Sharks’ Biggest Priority Should Be Re-Signing Karlsson

Now that the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline has passed, contract extension talks between the San Jose Sharks and star defenseman Erik Karlsson should begin to heat up. Due to a seemingly minor detail in the NHL CBA, Karlsson can now ink an eight-year extension with the Sharks as opposed to a seven-year deal.

It’s unclear whether Karlsson is interested in staying with the Pacific Division powerhouse long-term, as testing the free agency market for the first time in his career could be enticing. With the Sharks facing many decisions this offseason, re-signing the 28-year-old must remain the top priority.

Karlsson Is a Game Changer All Over the Ice

The 6-foot blueliner is widely regarded as one of the toughest defensemen to play against. He has a lethal combination of skill and speed, giving opponents nightmares at both ends of the rink. With plenty of time left in his career, Karlsson has built a resume that puts him on the fast track to the Hall of Fame.

In nine seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Karlsson won the Norris Trophy twice and added a pair of runner-up finishes. During a four-season stretch from 2013-17, the Swede was one of the NHL’s most consistently dominant skaters, racking up 293 points in 323 contests. He missed just five regular-season games and averaged over 27:30 of ice time per game during that span.

San Jose Sharks' Erik Karlsson Logan Couture
San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

In his first season as a Shark, he’s battled injuries which have hampered his offensive impact and overall performance. Even in a “down” season, Karlsson is one of the league’s premier blueliners. His 45-point total in 52 games isn’t impressive considering that he’s eclipsed the 60-point mark in five consecutive seasons. Still, his 0.86 points per game places him just outside the top-five among defensemen with at least 10 games played.

Using the same criteria, he leads all defensemen with a 59.2 Corsi percentage and 58.5 Fenwick percentage during 5-on-5 play. Playing with fellow elite defenseman Brent Burns has lessened some of the pressure and his 24:32 of ice time per game is the lowest he’s posted since the 2010-11 campaign. However, he’s starting over 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone for the first time since his rookie season.

San Jose Will Have to Be Creative in a Busy Offseason

The Sharks have seven skaters who will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, including Karlsson, captain Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton. The team is spending $11 million on Pavelski and Thornton alone this season. The former will likely demand a similar contract to his current one, giving him $6 million per season.

Meanwhile, it’s unknown whether Jumbo Joe will return for his age-40 campaign. He’s signed a one-year deal each of the last two offseasons, taking a $3 million pay cut this season. He is still a key member of San Jose’s forward group but he may be willing to take an even bigger pay cut next season with the team on the cusp of a Stanley Cup.

San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton Columbus Blue Jackets' David Savard
Joe Thornton’s contract could be the key to re-signing Erik Karlsson. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

On top of those two longtime Sharks, San Jose will also need to make a decision on deadline-acquisition Gustav Nyquist. The Detroit Red Wings retained roughly $1.4 million of his $4.7 million cap hit in order for the Sharks to remain cap compliant. The 29-year-old may look for a pay raise on his next deal, likely pushing the team out of the bidding war.

While Nyquist is a great middle-six winger, the biggest focus is finding the money to keep Karlsson. He’ll get paid more than his current $6.5 million cap hit. Burns signed an eight-year, $8 million AAV deal in 2016, but he was already 31 years old at the time. Between Karlsson’s current contract and Joonas Donskoi’s $1.9 million coming off the books, San Jose has nearly $8.5 million to keep the star defenseman. If needed, Melker Karlsson and his $2 million contract for next season would make an interesting trade candidate.

Brent Burns - Sharks
Will Karlsson earn a bigger contract than teammate Brent Burns? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sharks needs to be careful to avoid a cap nightmare. Two of the team’s big-bodied defensemen, Justin Braun and Brendan Dillon, will hit the open market during the 2020 offseason. Also, promising young winger Kevin Labanc will be a restricted free agent after this season.

This is going to be a pretty eventful 2019 offseason with so many roster spots up in the air. By trading several players and picks for Karlsson, San Jose made it clear that he was part of the team’s long-term plans and not just a rental. While retaining him has to be the biggest priority, management shouldn’t ruin their depth, putting them at a serious disadvantage in the near future.