Nick Spaling

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He’s back! Polak signs one-year deal with Leafs

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The Toronto Maple Leafs turned to a familiar face on the second day of NHL free agency, signing defenseman Roman Polak to a one-year contract on Saturday.

Yes, that’s right.

Prior to the trade deadline in February, the Leafs sent Polak and forward Nick Spaling to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Raffi Torres and a pair of second round picks (2017, 2018).

On the first day of free agency, the Leafs signed hard-hitting forward Matt Martin to a four-year, $10 million contract.

The Leafs aren’t bringing Polak back to add offense to their blue line.

Polak scored one goal and 15 assists last season between Toronto and San Jose, and was used primarily in the Sharks’ bottom defensive pairing in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.

San Jose’s role guys showed they’re pretty good, too

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SAN JOSE — You wouldn’t have blamed the Sharks’ depth guys for getting a bit jealous. Not after the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, in which Pittsburgh’s role players stole the show.

Conor Sheary scored a huge goal. So did Nick Bonino. Same with Bryan Rust.

They were doing what the Sharks’ role guys weren’t, but that changed on Saturday night.

Three depth guys — Justin Braun, Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi — accounted for all the scoring, pacing the Sharks to a crucial 3-2 OT win, cutting Pittsburgh’s series lead to two games to one.

“It’s been huge — it’s the reason we’re here,”Joe Thornton said of San Jose’s role players. “Just different guys scoring big goals. Wardy with that second one was a huge goal, and then Donnie to score in overtime.

“It’s game in, game out, different guys stepping up to the plate. That’s the reason we’re here.”

Thornton’s right.

Prior to the final, San Jose’s depth guys had been regular contributors. Donskoi, tonight’s OT hero, had 10 points through 20 games. Ward had seven goals prior to tonight and, of the seven, three had either tied the game or given the Sharks the lead.

Fitting, then, what tonight’s goal did:

“Wardo just seems to find the big goal when we need it,” Braun said. “Pretty impressive, his track record coming over from Washington and now doing it for us.

“It’s huge.”

Other role players chipped in on Saturday as well. Chris Tierney got the lone assist on Donskoi’s winner, his first point of series. Tommy Wingels and Nick Spaling provided a big physical presence, combining for 14 hits (Pittsburgh had 17 as a team).

But of all the depth guys that stepped up on Saturday, Donskoi was the hero. The 24-year-old rookie has been a terrific pickup, snagged out of the Finnish League by GM Doug Wilson, and after enjoying a good regular season — 11 goals and 36 points in 76 games — he’s been even better in the playoffs.

“He’s the real deal, a real good player for us,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said of Donskoi. “We wouldn’t be here without him.”

Related: Young Sharks forwards have ‘answered a lot of questions regarding our depth’: DeBoer

Need for speed: Nieto draws into Sharks lineup for Game 2

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PITTSBURGH — The San Jose Sharks fielded plenty of questions about Pittsburgh’s speed following their Game 1 loss in the Stanley Cup Final.

Now, the Sharks have an answer.

Matt Nieto, one of San Jose’s quickest skaters and described as a “speed guy” by head coach Peter DeBoer, will draw back into the lineup for Game 2.

Nieto has been out since Game 6 of the Nashville series with an upper-body injury, and missed the last eight games.

While nothing’s official yet, it looks like Dainius Zubrus — at 37, the Sharks’ oldest skater — will come out of the lineup.

Before the injury, Nieto was on the third line with Chris Tierney and Joel Ward, but it remains to be seen if that group will be reunited. Last game Melker Karlsson played the wing with Tierney and Ward, while Zubrus skated with Nick Spaling and Tommy Wingels.

In his pregame presser, DeBoer said line combos would be a gametime decision.

Related: DeBoer calls Pittsburgh the ‘fastest team in the league’

Subtle but effective offseason pushed Sharks to next level

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — After watching the San Jose Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, general manager Doug Wilson set out to remake the team last offseason.

Individually, none of the moves sent shockwaves through the NHL. The Sharks hired a coach who made the playoffs once in seven seasons as an NHL coach, traded a first-round pick for a goalie who had been a backup his entire career, added two playoff-tested veterans for depth at forward and defense and signed an unheralded Finnish rookie.

Together, the additions of Peter DeBoer, Martin Jones, Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Joonas Donskoi to a solid core that had underachieved proved to be the right mix to get the Sharks to their long-awaited first Stanley Cup Final appearance.

“I thought this team has a lot of the pieces of that puzzle,” Martin said. “Doug did a great job bringing guys in that he did, to make that push for it. I don’t think many people would have guessed that we’d be here right now, but I think we believed.”

The players all said the disappointment of blowing a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 and then missing the playoffs entirely last season served as fuel for this season’s success.

DeBoer also credited former coach Todd McLellan for helping put the foundation in place that he was able to capitalize on. The Sharks became the second team in the past 10 seasons to make it to the final after missing the playoffs the previous season, joining the 2011-12 Devils that pulled off the same trick in DeBoer’s first season in New Jersey.

“Everyone was ready for something a little bit fresher and newer, not anything that much different,” DeBoer said. “The additions that Doug made, it just came together. I inherited a similar team in New Jersey when I went in there. First time they missed the playoffs for a long time the year before I got there. I think when you go into that situation, when you have really good people like there was in New Jersey when I went in there, like I was with this group … they’re embarrassed by the year they just had, and they’re willing to do and buy into whatever you’re selling to get it fixed again. I think I was the benefactor of that.”

The transition from McLellan to DeBoer wasn’t seamless. As late as Jan. 8, the Sharks were in 13th place in the 14-team Western Conference and seemingly on the way to another missed postseason.

But with Logan Couture finally healthy after being slowed by a broken leg early in the season and the move by DeBoer to put Tomas Hertl on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks rolled after that and made the playoffs as the third-place team in the Pacific Division.

In-season additions of players like depth forwards Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling, physical defenseman Roman Polak and backup goaltender James Reimer helped put the Sharks in the position they are now.

“With the new coaching staff we needed to realize how we needed to play to win,” Thornton said. “Once that clicked, and that probably clicked maybe early December, I think after that, we just exploded. I think that’s really when we saw the depth of this team. Everybody plays a big part.”

That has been especially true in the playoffs when longtime core players like Thornton, Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau got the support that had often been lacking during past postseason disappointments.

Jones has posted three shutouts in the playoffs, including the Game 7 second-round clincher against Nashville and back-to-back games in the conference final against St. Louis. He has proven more than capable of being an NHL starter after serving an apprenticeship as Jonathan Quick‘s backup in Los Angeles.

Ward scored two goals in each of the final two games of the conference final and has 11 points this postseason. Donskoi exceeded expectations just to make the team as a rookie and has solidified his spot on the second line with five goals and nine points.

Martin’s steady play has allowed offensive-minded defenseman Brent Burns to roam at times and given San Jose a strong second defensive pair that had been missing in previous seasons.

Zubrus and Spaling played a big role as penalty killers and on the fourth line, while Polak has been one of the team’s most physical players.

“Doug did a great job this summer, this season,” Couture said. “A lot of credit needs to go to him for the guys he brought in.”

Nieto’s injury could allow Wingels to return for Sharks

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Matt Nieto wasn’t able to practice with the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday, opening the door for Tommy Wingels to possibly return to the lineup.

Wingels wouldn’t exactly get a chance to ease back in, as the Sharks face the Nashville Predators in a Game 7 on Thursday.

The veteran forward seems aware of what he’d need to bring to the table if Nieto can’t go, as he told CSNBayArea.com’s Kevin Kurz.

“If I’m back in tomorrow, use my speed, create some scoring chances, be physical, get in on the forecheck – all the little things that hopefully make the team successful and win the game,” Wingels said.

Wingels would likely line up with Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling if he plays.