The San Jose Sharks need another player. Specifically, they need a top-six winger with enough talent to make a difference in the playoffs, as they try to make the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
But it almost certainly won't be Rick Nash. It probably won't be Teemu Selanne. It might not be Tuomo Ruutu. The way the market looks at the moment, it might not be anyone before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET Monday.
It might have to be Martin Havlat, and that's okay if - IF! - everything goes according to plan. There is a reason the Sharks acquired Havlat from the Minnesota Wild in the off-season, and it hasn't changed while Havlat has recovered from surgery to repair a torn hamstring. He is supposed to return in mid-March.
"You always explore, but if you can fill a hole and not create others, that's what you do," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "When we have all our players back in the mix, we like our team a lot."
There is a lot to like, despite the Sharks' recent struggles.
They're on a 2-5-1 slide, and when they visit Nash's Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night, they will be only six games into a nine-game road trip. They're only four points ahead of the eighth-place Calgary Flames in the Western Conference.
"We're barely in the playoffs," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "We need points." True. But after this trip, 10 of their next 15 games are at home. They have two or three games in hand on all of their competition, and they're third in the West because they lead the Pacific Division. For all the doubts about their ability to win in the playoffs, this team is the only one that made the conference finals each of the past two years.
They're still right there, among the teams that have what it takes to go four rounds, and whether they do it likely will depend on injuries or matchups or the performance of their core players more than any fatal flaw. They rank in the top 10 in points percentage, goals for, goals against and power play. Their weakness is penalty killing - they rank 27th overall, dead last on home ice - but Wilson has addressed that already by acquiring Dominic Moore from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Moore is 31-year-old veteran with an expiring contract. He went to the conference finals the past two years, too - with the Montreal Canadiens in 2009-10, then with the Bolts - and said the Sharks are similar to those teams because they are "really well-rounded." He provides experience, depth and versatility.
"He's the type of player that historically you see teams add," Wilson said.
Wilson is unafraid to make bold moves. He has traded for Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Havlat. Nash would be nice. He reportedly listed the Sharks as one of the teams for which he would consider waiving his no-move clause, and he could be great with Thornton - with whom he played in Switzerland during the 2004-05 lockout and with Team Canada at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.
"People will talk about the blockbuster," Wilson said. "We've done more big trades than anybody."
But none of Wilson's boldest moves have come near the deadline. He traded for Thornton on Nov. 30, 2005; Boyle on July 4, 2008; Burns on June 24, 2011; Havlat on July 3, 2011. The Jackets want a ton for Nash, and Nash's $7.8-million cap hit is $800,000 higher than Thornton's, potentially throwing off the Sharks' salary structure.
"There's not enough good players to go around at key positions," Wilson said. "That's why you have to be aggressive when they do come available. That's why we did the Burns deal or the Boyle deal or the Thornton deal. We don't mind being aggressive to get somebody that fits for both now and the future."
"This time of year, you're often seeing how your team is playing and what the health is and then adding those veteran depth pieces to fill out the rest of your roster," Wilson said. "You're now just trying to add for the marathon of the playoffs. … The trade deadline, bringing somebody in and thinking you're going to integrate them in 19 games, that's why we try and do our deals early. Let them be part of the group. Let the coaches be familiar with what their strengths are."
It's hard enough to integrate players over a full schedule. The Sharks have added 10 new players this season, and it hasn't always gone smoothly. Burns needed some time to adjust before becoming the top two-way defenseman he was expected to be. Havlat missed the preseason, then was up and down from mid-October to mid-December before getting hurt again. Michal Handzus, who signed as a free agent July 1, hasn't been as effective as hoped - a reason why Wilson added Moore.
Wilson could use more insurance, but it will be hard to find. The Anaheim Ducks are streaking into contention with Selanne and the Carolina Hurricanes hope to re-sign Ruutu. No matter who is on the market, there will be competition. Several teams are looking for scoring help, including the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and New York Rangers.
At least others have emerged for the Sharks, such as rookie Tommy Wingels, a 23-year-old rookie who has risen from the minors to the top line. Wilson said Wingels "has been following in the footsteps" of Couture and Joe Pavelski, and that's saying something. Couture spent most of 2009-10 in the minors, chipped in four goals in 15 playoff games that season and is now an all-star. Wingels is a sixth-round pick who played at Miami University; Pavelski is a seventh-round pick who played at Wisconsin and has developed into a core player.
And at least there is still time for Havlat to emerge. If he does return in mid-March, he should be at full speed by playoff time - the reason he was acquired in the first place. If healthy, he has the wheels to pick up the pace when the game gets faster, unlike the departed Dany Heatley. The totals from his last two playoff appearances (with Ottawa in 2006 and Chicago in '09): 26 games, 12 goals. Heatley's totals with the Sharks the past two playoffs: 32 games, five goals.
"We're counting on that, obviously," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He's going to have to take great pride in his fitness and his preparation, and I think he's that type of guy. His opportunity to play in games down the stretch is going to be real important. He'll have to be sharp. His practice time will be important. But we need him. He's an important piece."
For better or worse, he might be the final one.
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