Sharks Mailbag: Roster Moves & 2021-22 Lineup Prediction

The San Jose Sharks’ 2021 offseason has been quite eventful. The team lost Alex True to the Seattle Kraken, despite proven NHLers such as Dylan Gambrell and Radim Simek being available. The team then landed their second-highest ranked player for the 2021 NHL Draft in William Eklund.

After the entry draft’s conclusion, the team saw fit to add numerous forwards to the roster, including Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, Nick Merkley, and Lane Pederson to the club. The Sharks also signed veteran James Reimer to a two-year deal, after buying out Martin Jones.

Andrew Cogliano Dallas Stars
Andrew Cogliano, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With most of the offseason festivities ending, and sights set on development camp and preseason, I thought it worthwhile to kick off August with a mailbag. All the questions were submitted by followers of my Twitter (@JoshFrojelin).

2021-22 Season Outcomes

“What are the sharks best case, most likely and worst case scenarios” -@BigBoiBennothy

I’ll highlight two possible best case scenarios for the Sharks. The first of which is the goal every NHL team will embark on in a few months, trying to win the Stanley Cup. If Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns return to Norris Trophy-level defenders, the veteran forwards produce at levels seen in their prime, and Adin Hill becomes the team’s elite starting netminder, there’s a chance.

A little more likely but still improbable, the Sharks commit to using this season as a final poor season before the “re-tool” fully takes effect. The Sharks win the draft lottery, and are able to select generational talent Shane Wright first overall. The team has Wright, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture as their center depth moving forward, creating an elite 2022-23 team.

Logan Couture San Jose Sharks
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks (Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images)

However the worst case scenario, in my opinion, would see the Sharks improve marginally. Despite finishing fourth in the Pacific Division, the Sharks still miss the playoffs and select 16th overall in the NHL Draft. The team missing the playoffs and a top pick in 2022 is the worst case scenario for the team.

The most likely scenario is hard to tell, and comes down to the signings of the veteran forwards. The Sharks netminders will be significantly better, but if Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino show signs of aging and fail to become significant increases over the third center and fourth liners that they replaced from 2020-21, the Sharks could finish fifth or sixth in the division. If the signings pan out well or young forwards really produce, San Jose could make the playoffs.

Tomas Hertl’s Future

“Is Hertl the piece to build around regardless of his performance? Or is he trade bait as a consolation prize for the Eichel sweepstakes?” -@MDroppinMitts

I detailed this in an article earlier this month, under the asterisk that I could not foresee the team’s future free agency signings, making the financial commitment to Hertl long-term impossible to know.

Hertl is the Sharks’ best center, and ranks in the top 15-25 of NHL centers. The hardest part about trading the Czech 2012 first-rounder lies in the club’s lacking center depth. Behind him sees an aging and expensive Logan Couture, veteran Bonino, Dylan Gambrell, and unproven youngsters. Trading Hertl commits Doug Wilson to a rebuild.

Player Card via JFresh Hockey

From other teams’ perspectives looking at Hertl, it’s a tricky situation. Most Stanley Cup winners have an elite center, such as Brayden Point, Ryan O’Reilly, or Sidney Crosby, and Hertl is a tier or two under those players. The team trading for Hertl would need to either have another elite center or a sensational supporting cast.

Back to the Sharks, extending Hertl could be unattainable. Despite mainly small moves this free agency (and assuming Hill signs for ~$2.5 million annually), the Sharks will enter next offseason with eight forwards, four defenseman, two goalies, and $14-15 million in cap space. The Sharks will have restricted free agents Mario Ferraro, Nikolai Knyzhov, and perhaps John Leonard or Jonathon Dahlen costing a decent amount of cap space. The team should, at minimum, expect $7-8 million to extend those players.

Mario Ferraro San Jose Sharks
Mario Ferraro, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Between extending those youngsters and filling up the team with forwards on minimum deals, the Sharks will be a little under the $7.5 million annually I believe Hertl will deserve. The Sharks would perhaps move decent salaries in Radim Simek or Kevin Labanc if they are very keen to keep Hertl.

Hertl is a first-line center, capable of being the pivotal offensive or defensive focal point on a given line. The Sharks have no backup plan at first-line center, lest they be given a quality center prospect or draft one highly in 2022. I see Wilson finding a way to keep the fan favorite, via a team-friendly contract or moving salary to ensure the player returns. However, Hertl is not a franchise-altering talent. The current team would need a huge influx of talent around him to become more competitive, and he would be an attractive piece for any team looking to contend.

Sharks’ Offseason Plans

“The Sharks still have a decent amount of cap space. Should they try and upgrade further? Or wait until the trade deadline to either upgrade then if they are in contention or use that cap space again to facilitate trades for other teams?” -@oldstylin

Estimating a small deal for Noah Gregor and a decent bridge for Hill, the Sharks have around $3 million in cap space. Notably, the team has yet to add a new blueliner this offseason and has 13 total defensemen between the NHL and AHL. At minimum, Wilson will add another AHL defenseman.

I would guess Wilson is content with the current roster. He and Bob Boughner’s main issue last season, next to the goaltending, was forcing youngsters into roles they felt were too difficult for them. For forwards, the Sharks could currently roll a roster of solely one-way contracts if they desire.

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

With that, the Sharks’ main issue will be lack of game-breaking talent. Burns and Karlsson appear to be below the level of blueliners that led their teams to Stanley Cups, such as Victor Hedman or Alex Pietrangelo, despite their contracts. The Sharks need to bank on stars replicating their past performances in order to be competitive, because $3 million will not be enough to bring in a talent that will significantly alter their next season. Wilson likely adds minimally between now and training camp.

While $3 million is not an outstanding amount of cap space, it gives the Sharks wiggle room to lightly add or sell at the trade deadline.

Early Opening Lineup Projection

“On behalf of another fan: After the recent signings, what do you project to be the opening lineup for the Sharks?” -@erixkmo_

Early projections like this are difficult, because they are much more reliant on performance and chemistry built during training camp. With that in mind, this would be my prediction:

Timo Meier-Tomas Hertl-Kevin Labanc

Evander Kane-Logan Couture-Rudolfs Balcers

Jonathon Dahlen-Nick Bonino-Alexander Barabanov

Andrew Cogliano-Dylan Gambrell-Nick Merkley

Mario Ferraro-Erik Karlsson

Nikolai Knyzhov-Brent Burns

Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Radim Simek

Adin Hill

Noticeably, this team would lack a line with multiple U-25 players deployed together. This would be ideal in the eyes of Boughner, who was constantly frustrated deploying lines with numerous rookies last season. Youngsters like Leonard, Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, and Joachim Blichfeld would begin on the AHL roster. Matt Nieto serves as the healthy scratch.

All those youngsters will be competing for two third-line winger spots and a fourth-line role. However, I opted for Dahlen and Barabanov as they find themselves with the protection of one-way contracts.

Jonathan Dahlen
Jonathan Dahlen, Timra IK, Sweden (Creative Commons, C More)

I switched the defensive pairings in the top four. I feel that the Sharks really must leverage Karlsson as much as possible, and pairing him with the team’s best defensive defenseman sets him up for success. The second pairing would also pair two larger bodies together, and Knyzhov is a better skater than Ferraro to pair with the slowing Burns.

I really thought about adding Ryan Merkley to the team’s third pairing. Simek would be playing on his off-hand on the third pairing, after an underwhelming third NHL season. However, I see Merkley gaining NHL looks this year, but joining full-time next season with William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau also making large impacts while on rookie salaries.

The goaltending battle will be one of the main training camp competitions. I elected Hill as the starter mainly because of the large price given up to acquire him, and I expect his next contract to be above Reimer’s $2.25 million average annual value.

Early Offseason Thoughts

Overall, I’ve liked the offseason moved for the Sharks so far, namely the Bonino signing. His age is a little worrisome, but of the third-center options on the market he produced even-strength points at the best rate while being a defensive ace. He will also become one of the team’s best penalty-killing forwards.

Player Card via JFresh Hockey

The team’s ability to return to the postseason will now fall on the shoulders of highly paid players like Burns, Karlsson, and Couture performing at a high level. Team depth is no longer an excuse for San Jose.

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