SAN JOSE, Calif. - With the core of a team that has made consecutive trips to the conference finals in place, the San Jose Sharks head into this off-season looking for tweaks more than an overhaul.
The Sharks have six of their top seven forwards, six defencemen and goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki already under contract with just over a week before the start of free agency.
General manager Doug Wilson said his biggest priorities this off-season will be bolstering the defence and improving the penalty-kill unit in hopes that the Sharks can clear the conference final hurdle next season and make it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history.
Whether those holes will be filled soon after the start of the free agency period July 1 or if the Sharks will have to wait longer is still to be determined.
"You're always looking for the piece that fits, and sometimes it doesn't work on your time frame, and you have to evaluate those," Wilson said. "We're looking for ways to make our hockey team better. We will. We've got a lot of really good things in place. Now I can sit back and say, 'OK, we've made some progress. We've been to the final four the last couple years, but we have to continue to push.'"
The Sharks have traditionally done a good job locking up their key players without allowing them to test the market.
San Jose signed star forward Patrick Marleau to a US$27.6 million, four-year deal a week before he could have become an unrestricted free agent last summer and gave centre Joe Pavelski a $16 million, four-year contract before he became a restricted free agent.
Captain Joe Thornton signed a $21 million, three-year contract in October rather than be able to test free agency this summer.
Now the Sharks are hoping to be able to keep restricted free agent Devin Setoguchi in the fold. Setoguchi got paid $1.8 million last season and will be in line for a raise after scoring 22 goals in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs.
The 24-year-old forward overcame a lacklustre start last season to score 15 goals in his final 33 games, while playing mostly on the top line with Thornton and Marleau.
"It's not a tough decision," Wilson said. "Let's face it. In this business right now, the most sought after things are defencemen, centremen and goal scoring, and he's certainly shown what he's capable of. ... He's probably a very attractive player to a lot of teams that are looking for that. He's an important guy for us. We have to get a deal that makes sense for us, for him and fits into our team-building concept also. I think we're making some progress there."
The Sharks have already made decisions on three of their potential free agents. Wilson said earlier in the week that he notified forwards Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers that the team would not attempt to re-sign them. Defenceman Niclas Wallin also decided to return to his native Sweden to play next season.
The only other unrestricted free agents on the team are third-line forward Kyle Wellwood, fourth-liner Ben Eager and defencemen Ian White and Kent Huskins.
White proved to be a key mid-season pickup from Carolina with 10 points in 23 regular season games and nine points in 17 playoff contests.
But with Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic locked up, young defencemen Jason Demers and Justin Braun expected to step up and Wilson looking for a topflight defencemen through a trade or free agency, White may not have a place in San Jose.
"We look at what the options are, what our internals are," Wilson said. "If you take a look at our right side, you've got Boyle, Demers, Braun. We will explore, and it's not just the (unrestricted free agent) market. We've talked to 29 teams, and there's a lot of trade discussions that take place too."
The off-season begins Friday night with the start of the draft. The Sharks have the 28th overall selection as once again they find themselves picking at the bottom of the first round after another strong season.
But Wilson hasn't been afraid to move up if the situation is right, having dealt into the top 10 to draft Setoguchi in 2005 and Calder Trophy finalist Logan Couture in 2007.
"We'd rather identify the guys we really want and move to go get them," he said. "It's like fishing. Where are the fish that we want? So that's our policy. But the draft also involves a lot of trade discussions, and sometimes the trade discussions involve draft picks. So there's a lot going on at that time."