With the disappointing San Jose Sharks in a life-and-death battle for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, general manager Doug Wilson decided to do something strange, trading away roster players for draft picks. That's when something even stranger happened: the Sharks began winning hockey games.
It started on March 25. The Sharks sat in a three-way tie for ninth with a 13-11-6 record. They had just a single regulation win in their previous 10 games (along with two more in the shootout) after a fairly decent start to the season, and their playoff prospects had gone from very strong to entirely uncertain. With the club sliding, Wilson traded veteran defenseman Douglas Murray to the Pittsburgh Penguins, receiving in exchange a second round draft pick and a conditional second round draft pick. From an asset value standpoint, the trade was a clear win for the Sharks. Murray was not only a rental player as a pending unrestricted free agent, but he had been struggling to keep his head above water while playing a third-pairing role in San Jose.
While the assets acquired for Murray were valuable, what was not clear was the message the departure would send to the rest of the team. Murray was a long-time Shark, with 451 games played in a San Jose uniform, plus another 57 games in the postseason. Additionally, given his size and willingness to play a physical game, Murray embodied what many see as pivotal qualities for a postseason run. Pittsburgh's willingness to part with two high picks in the trade reflected the kind of value at least one GM put on that type of player.
The Sharks played against Anaheim the same day that Murray was traded, winning by a 5-3 score and peppering the Ducks' net with 39 shots. San Jose captain Joe Thornton summed up the team's feelings following the victory:
"We're all pros. It doesn't matter who's traded. You've got to go and play and work hard."
Wilson emphasized that the decision to trade Murray did not indicate that the Sharks were throwing in the towel:
"This doesn't take away our goal of trying to make the playoffs this year. We have high expectations for our group, and we're not going to diminish those even as we go into a reset and refresh mode."
Other trades would follow soon after. Michal Handzus, a veteran of 939 games and another big (6'5", 215 pounds) player, was dealt to Chicago on April 1 for a fourth-round pick. 6'2", 225-pound Ryane Clowe was sent to New York the next day in exchange for three picks; like Murray and Handzus, Clowe was a pending free agent and an experienced NHLer. San Jose made two lesser additions, acquiring defenseman Scott Hannan from Nashville in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick and winger Raffi Torres from Phoenix in trade for a third round pick.
Even as Wilson trimmed away valuable rental players and added draft picks, the Sharks kept winning. They followed their 5-2 win over the Ducks with back-to-back shutouts of Anaheim and Detroit. In fact, they would go on to win seven consecutive games before finally falling to Dallas in the shootout on Sunday. The 7-0-1 run following the deadline pushed the Sharks well up the Western Conference standings, moving from ninth at the time of the Murray trade and into a tie with Los Angeles for fourth.
Doubtless, part of the reason the selloff failed to kneecap the Shark's playoff hopes was the fact that the players moved were mostly marginal contributors. Murray's ice time and quality of competition had decreased dramatically over the years; in a third-pairing role this season, the Sharks had been badly outplayed with him on the ice. Handzus, too, had fallen into a lesser role over time, with 2012-13 representing the fourth consecutive campaign where he played fewer minutes at even strength than the season prior. With Handzus on the ice this year, his teams have been outshot 24-30; with him off the ice they have a 30-28 advantage in shots; even given the defensive role Handzus was playing, those numbers reflected the fact that he was tilting the ice in the wrong direction. Only in Ryane Clowe did San Jose move out a player with strong possession numbers.
Additionally, San Jose had enough depth to compensate for the losses. The play of rookie defenseman Matt Irwinremarkably, in an average hour of 5-on-5 play the Sharks outshoot the opposition 35-23 with Irwin on the icehas greatly solidified the Sharks' blue line; Irwin has topped the 20:00 per game mark four times in eight contests since the departure of Murray. Justin Braun and Jason Demers have also been competent, and the addition of Hannan puts another player in the rotation. Additionally, even without Clowe, the Sharks have a dynamic group of forwards, and while Torres isn't the player that Clowe is, he is a competent top-nine NHL forward.
The bottom line was that even though Wilson was mostly trading away in the lead-up to the deadline, he didn't move out players vital to the core of the team; he traded around the edges and made sure to add a poor man's version (Torres) of the one important player (Clowe) that departed at the deadline. He didn't need to worry that he was substantially reducing his team's ability to win games; if there was a fear, it was that swapping veterans for draft picks would send the wrong message to the players in the room. There, betting on the professionalism of the players left behind, has paid off handsomely.
And while those additional draft picks won't help the team win in the here and now, they will likely have a big impact on a development system in need of new talent. If all goes well for the Sharks, they could be adding as many as four second round selections over the next two yearsneeded fresh blood in a system that at the moment can only boast Tomas Hertl as a blue chip prospect. It is those kinds of moves that help keep a team like the Sharks from ever needing to do a full-scale rebuild.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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