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Sharks Putting Pieces Together

(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)

Training camp is well under way for the San Jose Sharks. Some players are getting a shot to make the team, others have a guaranteed spot but have to move on from an offseason that was too long. The way last season ended should not be forgotten, but Sharks players, coaches and staff have to forgive themselves and each other, and move forward. That will involve some mental acrobatics that will last well beyond training camp and into the season.

Justin Braun’s five year contract extension is an excellent step ahead. With Braun under contract through the 2019-20 season, the Sharks have secured yet another talented and still improving young defenseman. From the Sharks’ press release:

“Justin has emerged as one of our most well-rounded and dependable defensemen,” said Wilson. “He’s an excellent skater who excels in matching up against the opponents top players on a nightly basis and fits in well with our core group of younger players. We feel Justin has just scratched the surface of his talent and we are excited to have him under contract for the next six seasons.”

Last season, Braun was second on the team in average time on ice per game (20:59), tied-for-first in shorthanded ice time per game (2:11) and set career-highs for points (17), goals (4) and assists (13). He was one of four Sharks to play in all 82 games in 2014-15. In addition, he tied a franchise record with eight blocked shots on Nov. 29 vs. St. Louis.

Braun also added two points (one goal, one assist) in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games.

It is clear that Braun has been doing the job the Sharks need him to do, logging a lot of minutes in pressure situations. There is little doubt that he can be expected to continue doing this for the team. In his first season with the team, he seemed a little more eager offensively. That is something he may build on now that he has garnered the “dependable” label usually reserved for more seasoned veterans.

What the press release does not brag about is how salary cap friendly the deal is for the Sharks. Starting in 2015, Braun’s cap hit is just $3.8 million, a modest number for a defenseman the team plans to depend on for so many years. Five years is a long time of course, the risk of injury always looms. But it is a risk the team was wise to take. Braun is a smart, cool-headed player. He is much more likely to improve than regress over the next few seasons.

Speaking of the salary cap, how unfamiliar is it for the Sharks to still be so far down CapGeek’s list (at 21 today)? They have $6,145,000 available, with 23 players signed and the stated intention of not shopping for help. It is an unfamiliar situation to not be in the top five list of teams that have no money to spend.

The hot topic at the start of camp was still who was not wearing a letter on their sweater. At this point, I am willing to examine the decision to remove the letters from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau less as an indictment of those two and more as a challenge to the rest of the team.

The idea that there are more than three or four leaders in the room is not a new one. It is something players have said over and over on many teams. But what does it really mean? If you take away the title of captain, everyone has to look a little harder at everyone in the room and ask themselves who they would like to hear from, who they should be listening to. So long as someone wears the letter, there must be some expectation that that guy will start the conversation if it needs to be started.

The decision to have a team meeting in Tahoe before camp came from Adam Burish and Jason Demers. Both are known for being engaging and media friendly, good ambassadors, but neither has worn a letter on the team. Perhaps this is a sign that different players, more players, are warming up to the idea of leading with or without a letter. Or maybe those two would have come up with that idea no matter what the state of designated leadership was. In any case, it is an example of what can occur when leadership roles are up for grabs.

In that sense, it may be regrettable that a team needs to put letters on anyone at all for games. To switch them around frequently could cause confusion during games. To put them on will quell the useful chaos that a lack of letters can produce.

While the captaincy question may produce some positive chemistry for the team, it is hard to ignore the way the decision was initially communicated- or not- to the players involved. That still makes it seem like a reprimand to Thornton and Marleau as well as the rest of the team. Of course if everyone is responsible, then that includes them.


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