“Discretion is the better part of valor” should be every general manager’s motto during free agency.
Luckily for San Jose Sharks fans, for the most part, Team Teal has avoided the worst of unrestricted free agency.
There are no David Clarksons or Bobby Holiks lurking here.
But try as they might, the Sharks haven’t avoided being silly season victims.
Earlier this week, we celebrated the best UFA signings in San Jose Sharks history. Now, we avert our eyes from the worst…
5) Paul Martin
For the first two years of Martin’s four-year, $19.4 million dollar contract — signed on July 1, 2015 — he was one of the best UFA acquisitions in Sharks history.
His defensive partner, Brent Burns, was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2015-16 and the winner the following year. Martin and Burns were practically stapled together: Martin played a whopping 2296:42 minutes at 5-on-5 with Burns from 2015-17. After Burns, Martin’s most frequent defensive partner in this timespan was Justin Braun at 170:06.
“I go off the page a little bit and he reads it early and closes it down,” Burns told The Mercury News in 2017. “I think that’s one of his greatest strengths is the way he reads plays and sees what’s happening.”
However, in the summer of 2017, the 36-year-old underwent ankle surgery, and because of age or injury or both, was never the same.
In January 2018, San Jose waived Martin. There were no takers. At the end of the season, San Jose bought out the last year of his contract.
Martin’s is still the largest UFA contract ever doled out by the Sharks — a one-man testament to the Jekyll and Hyde nature of spending big on free agents.
4) Michal Handzus
The San Jose Sharks hoped Handzus would be a finishing touch to their quest for a Stanley Cup.
After two back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances, San Jose signed the 34-year-old to a two-year, $5 million dollar contract on July 1, 2011 to be the centerpiece of a championship-caliber third line.
Instead, Handzus became a finishing touch for another team’s title.
The slow-footed Slovakian never looking comfortable under Todd McLellan, enduring multiple healthy scratches before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in April 2013 for a 2013 fourth-round pick.
At the time of the trade, Handzus had just two points in 28 games for San Jose. He discovered the fountain of youth in Chicago, notching 17 points in 34 regular season and playoff contests for the 2013 champs.
3) Bob Rouse
Rouse was a true winner.
The 34-year-old defenseman had come off consecutive Stanley Cup championships and sixth straight Western Conference Finals appearances when the San Jose Sharks inked him to a two-year, $4.5 million dollar contract on July 13, 1998.
“I don’t think you could bring in a better example for our younger defensemen,” general manager Dean Lombardi noted. (McKeon, Ross. “Sharks tighten defense with signing of vet Rouse.” The San Francisco Examiner, July 14, 1998.)
Instead, on January 5, 2000, the aging Rouse became the first UFA buy-out in club history, an undignified end to an underrated career.
2) Adam Burish
Burish was thrilled to go from a 10th-place Dallas Stars squad to a perennial post-season squad like the Sharks.
“I miss that suffering, that kind of pain, playing tired, playing hurt,” Burish said of playoff action, after agreeing to a four-year, $7.4 million dollar contract with San Jose on July 1, 2012. “As crazy as that sounds, I miss that.”
Burish couldn’t have guessed the world of hurt that awaited him in the Bay Area.
In his first season, Burish broke his hand in the post-season. In October 2013, he underwent back surgery. Later that season, Burish mangled his finger blocking a shot. To add insult to injury, in 2014-15, the Sharks waived the fourth-line grinder twice, before buying out the final year of his contract.
1) Mikkel Boedker
Boedker might be the most disappointing UFA signing in San Jose Sharks history.
Boedker was just 26 and coming off a 51-point campaign when San Jose signed him to a four-year, $16 million dollar contract on July 1, 2016. The winger was supposed to help put the defending Western Conference champions over the top.
“Mikkel’s tremendous speed is his best attribute and he has the ability to back off defenders with his combination of quickness and soft hands,” GM Doug Wilson gushed. “We think he will thrive with our group and look forward to him joining our team.”
Instead, Boedker put up four points in his first 27 games in teal, and by January, he was a healthy scratch.
In June 2018, Doug Wilson managed to send Boedker, Julius Bergman, and a 2020 sixth-round pick to Ottawa for Mike Hoffman, Cody Donaghey, and a 2020 fifth-round pick, before spinning Hoffman and a 2018 seventh-round pick to Florida for a 2019 second-round pick and 2018 fourth-round and fifth-round picks.
So all’s well that ends well!
5 Sharks Goalies Who Bounced Back
Have you lost faith in Martin Jones? If you have, I don’t blame you.
Jones, after all, is tied with Jonathan Quick for the worst Save Percentage (.896) among all NHL starting goaltenders over the last two seasons. That’s well below the league-average .905.
You can argue that Jones has been the worst starting goaltender in the league over the last two years.
However, this didn’t stop ex-San Jose Sharks goaltending coach Johan Hedberg from declaring to San Jose Hockey Now last week that Jones “could definitely be a Vezina Trophy winner in any given season, given the right circumstances.”
Safe to say, this was a roundly-derided soundbite:
— Manny (@mannyelk) July 20, 2020
Consider this though: Goaltending performance can be very volatile from year to year. And if we believe Hedberg’s assertion that the 30-year-old Jones hasn’t lost anything physically or mentally, maybe San Jose Sharks fans can start to believe in him again.
Not that they have much choice — Jones is signed for four more seasons at $5.75 million dollars per. It’s hard to imagine the Sharks being able to trade or buy out Jones either.
So instead, let’s count down five other San Jose Sharks netminders who have bounced back after a bad year (or two).
Can Jones rebound like these goalies?
5) Ed Belfour
When the Sharks acquired pending UFA Belfour on January 25, 1997, they were three points out of the post-season and thought they were adding one of the best goaltenders in the league to their playoff chase.
San Jose, however, finished 19 points out. Belfour went just 3-9-0 before a bulging disc in his back ended his season early. In the two-time Vezina Trophy winner’s Bay Area sojourn, his .884 was the fifth-worst Save Percentage in the NHL (among 36 goaltenders, 10+ games).
Regardless, GM Dean Lombardi wanted Belfour back. But Eddie the Eagle had different ideas, flying away to Dallas for less money.
“Benedict Belfour” was a sign seen when the Stars came to San Jose Arena the next season. Former Sharks teammate Bernie Nicholls sniped, “I felt sorry for our management because they treated Eddie pretty well and (he) had no intention of staying here.” (McKeon, Ross. “Sharks’ fans want a piece of Belfour.” Red Deer Advocate, April 24, 1998.)
Based on results, however, you can’t argue with Belfour’s decision. Blessed with better health and behind a much-stronger defense, Belfour would burnish his Hall of Fame credentials in Big D. From 1997-2001, Belfour was second in the league with 139 wins. He also hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1999.
4) Miikka Kiprusoff
It’s actually a testament to Kiprusoff’s talent that the San Jose Sharks were able to extract a second-round pick for him in November 2003.
“Miikka Kiprusoff for a second-round draft pick? Not THE Miikka Kiprusoff? With the 3.25 goals-against average? And a 5-14 record last year? That Miikka Kiprusoff?” Bruce Dowbiggin opined. “Apparently Darryl Sutter thinks he’s a No. 1 NHL goalie. Oh….” (Dowbiggin, Bruce. “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Calgary Herald, November 17, 2003.)
Dowbiggin forgot to mention Kiprusoff’s .879 Save Percentage, second-worst in NHL in 2002-03 (of 52 goalies, 20+ games).
In each of the next three seasons, Kiprusoff was a Vezina finalist, taking top honors in 2005-06.
3) Evgeni Nabokov
Who better than Martin Jones’s goaltending coach to show him the way?
In February 2006, pending UFA Nabokov thought he was set in the Bay Area, inking a four-year, $21.5 million dollar contract. But the Russian couldn’t shake an abdominal injury after the Olympics, opening the door for back-up Vesa Toskala. Toskala started 22 of the season’s last 29 games, going 18-2-2. On the opening night of the playoffs, it was Toskala between the pipes, Nabokov on the bench.
That year, Nabokov suffered the worst single-season Save Percentage of his San Jose career (.885). It was his only year in teal under .900.
Nabokov or Toskala was one of the biggest storylines in hockey heading into the next season. The Russian re-gained control of the starting job, raising his Save Percentage to .914.
In June 2007, Toskala was sent to Toronto, making Nabokov the clear-cut No. 1 again. From 2007-10, Nabokov won 131 games for San Jose, 12 more than any other keeper in the league.
2) Jeff Hackett
San Jose won just 11 games in 1992-93; Hackett won two of them.
That’s the good news.
Hackett also lost 30 games, a 2-30-1 record. That .061 Winning Percentage was the second-worst in NHL history (15+ games), trailing only Michel Belhumeur’s 0-24-3 in 1974-75.
“It was depressing as hell. We were not an NHL hockey club,” Hackett acknowledged. “My stats were horrible, but I knew I wasn’t that bad.” (Markus, Robert. “Blackhawks ‘backup’ goalie finally proves he can hack it.” Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1996.)
You’d think one win for every 15 losses would ruin a 24-year-old goalie’s confidence. However, Hackett found a new lease on life in Chicago, where he was traded for a third-round pick in July 1993.
Three years later, Hackett played in San Jose for the first time since he was traded, stopping 29 shots to lead the Blackhawks to a 4-1 victory.
“A goalie’s only as good as the team he’s playing on,” Hackett said after the win. “I don’t think Jeff Hackett has gone from being the worst to the best in the league.” (Associated Press, February 4, 1996.)
From 1995-00, Hackett’s 77.9 Goals Saved Above Average was fifth in the league, behind only Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Guy Hebert, and Martin Brodeur.
1) Arturs Irbe
Of course, Jones hasn’t suffered just one nightmare year, like the aforementioned goaltenders.
But as Irbe proved, never count out a good goalie.
The 26-year-old was the toast of South Bay in 1994, leading the third-year San Jose Sharks to one win away from the Western Conference Finals.
But while training that summer, Irbe broke a finger in his right hand and severed an artery in his left hand when his dog bit him.
“The injury had a devastating effect,” Roy MacGregor wrote. “Those around him saw he had trouble gripping his stick properly.” (McGregor, Roy. “‘The Wall’ in the Way of the Cup.” National Post, May 18, 2002).
In the following post-season, Irbe lost the starting job to Wade Flaherty. But he still hadn’t hit rock-bottom yet.
In 1995-96, Irbe registered the worst season of his career, his .860 Save Percentage dead last in the league (20+ games).
San Jose cut ties. Irbe would move on to Dallas and Vancouver. It appeared the once-budding star was now a journeyman.
However, in 1998, Carolina gave him a shot. By then, the 31-year-old said the nerve damage in both hands had healed.
From 1998-01, the plucky Latvian tied Brodeur with 214 games played. In 2002, he took the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Everything plays in,” Hedberg told us last week, when discussing whether it was team or goalie responsible for Jones’s rising goals against.
He’s right, of course. Now let’s see if the San Jose Sharks and Martin Jones can prove that there’s life after .896.
Top 5 UFA Signings in Sharks History
For hockey fans, July 1st and the commencement of free agency is almost a holiday.
However, the grass won’t be greener on the other side this month, with free agency paused as we await the re-start of the 2019-20 NHL season.
July 1st hasn’t been exactly celebratory for San Jose Sharks fans anyway — the Sharks haven’t been the biggest spenders on outside unrestricted free agents over the years. The largest UFA contract they’ve ever doled out is Paul Martin’s four-year, $19.4 million dollar pact on July 1, 2015.
Of course, they’ve almost caught the big fish, mostly recently as runner-ups in the John Tavares sweepstakes two years ago.
Free agency or not, it’s a good time to look back at the top-five UFA signings in San Jose history. We’re focused on NHL signings, so sorry Joonas Donskoi (European UFA) and Jeff Odgers (undrafted UFA).
I’m also placing an emphasis on the free agent’s performance during the duration of his first contract with the team.
Case in point…
5) Tony Granato
The Sharks took a one-year, $1.5 million dollar gamble on the 32-year-old Granato on August 15, 1996.
Just six months earlier, it was assumed that Granato’s career was over after a head collision against the boards resulted in bleeding on his brain, and eventually, brain surgery.
Instead of retirement, Granato potted 25 goals, good for third on San Jose. He was also a commissioner’s selection to the All-Star Game and won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.” He’s the only Shark to ever win the Masterton Trophy and the only San Jose UFA signing to play in an All-Star Game.
“A lot of athletes probably would not have come back,” Wayne Gretzky said of Granato, after facing off against his former Los Angeles Kings teammate in the All-Star Game. “Tony works as hard as anyone I’ve ever played with and he loves the game as much anyone I’ve ever played with.” (McKeon, Ross. “MVP honor makes Recchi awe-struck.” The San Francisco Examiner. January 19, 1997.)
Granato completed his career in San Jose, retiring in 2000-01.
4) Mike Grier
“I’ve been trying to get Mike on my team for 10 years,” Ron Wilson said of Grier. “Guys like Mike are glue to a team.”
The San Jose head coach got his wish on July 3, 2006, when the 31-year-old winger agreed to a three-year, $5.3 million dollar contract with the Sharks.
Grier was a top penalty killer, regularly pacing all San Jose forwards in SH TOI (Short-handed Time on Ice). His 691:48 on the PK from 2006-09 was over 300 minutes more than any other Sharks forward (Patrick Rissmiller trails with 336:46).
He also ranked fifth among all San Jose forwards in TOI/GP (Time on Ice Per Game Played) in each of his first two seasons in teal, an impressive feat for a squad that won 100 games in that span. Grier was no fourth-liner riding the coattails of a superior squad.
After 2008-09, Grier left the Bay Area for Buffalo, finishing his career with the Sabres.
3) Antti Niemi
Antero Niittymäki was supposed to be the heir apparent.
On the first day of free agency in 2010, the Sharks targeted Niittymäki to take Evgeni Nabokov’s mantle as their starting netminder, inking the Finn to a two-year, $4 million dollar pact.
But then, the reigning Stanley Cup-winning goaltender fell in their laps.
Interestingly, it was Doug Wilson’s machinations that might have pried Antti Niemi loose. After inking Niittymäki, the San Jose GM offer sheeted Chicago Blackhawks restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the tune of a four-year, $14 million dollar deal. Chicago matched, but they suddenly had a lot less salary cap space for fellow RFA Niemi.
Niemi agreed to a one-year, $2 million dollar contract with San Jose on September 2, 2010 after Chicago walked away from Niemi’s arbitration award.
“My job is to put the best team on the ice we can here in San Jose and operate within the rules like we did. To connect the two [moves], I’ll leave that up to other people to speculate or make comments,” Wilson said. “When a player like this comes available and he wants to come to your team, especially on a contract that we feel fits our salary structure and you don’t have to give up anything to get him, you just have to make it happen.”
Niittymäki, to his credit, didn’t back down. He started 19 of the Sharks’ first 34 games, outplaying Niemi.
But after December 21st, Niittymäki wouldn’t win another regular season game for San Jose. A persistent groin injury hampered him — and might have changed the course of team history:
Niemi finished eighth in Vezina Trophy voting and 10th in Goals Saved Above Average (11.67), leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals. In March, he signed a four-year extension with San Jose. Meanwhile, Niittymäki underwent hip surgery and played out the last year of his contract in the minor leagues, before retiring in Finland.
2) Scott Thornton
At 334 games, no Sharks UFA acquisition has ended up playing more games in teal than Thornton.
It took just one playoff series for the front office to commit four years and $6 million dollars to the ex-Dallas Stars forward on July 1, 2000.
“We identified we needed this kind of player,” Wilson acknowledged after Dallas knocked San Jose out in the 2000 playoffs. “When Owen (Nolan) and Mush (Bryan Marchment) went down in the series, it showed what we were lacking. If we had him, we might have won the series.” (McKeon, Ross. “Sharks score Stars forward.” The San Francisco Examiner. July 2, 2000.)
The 29-year-old defied expectations by notching 45 goals in his first two seasons in San Jose, despite averaging just 13:42 a game. Remarkably, the gritty winger paced the 2001-02 Sharks with 20 Even Strength Goals, outscoring the likes of Teemu Selanne, Owen Nolan, and Patrick Marleau in this key category.
Sherry Ross’s Hockey Scouting Report declared in 2001, “Thornton matches up against just about any forward in the league when it comes to winning puck battles.”
After his initial four-year commitment, Thornton re-upped in San Jose for one more campaign, before closing out his career in Los Angeles.
1) Gary Suter
Wilson was outfoxing other general managers well before he became the Sharks GM in 2003.
Just days before the opening of free agency on July 1, 1998, Wilson, San Jose’s then-pro development director, “quietly engineered” the trade of a ninth-round draft pick to the Blackhawks for the impending UFA Suter’s exclusive negotiating rights. (Chapin, Dwight. “Sharks snag Suter in nick of time.” San Francisco Examiner. July 2, 1998.)
“It was a head start, because a whole different thing happens when eight or nine teams are bidding for a player,” Wilson explained.
“I never heard of somebody being traded three days in the middle of summer,” the 34-year-old defenseman acknowledged. “That sent a message to me how serious the Sharks were.”
“The league did tell me in the future they’re not going to allow this,” Sharks GM Dean Lombardi noted.
I digress, but this will be relevant once again after this season:
With no early period to commence contract talks for five to seven days before free agency starts, GMs can't get their ducks in a row in advance. We're set to return to the era of frenzied Day-1 bidding wars.
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) July 14, 2020
Anyway, Suter holds the distinction of being San Jose’s first honest-to-goodness July 1st signing, agreeing to a three-year, $10.5 million dollar pact on July 1, 1998. He’s also the first high-profile UFA ever inked by the Sharks.
In his debut campaign, however, Suter suited up for only one contest because of a season-ending triceps injury. Generously, he allowed San Jose to re-structure his deal, adding another year on top of the original agreement at no extra cost.
Suter rebounded by leading all Sharks defenders in icetime in 1999-00. He could be counted on for over 20 minutes a night and was also the squad’s most-used blueliner on the power play over the course of his contract.
Even in the last year of his amended deal, the 37-year-old was still a world-class defenseman, earning a silver medal with the United States in the 2002 Olympics. Suter retired after 2001-02.
All trading card images courtesy Trading Card Database.