Sharks Surge Towards Playoff Contention

With a week out from the NHL Trade Deadline and the San Jose Sharks on a current four-game winning streak, I figured this would be a great time to engage with Sharks fans on Twitter and provide any commentary on questions on the team’s current state.

Currently, the Sharks sit three points out of a playoff spot but have one less game played than the Arizona Coyotes. This sudden progression of the club from lottery pick to playoff contender leaves a lot of questions. Should the Sharks approach the trade deadline differently? And if so, how will this impact the trade deadline?

Long-Term Impacts

“Is this late-season surge really in the Sharks’ best interest? Lower draft pick, might change how they approach the trade deadline, might result in them going with more veterans instead of giving some rookies more playing time” – @oldstylin

It’s hard not to say yes. If San Jose can squeak into the playoffs, it’s hard to rate their chances against outright Stanley Cup contenders very highly. This season the Sharks are 1-3 against the Colorado Avalanche, including a brutal 7-1 defeat, and are yet to beat the Vegas Golden Knights. These teams are in classes of their own compared to the Sharks, and I would think a first-round exit to be likely for the Sharks.

So, would this playoff berth outweigh the cost of tanking and receiving a top prospect? It depends on which perspective we look from. Firstly, the players have no incentive to tank. Players on expiring contracts would produce less on a low-quality team and receive less money in free agency. Younger players will want to gain playoff exposure, and veterans with long-term contracts want to win, not tank. While if the team sold veterans at the deadline Noah Gregor, Joachim Blichfeld, and other young AHL players would gain lineup spots, overall the players in the organization want to see team success.

Noah Gregor San Jose Sharks
Noah Gregor, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Surely the Sharks’ scouting team would prefer the team pick earlier. The organization has fun and exciting prospects like Ryan Merkley, Thomas Bordeleau, and Ozzy Wiesblatt, but lacks a true blue-chip prospect. And, this would make sense with San Jose’s often playoff contention. The current Head of Scouting, Doug Wilson Jr., has largely taken part in four drafts beginning in 2017. The highest pick he’s worked with is 17th overall, where he selected Josh Norris, who was dealt in the Erik Karlsson trade.

Wilson Jr. has picked in the top-30 two out of his four years. He has every reason to prefer the Sharks have a top-10 selection so the team’s future can be in better hands than if the team were to continue hoping late selections pan out into stars.

However, I think head coach Bob Boughner and general manager Doug Wilson need the current playoff surge to continue. GM Wilson has the core of Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brent Burns firmly locked down for the next 5-7 seasons. If the team cannot contend with these players, and they will all regress with age, I would speculate that Wilson could see his job in jeopardy.

And, if Wilson is not in the hot seat, I would imagine Boughner would be. Personally, I have been critical of the current coaching staff in not utilizing the high talent the organization has, and opting for veterans who add less offensively. If Wilson remains, he would blame a team missing the playoffs on the staff not using the higher upside players, however in his only press conference this season, the GM gave his coach a vote of confidence.

Bob Boughner San Jose Sharks
Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Looking toward the future of San Jose, a highly talented prospect far outdoes their current likely situation of narrowly missing the playoffs or exiting the first round. Obviously, the NHL Playoffs are random and upsets happen constantly, however, the team’s future would benefit more from a highly touted prospect than another playoff loss.

Trade Deadline

“Will the Sharks Consider Buying at the Deadline in Their Current Position?” -Avery McGrail

I would guess the organization opts for a bit of both. Currently, I feel the Sharks should still sell off some of their winger depth. Matt Nieto, the team’s main penalty-killer and bottom six winger, remains injured but seems to have hope of returning within the next week or two.

When he returns, the Sharks could look to deal any of Nieto, Patrick Marleau, and Marcus Sorensen. All play on the fourth line when in the lineup, and play no better than other younger fourth line options such as Jeffrey Viel, Gregor, or Blichfeld. While I think he is the least quality of the noted players, Sorensen is the only player rumored to be dealt, with interest from Canadian teams, per Chris Johnson of Sportsnet.

Marcus Sorensen San Jose Sharks
Marcus Sorensen, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also rumored to be traded is Devan Dubnyk, linked with teams such as the Avalanche and Washington Capitals who need better backup netminders. The veteran netminder has been outdone by Martin Jones, with Dubnyk holding a .898 save percentage and ranking 10th-worst in save percentage saved above expected per MoneyPuck.

However, all these players would fetch nothing more than mid-to-late round selections. And, these players are pretty replaceable with Martin Jones taking up the majority of starts for the foreseeable future and young wingers available in the AHL or on the taxi squad. So, that leaves the question: What would the Sharks want to add?

Obviously, big fish rentals such as Kyle Palmieri or Taylor Hall are out of the question, with the Sharks not wanting deal their high-valued prospects or draft picks. The Sharks also lack their 2021 second-round selection due to the Karlsson trade. While I think current third-line center Dylan Gambrell is super effective as a penalty-killer and defensive-oriented forward, the Sharks lack an offensively helpful third center like they formerly had with Joe Thornton in 2018-19 when he tallied over 50 points from that role.

Dylan Gambrell San Jose Sharks
Dylan Gambrell, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

And, I’d imagine the price for this addition is somewhat small. The Montreal Canadiens added Eric Staal to be their third-line center for a 2021 third and fifth-round selection. Staal has been offensively strong nearly his entire career, with him ordinarily between .6-.8 points per game in this latter part of his career. And, if the Sharks opted for a player with a similar or somewhat less value, they could afford the price tag.

Ahead of the Nashville Predators’ recent ascension to a playoff spot, I would have named Erik Haula as a target for this role. Now, I think Scott Laughton and Luke Glendening would be possible third-line center rental targets. Laughton, 26-years-old, has seven goals and 17 points through 33 games and has hovered around .5 points per game the last two seasons.

He would likely command a significantly higher return than Glendening, who has eleven points this season with the Detroit Red Wings and resides closer to .3 points per game through his career. The Sharks can afford either player’s contract, and the deals would require mid-round picks which the team currently has, and could acquire more of if they thin their winger depth.

Quality over quantity is the name of the game for San Jose. The Sharks should not involve themselves in any large value trades. However, selling off some expiring contracts at positions of depth could make it easier to acquire quality at a position of need such as center, if the team wants to improve their playoff chances.

NHL Expansion

“Who are you protecting from the upcoming expansion draft if it was up to you?” – @erik_with_a_k

Thankfully, I am not Wilson, who will have some huge choices to make at the NHL Expansion Draft. Currently, I think the Sharks have three options when it comes to expansion, as I somewhat detailed in a piece about the team’s options if they opted to rebuild or retool. Also to note for the expansion draft, both Vlasic and Karlsson have full no-movement clauses and require protection, and youngsters on entry-level contracts such as Mario Ferraro and John Leonard are not available. I think the organization decides to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie.

The first option is to bank on the team’s current core and just allow Seattle to select whoever they please. The Sharks’ protection list would look something like this: Couture, Evander Kane, Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Rudolfs Balcers, Ryan Donato, Vlasic, Karlsson, Burns, and Jones.

In this scenario, Gambrell and Radim Simek are the likely candidates for Seattle to select. Neither are integral pieces to the Sharks, but their selections free up little cap space, and losing them overall has an immediate negative value on the team, who would need to find a new bottom-six center or third-pairing defenseman.

Radim Simek San Jose Sharks
Radim Simek, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another scenario is dangling Burns to see if the Kraken bite. This option would be the same protection list, except the club protects Simek and not Burns. With 21 points in 37 games, he lacks the franchise-defining offensive abilities he once had, and his defensive game remains lackluster. His $8 million per year contract runs through 2024-25. He has value, but his contract is rough on the Sharks. While he adds a lot to the Sharks, gaining that much cap space could revitalize the Sharks, and ensure they can keep players such as Ferraro and Hertl who expire after next season.

The third scenario applies if the Sharks fully want to rebuild, and would see numerous large salaries made available to Seattle. The Sharks would protect Hertl, Meier, Labanc, Balcers, Donato, Gambrell, Alex True, Karlsson, Vlasic, Simek, and Josef Korenar. Essentially, San Jose could force the Kraken to select an AHL player, an expired contract, or a large salary.

Obviously, Kane, Couture, and Burns have tremendous talent, but if the Sharks rebuild they need to ensure they’ll have money in the future to extend their young talent. With the lengths of contracts like Couture, there is no telling how the Sharks will look in 2026-27 when his contracts still runs. What if the Sharks could not extend prospects such as Merkley or Bordeleau in future seasons because they still pay Couture and other veterans who will surely regress plenty in the next few seasons? And, these large salaries are further magnified by the flat salary cap for the foreseeable future in the NHL.

Logan Couture San Jose Sharks
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Personally, I would urge the Sharks to look toward the latter two options. The expensive salaries the Sharks currently possess could have implications on the franchise’s retention of key young players five years into the future. If the organization could use the NHL Expansion Draft to ensure the future of the franchise cannot be tainted by large deals, then the Sharks could take a positive out of this event.

Sharks Moving Forward

As I expected, the questions solely focused on the team’s future. Because despite a recent surge into playoff contention, the future of this organization has numerous questions around it. San Jose’s long run as a dominant force in the Pacific Division and consistent playoff team is over.

Overall, the Sharks should be proud of their recent surge toward a postseason berth. The club has recently received production from their top nine forwards and offensively gifted defensemen, which is key in the team’s success beyond this season. If San Jose can continue seeing production from Hertl, Meier, Blacers, and Leonard, they will be ready for postseasons beyond 2021.