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Sharks make another splash on defense

by Larry Wigge

It was one of those fill-in-the-blank conversations about trades and the risks you take every time you look to acquire another piece of the puzzle you think you need to win a Stanley Cup. San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson was pretty clear about his intentions to do whatever it takes to win that elusive Cup.

"In this business, you know what you want. But trying to acquire players to fill your needs doesn't always happen in the time frame you want or at the price you want to pay," Wilson said. "I made no secret of the fact that trying to find the right defenseman was a key for us."

At the time, Wilson thought the defenseman that provided the push, speed and skill to move the puck up ice and create offensive chances was Brian Campbell, whom the Sharks had acquired from the Buffalo Sabres at the February trading deadline for right wing prospect Steve Bernier and a first-round draft choice.

Campbell helped the Sharks go 18-0-2 in an incredible stretch going into the final two regular-season games, while contributing 19 points in those 20 games. But he wasn't as involved in the overall game for San Jose in the playoffs and found a new dance partner in free agency. Chicago gave him an eight-year, $56.8 million deal.

The strength of the Sharks as a contender each year is Wilson and his hands-on, passionate look at that puzzle and unwavering trust in his scouting staff to produce young players who can keep the pipeline of talent going to help the big club stay in contention. Campbell just happened to be his latest attempt to find the successful formula.

Wilson told me the risk was worth taking, even if Campbell didn't work out as he'd hoped. It was much the same as the Sharks' deadline-deal with Montreal for defenseman Craig Rivet in February '07.

You don't get anywhere by sitting still. You have to be proactive to get ahead in this game, and Wilson showed in the first days of July that deadline deals for defensemen with flash and dash may not be necessary in February of 2009, after he signed veteran Rob Blake as a free agent and then traded young defenseman Matt Carle, defense prospect Ty Wishart and first- and fourth-round draft choices in 2009 to Tampa Bay for defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.

Boyle, who will turn 32 on July 12, had 25 points in 37 games last season after missing the first half of the season with sliced tendons in his wrist after a fluke dressing room accident. He was named to the NHL's second All-Star Team in 2006-07, when he finished fourth in scoring among defensemen with 63 points. His 20 goals were second among defenders. And he was a member of the taxi squad for defense-rich Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

Boyle was the target of more than a dozen teams at the trading deadline -- including the Sharks -- before he subsequently signed a six-year, $40 million contract in February. That contract became too much for the Lightning's new ownership group to handle under the $56.7 million salary cap with the impending signing of a lucrative lifetime deal for Vinny Lecavalier and a handful of other transactions in the week since free agency began on July 1.

"Being able to acquire an elite player in his prime that has won a Stanley Cup will help this organization get to where we want to go."
-- Sharks GM Doug Wilson

In the end, Wilson's persistence covered all bases and he may have hit a grand slam by bringing in both Blake and Boyle.

"Both Rob and Dan have won Stanley Cups -- and I emphasize that because that presence coming into our dressing room makes us all better," Wilson observed.

At 38, Blake is coming off one of his least productive seasons -- just nine goals and 22 assists and a minus-19 in an injury-plagued season, but ...

"Rob Blake is a player we have pursued for a couple of years now, so this acquisition is special for me," Wilson said. "It's not often that you can find a Norris Trophy-winning, seven-time All-Star defenseman who has won a Stanley Cup. He's done a lot of good work with young players in Los Angeles the last couple of seasons. But we're not bringing him in to be a mentor, but rather to play a big part on our club.

"It's my feeling that great players thrive when they have the opportunity to win. We expect him to lead by example, lead more by what you do than what you say."

Ditto for Boyle, although he has been an impact player in Tampa Bay and has shown more of an awareness to get involved than Campbell had.

Wilson added that every move is made to show the players that the team is actively involved in trying to give them all the ammunition they need to win a Cup. Blake and Boyle help the Sharks now and Wilson dealt Rivet to Buffalo for a pair of second-round draft choices to help the team continue to build up its prospect pool.

"While we always have an eye on the future, you have to take care of the present, as well," Wilson said. "That's where the risk and reward comes in. But to me, there's a risk if you don't go forward, because you'd be sending a mixed message to the guys down in the locker room that you don't care. You have to give them the tools to succeed. I don't believe in standing still or rebuilding, you simply reload."

Stanley Cup teams win not by getting offense from just one or two defensemen. Look at how Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall all contributed to the offense in Detroit's Cup run. Blake's Cup came with Colorado in 2001, Boyle's came in 2004, while Lukowich was a part of two champions -- in Dallas in 1999 and Tampa Bay in '04.

Sharks fans will quickly see how that formula works. And it will be more than offense from defense from Blake and Boyle and Lukowich, it will also include more contributions from San Jose's holdover defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle McLaren and Douglas Murray.

For now, just fill in the blanks and have fun watching the new-look Sharks in the upcoming season.

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