The bulk of the San Jose Sharks’ offseason is complete, as general manager Doug Wilson believes the roster he possesses is worthy of playoff contention. The retention of Kevin Labanc, trades for Ryan Donato and Devyn Dubnyk, and signings of Stefan Noesen, Matt Nieto, and Patrick Marleau appear to be the majority of Wilson’s offseason, however, forward and defensive depth appears to still be needed. Nonetheless, these are likely the lines for the Sharks with the current roster under contract:
Evander Kane-Logan Couture-Timo Meier
Marcus Sorensen-Alex True-Noesen
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Erik Karlsson
Radim Simek-Brent Burns
Mario Ferraro-Ryan Merkley
(Scratched or Possible Call-ups: Dylan Gambrell, Antti Suomella, Noah Gregor, John Leonard, Jacob Middleton)
Top 6 Forwards
The first line is very strong from the Sharks’ perspective. The two wingers were the club’s most prominent goal scorers last season: Meier who had 22 goals and 49 points, and Kane with 26 goals and 47 points. These two former 30-goal scorers would be centered by Couture’s 16 goals and 39 points in an injury-shortened 2019-20 season. He remarkably had an even zero plus/minus rating, and his solid two-way game would complement the offensive prowess of his wingers well.
Contrasting the well-roundedness and power of the first line is the second line which will clearly be carried by Hertl. The 26-year-old power forward had 16 goals and 36 points in another very injury-riddled season, after a stellar 35-goal and point per game 2018-19 season. However, the complementary wingers will not be as impressive.
This offseason the Sharks improved their top forward depth, acquiring Donato from the Minnesota Wild for a 2021 third-round pick, that San Jose received from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has a low floor and high ceiling, returning from a 14 even-strength goal, and 23-point season, despite a hot start in the NHL with the Boston Bruins and Wild. Labanc, fresh off signing for four years with a $4.75 million cap hit, had 14 goals and 33 points, after 56 points on the third line the prior season. The second line lacks star power, however, the line does have a high ceiling to perform well this season, if it can remain healthy and consistent.
The third line is quite worrisome. Former Colorado Avalanche winger, Nieto, was effective as a third or fourth-line player for Colorado, and defensively reliable at even strength and on the penalty kill. He does, however, lack the offensive upside the Sharks had on their third line in 2018-19, when it was very effective offensively. Marleau returns to San Jose for his third tour of duty, and his solid offensive impact is deserving of a third-line role. He had 11 goals and 22 points with the Sharks and Penguins last season.
The Sharks’ center depth after Hertl and Couture is worrisome. The loss of Joe Thornton, in addition to his impact as a voice and leader, will be felt on the depth chart. Kellman, True, Suomela, Gambell, and Gregor are all young, unproven, and underwhelming options. Kellman was a lock on the roster at the end of the season, because of his defensive consistency, and True has nice size and was the only rookie last season with a positive impact above replacement level, so they appear to be the centers for now.
Sorensen and Noesen are both defensively acceptable and lack strong offensive impact, but have both earned roster spots. A possible youngster to crack into the roster is rookie Leonard. The 22-year-old played exceptionally last season at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst after being drafted in the sixth-round in 2018, notching 27 goals and 37 points in 33 games. This roster core lacks superstar talent, but the depth is very improved.
The Sharks’ payroll is headlined by $27.5 million against the cap locked onto three defensemen for the next five years. Despite the Norris Trophies and expensive contracts, the defensemen are likely the most worrisome position for the Sharks. The first pairing (at the low price of $18.5 million) is a boom or bust selection. Vlasic used to be an incredibly solid defensive player, but the prominence of turnovers and unreliability in his own zone the last two seasons are not promising. He should be paired with a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Karlsson.
Unfortunately, Karlsson is also not the player he used to be. The 30-year-old had 40 points last season, which is great for a defenseman, but the mental errors coupled with the regressing speed to return to his own zone knocks down his status as an elite defenseman. The time off should benefit both players, especially the injury-prone Karlsson, but does not guarantee a career resurgence for either player.
Speaking of aging handsomely paid offensive defenseman, Burns will likely be paired with Simek on the second pairing. This same pairing was sensational in brief time in the 2018-19 season and November of the most recent season. However, the long-term success of the pairing is not guaranteed. Burns and his sensational wrist shot had 12 goals and 45 points last season, but also lacks defensive reliability. Simek is an adequate defensive defenseman, if he can remain consistently healthy. The contrasting style between the two defensemen complements each other well, but rekindling past success is key and not guaranteed.
The bottom pairing will likely be a mess if it remains this way. Ferraro was the only Sharks rookie to play over 60 games last year, and at 22, he looks to be a future top-four defenseman. However, as most rookies are, he was inconsistent on coverage and turnovers in his own zone. The former University of Massachusetts Minuteman, as of now, will likely be paired with the 20-year-old former first-round pick, Merkley.
Merkley was over an assist per game and had 15 goals for his OHL club last season. While his London Knights coach says his supposed attitude problems seem to be resolved, that does not guarantee NHL success. Defensive effort has always been a problem attached to Merkley, and his 5-foot-11 and 170-pound frame is not guaranteed to handle the NHL physicality.
Both young defensemen will be studs for the Sharks in the future, but currently paired together could lead to disaster. Middleton, 24, saw 10 games last season and would be a more physical option for the team’s bottom pairing. Overall, every Sharks defenseman must take a step, if not numerous steps, in a positive direction, in order to live up to their contracts and expectations.
The Sharks goaltending has been nothing short of atrocious for the last two seasons. They added another goaltender via trade this offseason, picking up Dubnyk and fifth and seventh-round draft picks in 2022. However, there is reason to believe that this trade does little to improve the position. First, the incumbent Jones will look to improve from his second consecutive horrific season. A second straight season at a .896 save percentage (SV%) is unacceptable, and well under the .910 league average.
Last season, he was also fifth-worst among goalies playing at least 25 games in goals saved above expected. Goalie coach, Evgeny Nabokov, was succeeding toward the end of the season in helping Jones improve, but the coach will have his hands full helping both netminders.
Dubnyk, remarkably, had a worse season than Jones. The 34-year-old managed a .890 SV% in 30 games last season, a huge step down from his NHL career average of .915. For reference, his teammate Alex Stalock had an average .910 SV% this past season.
Dubnyk was behind only Detroit’s Jimmy Howard for last place in goals saved above expected, for goalies playing at least 25 games. It should be noted Dubnyk and his wife dealt with family issues throughout last year, which impacted his play to some degree. This position was likely not upgraded to the amount the Sharks need to establish themselves as contenders.
The Sharks’ contracts and past trades signify a desire to contend for a playoff spot, and a Stanley Cup, however, the current roster does not signify that. The Sharks have about $3 million in cap space remaining, and glaring needs at third-line center and a third right-shot defenseman. And even if the team addresses these needs, team success is reliant on one of the goalies having a bounce-back season, Hertl and Karlsson remaining healthy, and rebound seasons from all the top wingers.