By Mary Walsh
It is never a good thing when a roster player is out due to injury, as so many San Jose Sharks are right now. That obvious truth should not tarnish a high-quality silver lining. As effective as the Sharks have been over the last several seasons, their depth has not been tested as it is being now. The Sharks have had to fill spots in the lineup to replace (in the order they fell): Martin Havlat, Adam Burish, Raffi Torres, Brad Stuart, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. Thursday in Boston and Saturday in Montreal, they were without five of those six. They even had to go without Tommy Wingels for most of the Boston game. However you measure the value of one player, that list punches holes in every line, every aspect of the Sharks’ game except goaltending. In the midst of this injury epidemic, Doug Wilson acquired Mike Brown. In the big picture, it seems that acquiring Brown had little to do with the Sharks’ injury problems.
The replacements the Sharks already had were not all likely to be playing in the NHL this season. The most conspicuous of them, Tomas Hertl, has reduced the odds to slim or nil that he will be sent down to the AHL, barring some freak salary cap or roster size event that forces him out. Would he have had the chance to make such an impression if Raffi Torres had been available? Freddie Hamilton and Matt Nieto, though both showed promise, were very likely to spend this season in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks. John McCarthy has been up and down and back again, as has Matt Pelech. Scott Hannan, the presumptive seventh defenseman acquired last season, has played in all but one game this season.
Those players have turned in respectable to excellent performances, and until last Thursday, helped keep the Sharks’ point streak intact. We can’t know how the team would have done with every asset ready to go. The games got closer when the team lost Dan Boyle, and then Brent Burns. How much of that was their absence alone? How much of it was the natural ramping up of play as opponents found their legs after rocky starts?
The point is moot. Hannan has held down the fort on the blue line, and the bevvy of young players from Worcester have kept the forward lines moving. The readiness of those young players does the organization proud. They don’t have to be Brent Burns or Logan Couture or Raffi Torres, they just needed to not be a drag on a fast-moving ship. They did better than than that, by and large.
San Jose fans might not have seen these reinforcements in action were it not for what could have been a season-crippling casualty list. The missing starters will return, gradually. Replacements will be sent down again, but knowing they can step in and be better than “not a liability”… that is very exciting for the team. When playoffs roll around, chances look slim that the team will be overwhelmed because one or two key players get hurt (or suspended).
So why acquire Mike Brown? In his first game as a Shark, Brown wasn’t a problem. He didn’t take penalties or cause a wreck. He performed as advertised. He brought energy on the forecheck but only got credit for one hit. On the stat sheet that stands out, since Tomas Hertl was second in hits behind Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton in the game. Hertl had significantly more ice time at his disposal than Brown, and the fact remains that Brown was fine. That is saying something on his first day with the team.
He still doesn’t seem like a necessary addition. The Sharks might not be winning lopsided games now, but they are doing more than keeping themselves afloat. Many have said this team looks better than they ever have. The season is long, there is no straight course through it. Were it not for so many injuries at the start of the season, the Sharks might not have tested the depths of their organization so extensively. The team will certainly be stronger as their experienced players return, but so far the pressure hasn’t crushed them. It hardly slowed them down.