contract model projects Rutta’s market value to be somewhere around one-year, $824,000, which is ideal given the San Jose Sharks budget.
The 32-year-old journeyman defenseman just finished his fourth season in Nashville. He’s just 5-foot-11, but at 200 pounds, he surely passes the size muster of NHL GMs. He’s registered about one hit per game, which makes him a touch more physical than Rutta. Clearly, his one major strength is breaking up plays at his blueline. Evolving Wild’s model assigns Weber a cap hit value of $651,000, which is below the veteran minimum of $750,000, so we’ll say he’s a veteran minimum contract.
Vatanen is here because he’s been fairly disruptive at the blueline during the past few seasons. But, at just 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, the 29-year-old defender doesn’t quite fit the rough-and-rugged profile Wilson seems to be looking for — of course, the San Jose Sharks GM may have changed his search criteria since last offseason. Vatanen is also known more for his offensive prowess than his ability to box out forwards in front of his crease. And, there’s the pesky fact that Evolving Wild projects Vatanen’s next contract to be worth around $2 million for one season. That’s a tough sell for a team up against it.
What About Lefties?
Because this signing doesn’t also have to fix the San Jose Sharks’ organizational depth, we can also look at lefty defensemen who still stand without a contract.
To spare you, we’ll list the players who meet the blueline disruptor criteria and whose projected contracts aren’t likely to be prohibitive to the Sharks’ pocketbook: Slater Koekkoek and Ben Hutton. Hutton and Koekkoek, like Weber and Rutta, also sport low giveaway rates, according to NHL.com’s database.
Who Will Sharks Sign?
Evolving Wild projects both Hutton and Koekkoek to be worth around $1.5 million on a one-year deal. Assume the Sharks sign Patrick Marleau to his rumored $1 million deal and Joe Thornton to a similar contract. That leaves the Sharks with about $4.7 million in cap space to sign a depth defender and add another NHL forward, while leaving some wiggle room for call-ups during the season. A $1.5 million deal for a depth defender isn’t a deal breaker. But if the Sharks are hoping one of Ryan Merkley or Brinson Pasichnuk overtake said defender, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on a signing while still bringing in a helpful player.
Using our research here and Wilson’s previous words, it seems likely that the Sharks have a candidate in mind. To understand what you’re about to see, here’s a primer:
Micah Blake McCurdy developed a model at HockeyViz to evaluate players. His model adjusts for a player’s teammates, opponents, and the score of the game, among other factors, to try to isolate as much as possible a player’s individual impact on the game. The output of his model is a heatmap that shows just what sorts of shots a player helps his team take on offense and prevent on defense. Dark red represents lots of shots for and dark blue represents a dearth of shots against. These individual outputs are paywalled, so I’m only going to share one with you, that of the player the Sharks are most likely to sign.
Rutta checks plenty of boxes.
He’s big, he doesn’t give the puck away, he’s solid at breaking up zone entries, and it will probably only require a veteran minimum contract to lure him to San Jose. On top of all that, he has been a solid generator of offense in a depth role in Tampa Bay.
Rutta killed penalties for the Lightning and also played with Victor Hedman for portions of the season, which suggests the utility man can play up and down the lineup just fine. Rutta just added a Stanley Cup win to his resume, no doubt sending Wilson’s eye all a-twinkle.
The San Jose Sharks would probably be better off with someone more capable of exiting his own zone, but Rutta otherwise seems to fit both the hockey man’s ideal of a depth defenseman and the analytics nerd’s vision of a useful role player. For $800,000 or thereabouts, this deal would be too good for Wilson to pass up.
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