As the All-Star Games approaches, teams around the NHL take stock of their season. The first thing many need to determine: are they going to contend this season? If they are not, will they be ‘sellers’ who trade current assets for future value? For a contenders, the opposite question occurs: should the team be ‘buyers’ by giving up some future potential to improve their chances this season?
There may be ‘other considerations’ for both buyers and sellers. The San Jose Sharks are contenders, but are among the teams with at least one foot in the ‘other considerations’ column.
The Sharks need to retain defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson can sign a seven-year deal now, but can get an eight-year deal in late February, right after the trade deadline passes. If the Sharks can re-sign their elite defenseman, it’ll be to a contract which has a major impact on the team’s salary cap next season.
Sharks’ Salary Cap Challenge
For next season, the team won’t be able to manage Karlsson’s cap hit plus the raises for key players without other significant moves. As of now, Logan Couture, Barclay Goodrow and Marcus Sorensen are locked into combined raises slightly over $3 million. Meier and Karlsson figure to increase the Sharks’ cap hit between $8 million and $10 million relative to this season.
This is $11-13 million in raises before Joonas Donskoi, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski enter the picture. Kevin Labanc, Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed are also free agents, and while none can expect a major pay increase, they are all inexpensive now, meaning there is little savings potential here.
Sharks’ Cap Hits
Meaningful roster moves related to cap space involve players with meaningful cap hits. Those with cap hits under $2 million make a modest difference since they must be replaced with other players. The Sharks need to look hard at players with cap hits over $3 million to clear serious amounts of cap space.
The Sharks did this in the 2018 offseason, moving Mikkel Boedker and Chris Tierney with a combined annual cap hit a shade under $7 million.
The Sharks Bind
The Sharks have placed themselves into a bit of a bind. They have handed out some form of a ‘no-move’ contract to eight players, and these players are core to the team. While this doesn’t make trading these players impossible, it does make it tougher. It is hard to imagine players like Evander Kane or Marc-Edouard Vlasic waiving these clauses.
This leaves a specific pair of players vulnerable to trade: defensemen Brenden Dillon ($3.27 million) and Justin Braun ($3.8 million). Both are under contract for another season after this one. These are the only Sharks scheduled to get paid between $2 million (Melker Karlsson) and $5.625 million (Tomas Hertl). Dillon is not tradable for one obvious reason: he is Erik Karlsson’s partner and they’ve been excellent together. Trading Karlsson’s partner isn’t going to help the Sharks keep Karlsson. Which leaves Braun, and only Braun.
If it seems we’ve been here before, well, we have. In the past few seasons, Braun is the trade candidate I’ve discussed the most. Fair or not, he has been the ideal trade piece. He was a good player, playing a position of need across the league with a good value contract. He’s been durable and has considerable playoff experience. Further, he had a strong 2017-18, playing good defense and tallying 33 even strength points. In short, he was the sort of player a trade partner would pay up to acquire. I’d speculated he could fetch a very solid return.
Alas, the prior paragraph was written in the past tense for a reason. This season has been Braun’s poorest, and his value has likely dropped considerably. Failing to move him when his value was high is a missed opportunity.
Trade Deadline Candidates
The trade deadline appears to offer an unusual wealth of opportunity for teams looking to improve. Opportunity typically comes in the form of a quality player set to become a free agent over the summer and knowing the player is unlikely to re-sign with his current team. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and forwards Artemi Panarin and Wayne Simmonds are among the high-end players that fit this description.
Some elite teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning have a similar challenge as the Sharks; they may be in the business of offloading longer-term salary cap challenges for a rental. The Winnipeg Jets are an example of a team that is well-positioned to deal for a high-end player without needing to offload salary cap.
The Sharks’ Imperative
The Sharks have an imperative to push this season’s team as far as it can go. The ideal acquisition is a rental and the player which fits the Sharks is Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Sharks are a power-forward driven team and Simmonds is among the league’s best. Adding the right-hander into the mix with left-handers Meier, Hertl and Kane would make the Sharks an incredibly deep and tough team to play against.
Often times, teams will add talent at the trade deadline and it won’t integrate well with the rest of the team. Simmonds will have to learn the Sharks’ system, but his playing style will fit right in. Perhaps the price tag is a bit lower on him than might be expected, as he isn’t having a strong season.
To bring in Simmonds and improve this season’s team, the Sharks will need to part with meaningful draft picks and shed a bit of salary cap. If Braun was playing as well this season as he did last, he might have been enough to reel in Simmonds. This isn’t likely anymore.
Complicating any deal is the status of the Sharks’ early round draft picks. Several are ‘conditional’ over the next three seasons, meaning they are in a state of limbo, depending on whether the specific conditions are met. They can’t be used in a trade until the conditions are clarified. Re-signing Karlsson will clarify conditions and free up some of the draft spots, but signing him to an eight-year deal can’t happen until after the trade deadline. The cart is squarely before the horse in this scenario. There are ways around it, but it will get complicated in a hurry.
The Sharks’ Best Shot?
The Sharks can go forward this season without making any major moves, but this is an ideal season to take their shot.
It is probable some players who can make the Sharks better will be available. But the Sharks are more constrained than most. They have limited future picks, restrictions on players they might trade and salary cap challenges. Finding their way to a deal will not be easy. With all the constraints, once again, the trade pointer moves to Braun.
Though he might not be on the radar screen for most, I also like Carl Hagelin of the Los Angeles Kings. He’s a terrific forechecker and the Sharks could use more turnovers off the forecheck. They have the talent to take advantage of these sorts of turnovers. Given where the Kings are in the standings and the modest production from Hagelin as a King, he’d be inexpensive relative to the bigger names out there. He’d also add another Swede to the mix, which already includes both Karlssons, Heed and Sorensen.