Many Departures Anticipated in Sharks Territory

With the 2018-19 San Jose Sharks season ending in the Western Conference Final at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, the team’s future has begun. This offseason, in particular, the future is coming fast, with substantial change expected in the next few weeks. After an ‘all-in’ season which came up short, the Sharks will not be able to sustain the roster as is.

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks
Doug Wilson (THW Archives)

Changes in Sharks Territory happen under the direction of general manager Doug Wilson, and the franchise’s future will depend on choices made during the next several weeks. It is going to be a very busy time for Sharks management, starting essentially immediately.

Who will finish their time in teal? How many people will depart? It could be just a few, it could be one-third of the team. Important players and long-time Sharks are included in the process.

In some cases, we’ll know within days. Free agency starts on July 1 and almost all the questions will be answered in the first weeks of free agency. 

Sharks Free Agency and Cap Space

Generally speaking, teams can retain any restricted free agent if they want to – the team holds the cards in these cases. 

Unrestricted free agents will do what they want; the player and team can arrive at a deal between now and June 30. Beginning July 1, other teams can sign them. Players who have another season on their deal are prime trade candidates. I don’t see the Sharks buying out any player contract in the offseason.  

The Sharks had very little salary cap space this season and the outlook for next season depends on who stays and who goes. The Sharks will retain Timo Meier, a restricted free agent. Meier will get a large raise – enough to consume all of the league’s cap increase for next season and then some. This leaves the Sharks in need of cap space. 

Timo Meier - Sharks
Timo Meier (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some of the players on the list have contracts beyond this season. For the right price, almost anyone is tradable, but some players are more likely to go than others. My sense is the Sharks are open for trades in a way they haven’t been in several years. 

So who might stay and who might go? Let’s get to it.

Peter DeBoer and the Coaching Staff (contracts not disclosed)

I suspect Sharks top executive Doug Wilson will retain head coach Peter DeBoer. Twice this season, DeBoer’s job appeared in real jeopardy, once in early December and again in the playoffs after going down 3-1 in the opening round. But miracles occurred and DeBoer seems to have salvaged his time here.

San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer
San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Whether his staff stays is another story. The special teams struggled over the season and were a disaster in the playoffs. Goaltending was among the worst in the league in the regular season and nearly got them bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Will the Sharks retain Steve Spott, Rob Zettler, Dave Barr and goalie coach Johan Hedberg? There’s good reason for a shake-up.

Erik Karlsson

Upcoming status: Unrestricted Free Agent; current cap hit: $6.5 million

A two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, Karlsson was superb in December and early January, playing MVP-level hockey. Then an injury took him out. Though he tried returning in February and again in the playoffs, the mid-season version of Karlsson never returned. It is believed the Sharks were ready to offer Karlsson the largest contract in team history, but the defenseman balked. The situation has been uneasy for a while now and more than likely, he’ll walk when free agency begins on July 1. The Sharks gave up plenty for Karlsson in their trade back in September 2018, but it appears to have been for naught.

Joe Pavelski

Unrestricted Free Agent; $6 million

The winger and Sharks’ captain likely stays. There is little doubt both parties wish to continue but it isn’t clear the Sharks will offer Pavelski a deal sufficient to prevent him from looking at what else might be out there. Should Pavelski decide to listen other offers, he’ll get them. He totaled 38 goals this season and is a strong leader. A lot of teams can use that.

Joe Pavelski
Joe Pavelski (Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Joe Thornton

Unrestricted Free Agent; $5 million

The centerman and Sharks leader for over a decade, Thornton seems like he wants another round. He’ll be 40 soon enough, but he played at a high level in the second half of the season. The further he got from his January 2018 knee surgery, the better he played.

San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Thornton is comfortable taking a one-year deal, the question is how low is he willing to go in order to save cap space for others. It is unlikely Thornton decides to play elsewhere in the NHL, but he could decide to call it a career. If he does, the countdown begins to his inevitable Hall-of-Fame induction.

Joakim Ryan

Restricted Free Agent; $650,000

He’ll leave. The Sharks have done almost everything imaginable to ensure he won’t return. Ryan was undermined by head coach Peter DeBoer. Even if this hadn’t happened, there doesn’t appear to be a starting spot for Ryan, and he’s good enough to start in the NHL. The Sharks have three left-handed defensemen ahead of Ryan on the depth chart. It’s unfortunate. At 25, Ryan is the youngest Sharks defenseman and among the most agile.

Justin Braun

One more year; $3.8 million

The cap-challenged Sharks will want to find cap space and Braun is the candidate most likely to create room. His contract isn’t large ($3.8 million for one more season) but the Sharks have few mid-tier salaries and Braun is the one obvious player to move. His play wasn’t good this season and the Sharks have a better fit in Tim Heed. Speaking of which …

Justin Braun
Justin Braun (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Tim Heed

Unrestricted Free Agent; $650,000

Defenseman Tim Heed is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and he’ll get offers elsewhere in the league if the Sharks don’t lock him up. Heed is 28 years old, not all that young, but four years younger than Braun. And likely cheaper, too.

Joonas Donskoi

Unrestricted Free Agent; $1.9 million

Donskoi is not a favorite of the current coaching staff and he may well decide this is his time to hit the open market. Retaining this middle-tier winger won’t break the bank, but if the Sharks feel the need to squeeze out a bit more cap space, I’d expect Donskoi to move on.

Joonas Donskoi Sharks
Joonas Donskoi (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Melker Karlsson

One more year; $2 million

Melker Karlsson is a good player, but a tad pricey for a fourth-line wing. There are other teams which can probably use his skill set and I have little doubt the Sharks would trade him for an appropriate draft pick. 

Gustav Nyquist

Unrestricted Free Agent; $3.325 million

This trade deadline rental didn’t mesh particularly well in his time in San Jose. The Sharks may have sufficient cap space to keep him assuming Erik Karlsson departs, but he is not a game-changer and the Sharks have better wingers already in-house. Doug Wilson will look for a game-changer.

Gustav Nyquist, Carl Dahlstrom
Gustav Nyquist (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Nyquist will earn the sort of money which makes it much harder to fit one under the salary cap. I expect Wilson to keep his powder dry (if he has any) and look for a higher-end player than Nyquist. Meanwhile, I expect Nyquist to look for a big deal now in his first trip to unrestricted free agency.

Micheal Haley

Unrestricted Free Agent; $845,000

There is little reason for the Sharks to retain Haley, but this hasn’t stopped the club from keeping him around. Nominally a winger, but mostly a fighter, there is little interest in Haley around the league. The Sharks got him off the waiver wire this season. The Sharks can let Haley go elsewhere and bring him back if and when Doug Wilson desires. Though again, why Wilson desires Haley is unclear. 

Kevin Labanc

Restricted Free Agent; $717,500

Labanc is coming back unless the Sharks get an offer they like for him, and they might just get such an offer. Labanc has a lot going for him, including a 56-point season, improving defense and youth. He is just 23 on a team which is among the league’s older groups.

Sharks forward Kevin Labanc
Kevin Labanc (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Labanc joins a lengthy list of wingers who thrived on Joe Thornton’s wing and wouldn’t be the first who got traded after a big season. He also has playoff experience and is useful on the power play. Since the Sharks lack draft picks, they will listen carefully if someone offers enough. Given his RFA status, he doesn’t have much leverage, but he will get a significant raise.

Aaron Dell

One more year; $1.9 million

The Sharks back-up goalie had a down season just when the Sharks needed him to step up. Starter Martin Jones is not going anywhere (he’d be hard to trade given his contract and performance this season) and Dell’s contract is large enough to consider moving him. Assuming that is, his entire $1.9 million cap hit went with him. Adding to the possibility of a Dell trade are two promising goalies in the Sharks organization, 24-year-old Antoine Bibeau and 21-year-old Josef Korenar.

Aaron Dell - Sharks
Aaron Dell (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Antti Suomela

Restricted Free Agent; $925,000

Sharks fans may recall the center from Finland started the season as a member of the Sharks before being demoted to the AHL. At 25, Suomela may have an NHL future, it often takes time for players to adapt from the European game to the North American one. Still, other teams may prize him more than the Sharks do at this point. With the Sharks looking for draft picks, Suomela may find himself moved. 

Paul Martin’s contract

Retired player; $1.417 million

The retired defenseman was bought out last season and the residual cap hit goes through next season. It is unusual, but not unheard of, to trade a contract to open up cap space. The Sharks will need to part with an asset, likely a draft pick, to move this contract to another team’s books.

The Major Considerations

Salary cap constraints make this offseason one where change is guaranteed. The roster may have $100 million in salary cap hit next year, which is 20% above where the cap is expected to be set.

What are the Sharks looking at for the 2019-20 season? Salary cap is one of the major factors in who stays and who goes. The choices are mostly in the hands of Wilson, though unrestricted free agents control their own fate. After an all-in season, Wilson may want to replenish upcoming drafts depleted in the trades for players like Erik Karlsson, Evander Kane and Nyquist, or he may try to re-load for another Stanley Cup run.

Another factor is the Seattle expansion draft and who Wilson believes he’ll want to protect at the time.

We’ll learn a lot about the Sharks of 2019-20 in the upcoming weeks. No doubt, many will sense a bitter taste as the Sharks go through this process without a Stanley Cup.