When the NHL free agency period begins on Oct. 9 at 9 a.m. PST, San Jose Sharks’ general manager Doug Wilson will have around $14 million in cap room to spend in free agency, looking to turn the Sharks around from one of their worst seasons in team history. To Wilson’s credit, he’s already done that once, signing players such as Paul Martin and Joel Ward in the 2015 offseason, who contributed to the Sharks’ incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16. I’ll be taking a look at what the Sharks’ needs are when free agency rolls around and who they should target.
One of the key things that contributed to the Sharks’ success in 2018-19 was depth scoring. They could rely on players such as Joonas Donskoi, Marcus Sorensen, and Barclay Goodrow to provide scoring on the third and fourth lines. Now, with Sorensen the only player on that team still around, the Sharks have had to rely on players such as Noah Gregor, Stefan Noesen, and Dylan Gambrell to provide goals from the third and fourth lines, and that didn’t really go as planned this season.
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The Sharks’ biggest need right now, though, is a solid goaltender. Martin Jones once again finished his season with a sub-.900% save percentage. While his understudy, Aaron Dell, had a better season than him, he had his own struggles, with a .907% save percentage (SV%). The two Sharks goalies had a combined goals saved above average (GSAA) of -17.8. Only the Red Wings had a worse team GSAA, with Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier combining for a shocking -37.1 GSAA.
The Sharks, simply put, need better performances out of their goaltenders if they want to get back on track next season. Even with Josef Korenar and Alexei Melnichuk in the pipeline, the team needs a short-term fix until one of them, or both, are ready for the NHL level. With that in mind, here are some players the Sharks should consider taking a look at in free agency.
Fast would address the Sharks’ need for third-line scoring, coming off of a season in which he tallied 29 points, scoring 12 goals and 17 assists while averaging around 16 minutes of ice time per game.
Fast’s role was elevated with the Rangers this season — in previous seasons, Fast received third-line ice time, from 13 to 15 minutes per game. But with the arrival of Artemi Panarin, he began seeing the second line a lot more often, playing alongside Panarin and Ryan Strome. While his Corsi for percentage (CF%) was below 50%, this may have more to do with the Rangers’ weakness on defense than it has to do with him, as the entire CF% of the Rangers was 46.6%.
The Sharks could use another second/third-line scorer with Kevin Labanc’s disappointing season, and Fast provides that.
Jimmy Vesey has yet to deliver on the promise that the former Hobey Baker Award winner brought with him when he signed an entry-level contract with the New York Rangers in 2016. However, Vesey has shown that he can be an effective player at the NHL level, having scored more than 15 goals in each of his first three seasons.
While he may not have had the same scoring touch this season in Buffalo as he did in Manhattan, Vesey improved defensively with the Sabres, with a CF% of 49.5%. This doesn’t sound that great until you take his CF% in his three years with the Rangers into account — he had percentages of 44.7%, 45.2, and 46%. Should the Sharks choose to target him, they’ll be getting a bit of a wild card, but it would be a low-risk, high-reward deal for the Sharks.
Craig Smith has been an important part of a perennially contending Nashville Predators squad. He had yet another strong season with Nashville, totaling 31 points (18 goals, 13 assists), even with his role being diminished, averaging 13 minutes of ice time compared to his 15 minutes last season.
Smith’s underlying numbers have also been very solid for the majority of his career. Smith’s CF% this season was 55.2%, the highest on the Predators for skaters who’ve played more than 10 games this season. He also excelled at creating expected goals (xGF) this season, second-best on the Preds with an xGF% of 56.9%. The Predators will be strapped for cash this offseason, with only $9 million in cap room, so if Smith hits the free agent market because of this, the Sharks should be all over him.
The signing of Cam Talbot by the Calgary Flames in the previous offseason may have been a head-scratcher for the C of Red and hockey pundits alike — Talbot had just come off of a season where he couldn’t get it together, posting a sub-.900 SV% with the Edmonton Oilers before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, but his struggles didn’t stop there. He finished his four-game tenure in Philadelphia with an .881 SV% and a 3.70 goals against average (GAA).
However, the signing of Talbot has paid big dividends for the Flames. The 33-year-old from Caledonia, Ontario, had a strong 2019-20 season, with a .919 SV% and a 2.63 GAA. His GSAA also vastly improved from a dismal -18.14 the previous season to 7.53. His strong season comes at a relatively cheap price for the Flames, to the tune of a $2.75 million cap hit.
However, with a capable backup in Jon Gillies waiting in the wings and prospects like Tyler Parsons, Artyom Zagidulin and Dustin Wolf in the pipeline, Talbot may not stick around in Calgary after this season. If that is the case, the Sharks should certainly consider making a run at him.
Robin Lehner has done a lot of relocating in the past two years, moving from Long Island to Chicago and now to Vegas, but wherever he’s moved, success has followed him. After he bet on himself by signing a one-year, $5 million deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, he continued the success that he found with the Islanders in Chicago, albeit a step down from his absolutely remarkable play in Long Island.
In the 33 games he played with the Blackhawks, he had a .918 SV% and a 3.01 GAA before being sent to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Malcolm Subban, Slava Demin and a second-round pick in 2020.
Lehner started three games for Vegas before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the NHL regular season to a halt and then a close, posting a .940 SV% and a GAA of only 1.67. Should Lehner hit the free agent market, he’ll most likely be looking for a situation in which he can get a good number of starts. For the right price and term, the Sharks can surely offer that to him.
Alexandar Georgiev has a different situation going for him than the rest of the free agents that I’ve mentioned — he will be a restricted free agent when the offseason commences. This means that the Rangers have the option to match any offer sheet that Georgiev signs with another team. The Rangers’ goaltending situation has been much discussed as of recently, with Henrik Lundqvist’s future in New York currently unknown and Igor Shesterkin looking like a star in the making thus far.
For this reason, the Sharks should consider signing Georgiev to an offer sheet this October. He had a decent season with the Rangers, posting a .910 SV% and a 3.04 GAA. The only issue the Sharks might have with signing him is figuring out the right price for him.
Gord Miller of TSN reported last year that the compensation for an offer sheet with an average annual value (AAV) of $1,395,045 to $2,113,716 would be a third-round pick, and an AAV of $2,113,717 to $4,227,437 would cost teams a second-round pick. The Sharks won’t have their second-round pick next year as it was traded to the Ottawa Senators in the Erik Karlsson trade, so they will need to play their cards right if they wish to sign Georgiev to an offer sheet.
The Kevin Labanc Situation
Before the Sharks can sign free agents, they’re going to have to figure out what to do with one of their own restricted free agents. Kevin Labanc is set to become a restricted free agent, and I would certainly expect the Sharks to give him a qualifying offer. The biggest issue for them, though, is figuring out what he’s worth now and how to go about signing him, if at all.
After Labanc bet on himself by signing a one-year, $1 million contract last July to stay in San Jose, he wasn’t able to replicate the scoring success that he had last season. He finished the regular season with only 33 points, a 26-point drop-off from the previous season, in which he had 56. Despite his scoring taking a hit, the Sharks would be foolish to give up on him now — his CF% of 55.4% was the highest on the team of players who skated in 10 or more games. My guess is that Wilson will keep Labanc around with a three-year deal around $2.5 to $3.5 million per year.