Sharks Have Options to Improve Their Shallow Right Wing

Their 26th place finish in the NHL after the 2020-21 season confirms the San Jose Sharks have many holes in their lineup. Certainly, there are big concerns in net and down the middle, but right wing is a major area of weakness for the club, especially with reports that Kevin LaBanc, arguably their best right wing, is on the trade block. I’ll take a look at what options they have on the right side now, who’s coming down the pipeline, and who might be available in free agency.

Who Are the Internal Options?

According to Elite Prospects, the Sharks have the following players listed as right wingers with their handedness in parenthesis:

  • Timo Meier (L)
  • Kevin LaBanc (R)
  • Dylan Gambrell (R)
  • Alexander Barabanov (L)
  • Joachim Blichfeld (R)
  • Kurtis Gabriel (R)
  • Vladislav Kotkov (R)
  • Jake McGrew (R)
  • Ozzy Wiesblatt (R)
  • Tristen Robins (R)
  • Adam Raska (R)
  • Daniil Gushchin (L)
  • Brandon Coe (R)
San Jose Sharks Kevin Labanc
San Jose Sharks Kevin Labanc (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

The only natural right wing of the bunch is LaBanc, who played 16:25 of average time on ice and 2:10 of power-play time. LaBanc has been a serviceable player for the Sharks, though he certainly seems to have peaked in that 2018-19 season where he paced for 56 points. Aside from the offense, he is consistently near the top of the list of Sharks who are good defensively as measured by Corsi against per 60 minutes.

The only other three from that list who played regularly in the NHL this season were Meier, Gambrell, and Barabanov. Meier is a natural left winger and although he did play a lot of right wing this season, he looked a bit out of place at times. Even though playing his off-wing should have enabled him to get his shot off a little easier, his shots per game only rose to 2.9 from 2.8. This season his production cratered to his worst point pace since 2017-18.

Gambrell is a natural center so playing the wing was a bit unusual for him. Whether at wing or center, He seems like a player who is a marginal NHLer at this point. According to Evolving Hockey, his Corsi for minus Corsi against per 60 minutes was the second-worst on the team and much worse than last season. Barabanov certainly looked pretty comfortable on the right side, despite being a left shot in his limited action this season. He seems like he could be a long-term solution on the right side, especially if the Sharks trade LaBanc.

This hit by Joachim Blichfeld on Nathan MacKinnon earned him a two-game suspension from the NHL.

Looking at the players who have yet to play a significant role in the NHL, they have quite a few options of right-handed right-wingers. It makes me wonder if that was something they felt they needed to address in the 2020 NHL Draft, as four of them came from there. The closest to being NHL ready is Blichfeld, who seems to be on the cusp; however, he only played five games this season, partially due to a two-game suspension for the hit on Nathan MacKinnon on March 3, 2021.

So Who is Out There?

There are 26 right-handed right wingers that are unrestricted free agents this offseason. I’m not sure the Sharks could afford Kyle Palmieri and I don’t think they want Brandon Sutter. After those two with this highest expiring cap hit, there are some interesting options. I’m going to avoid restricted free agents for this exercise as many, if not most of them, will be re-signed by their current team. For all of these players, I’ll be listing them in decreasing order of their expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) metric according to Evolving Hockey. xGAR is a complex metric that takes many factors into account and is explained here.

Derek Ryan

Evolving Hockey projects Ryan to get between a one to two-year deal at just under $2 million cap hit per year. That is a tremendous value for a competent play-driving center who can also play right wing. Ryan was by far the best Calgary Flame forward in Corsi against per 60 minutes, nearly twice as good as Matthew Tkachuk, indicating his stout defensively. He is on the older side at 34, but he is a reliable 30 point guy who is defensively responsible and can shut down the best competition in the league. This type of depth at forward is exactly what the Sharks are sorely missing right now.

Joel Armia

Armia might be my favorite option, even though his xGAR is slightly lower than Ryan’s. Armia is 28, six years younger than Ryan, so he should be just exiting his prime. Not only does he have a higher career point pace than Ryan at 42, but he is also very physical, averaging 1.67 hits per game in his career. The Sharks could use that kind of physicality. The downside here is he is projected by Evolving Hockey to get a three-year contract at $3.183 million, which is probably a bit rich for the cap space poor Sharks.

Nikita Gusev

Gusev was a highly touted prospect prior to his arrival in the NHL. In his first season with the New Jersey Devils, he had a 55 point pace, which is excellent value for his $4.5 million cap hit. However, 2020-21 did not go very well and he ended up scratched almost as often as not. Once he got to the Florida Panthers, things seemed to turn around a bit with five points in 11 games. His poor performance this season likely means his next contract will be lower than his first. 

Nikita Gusev Florida Panthers
Nikita Gusev, Florida Panthers (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Evolving Hockey projects a three-year contract at $2.454 million per season as the most likely outcome, with a one-year deal being similarly likely. The 29-year-old Gusev seems like a perfect candidate for a team like the Sharks, where he can get plenty of ice time, especially if LaBanc is traded. That cap hit is also something the Sharks could live with and they might even give him a bit longer term to get the annual dollar amount down.

Bobby Ryan

Ryan is by far the highest drafted player on this list, going second overall in 2005. The Masterton Trophy winner has had a pretty good career, but things have not gone well for him in the last few years. He was struggling with alcohol addiction, and luckily, he seems to be on the road to recovery. 

Bobby Ryan Detroit Red Wings
Bobby Ryan, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

His production saw a bit of an improvement, too, as his 35 point pace on the Detroit Red Wings was good for sixth on the team for all players who started the year in Detroit. Perhaps the 34-year-old could find another gear late in his career with clarity from his addiction in San Jose. It would be a bit ironic after all those years battling the Sharks as a member of the Anaheim Ducks. He is the most affordable of the bunch at a predicted cap hit by Evolving Hockey of $1.124 for one season.  

Who Should the Sharks Sign?

I think the best value of this group is Gusev. He’s not that old and has shown he can produce at the NHL level. His poor season means the Sharks can likely get him at a discount and if he can do even close to what LaBanc did, he would be a more than serviceable replacement at a lower cap hit. I think Armia will be too expensive, though if they could get him at less than projected, I like that a lot. Derek Ryan is a very safe play that fits what Wilson has dubbed the “reset.” Bobby Ryan is more of a reclamation project, but I, for one, would love to see it. Let’s see if Wilson goes with one of these options or if he has a rabbit up his sleeve.

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