The San Jose Sharks look to be outclassed in the Honda Western Division. After an embarrassing loss at home to the Minnesota Wild, the Sharks enter seven games against the three best clubs in their division, the Vegas Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues, and Colorado Avalanche.
With subpar goaltending and rough defensive play, the Sharks have little optimism surrounding their playoff chances. Thus, it is of my opinion that the team needs to think more future-focused. However, the Sharks have many long-term contracts, locking up money in players who are currently no longer stars, and likely decline more with age.
In my opinion, the organization has three options to structure their rebuild/retooling, which vary in degrees of length and movement of large contracts. To be clear, this is not based on rumors, simply looking at the Sharks’ current contracts and how the team could build a better roster for the future, in my opinion.
Gambling on More Bounce-Back Seasons
This is the most tame of the options I can provide. This option looks similar to how the Sharks tried building for the current season. They traded virtually everyone with an expiring deal at the trade deadline for assets. However, Brenden Dillon and Barclay Goodrow returned more assets than the Sharks can expect from their likely trade assets this season.
Matt Nieto, Marcus Sorensen, Stefan Noesen, Patrick Marleau, and Devan Dubnyk would be the likely trade candidates for San Jose ahead of the trade deadline. These returns would likely span in the range of fourth through seventh round selections. While these returns are not great, the Sharks historically have late-round drafting success, and these depth of picks could help replenish a depleted prospect pool.
At the expansion draft, the Sharks would protect their current best players. The likely candidate to be taken by Seattle would be Radim Simek in this scenario, or one of the younger depth forwards the Sharks currently possess, such as Dylan Gambrell or Alex True.
At the NHL Draft, the Sharks will likely look at defensemen. The organization has one right-handed defensive prospect, and while Ryan Merkley is one of the team’s best prospects, they should add more highly skilled defensemen. Brandt Clarke is the only right-handed defenseman at the top of the draft, but the team could also look for Luke Hughes, Owen Power, or Simon Edvinsson to improve their defensive prospect depth. The team’s selection would probably not play in the season after being picked.
In free agency, the Sharks would likely add more depth pieces. While the Sharks have a plethora of young wingers, and their right defenseman would be set with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Merkley, the team would have holes to fill. With $12.3 million in cap space, the Sharks would also have a few restricted free agents to retain, mainly Ryan Donato.
The club would need to add a true third-line center, possibly a left-handed defenseman, and goalie depth to begin replacing aging Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones. If the Sharks receive contributions from highly paid former stars such as Logan Couture, Karlsson, and Burns the team can be quality, but that same core has still led to their poor 2020-21 season’s start.
Trying to Rid One Large Salary
This option is a little more extreme than the previous, but could be better for the franchise long term. In this scenario the Sharks would approach the trade deadline and entry draft the same way as the previous season, but expansion draft and free agency strategies differ immensely.
San Jose has so many brutal contracts, and while some of these players produce well currently, many are signed for the next four to six seasons and cannot be expected to continue that success into their late 30s. In the 2021 offseason, the Sharks must look to move one of the salaries.
In my mind the team has two candidates: Burns and Evander Kane. As previously discussed, the Sharks have a plethora of young wingers, and while Kane is currently the best winger on the roster, he could be viewed as expendable. Similarly, with Karlsson signed until 2026-27 and Merkley primed to soon make an NHL impact, the team could see Burns as just another right-handed offensive defenseman.
Ridding the team of one of these salaries would be difficult, and probably require payment from the Sharks. With a flat salary cap for the foreseeable future, many NHL teams are tight on money, driving the cost up even further. At the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, the team could leave both of these players exposed, but that may not be enough.
Both players are under contract until 2024-25, meaning Burns would be 39 years old and Kane would be 32. Most general managers would be hesitant to gamble on players that will surely regress by the end of their contracts, so Doug Wilson would have to entice them to take this chance. Either at the expansion draft or in a trade, the Sharks would combine draft picks and/or prospects to increase value for a team to take on one of these players.
Obviously, modified no-trade clauses make this move tough, but not totally out of the realm of possibility. Then, the Sharks use the $7 or $8 million in cap space gained from the deal to replace the traded player, sign a starting goalie, and have financial stability for the future. In the 2022 offseason, the Sharks will have Tomas Hertl and Mario Ferraro to re-sign, and moving a large salary makes retaining both much more realistic.
This option is a good mediation of the three scenarios. Trading one large salary allows the team financial stability, and the ability to supplement the aging core. While moving a salary and fan-favorite player is tough, the value of financial stability can outweigh that loss long term.
Full Scale Rebuild
As Doug Wilson and long time fans of the team collectively groan, I want to state that I see this as the least likely scenario, but not fully outside of the realm of possibility. A full rebuild is something the Sharks have not seen recently, and not a path characteristic of the team’s general manager. However, with an aging core and some recent drafting success, it would make sense to mortgage the present to create a dominant future.
In a rebuild, any player over 25 years old is likely moved in the name of obtaining assets and giving young players opportunities to develop in the NHL. Although, the Sharks are in a tough situation to do this. Players such as Couture, Vlasic, Karlsson, Burns, Kane, and Jones could be seen as having negative value in trade given their large contracts.
This makes the 2021 Trade Deadline a weird situation, because the Sharks long-term contract players are difficult to move given their perceived value and their no-trade-clauses. Thus, the team could look to move any players the team does not have in their long-term plans.
Hertl would top this list of targets. His a fan favorite, but the 27-year-old center would garner much interest given his affordable contract and past success. Two seasons removed from a 35 goal and 74-point campaign, he would return a large package, a combination of prospects and probably a first-round selection.
At the 2021 deadline, Simek could also be moved. He likely would be on the third pairing for his next three seasons under contract, and the 28-year-old would take a roster spot from a younger option with more potential. Ryan Donato, who possesses some nice puck skills, was demoted to the fourth line against the Wild recently. He’s still 24, but if the Sharks do not see the player in their future plans with his contract expiring, they could trade Donato.
Ridding the team of these players by the end of 2021, and similarly trying to move a large contract in the offseason and at the expansion draft, the Sharks would play a young and unproven roster, likely tanking in the 2021-22 season as well. In the 2022 offseason, the team could bite the bullet on Jones, buying out his contract. The Sharks would probably have to wait a little longer to buy out other deals, given their term and structure.
The Sharks have seen some nice play early from their 2020 draft class in junior leagues and high picks in 2021 and 2022 could set the team up to be quite successful, after a few seasons. This option probably seems drastic, and is the least likely of the provided scenario. However, it likely projects as the best idea for the team to be successful in the next five seasons.
What Option Will the Team Choose?
I think the Sharks will look toward the second option, and try moving one large salary. Wilson likely has faith in his current core, especially with Couture and Kane producing well this season. The Sharks’ general manager paid his core handsomely, and is starting to see the price of contending for so many seasons.
However, I see a lot of value in the nuclear option, and performing a quick but intense rebuild. If the Sharks tanked for two seasons, Thomas Bordeleau who is having a stellar season at the University of Michigan, would be ready for NHL impact in 2022-23 along with the high selections in 2021 and 2022.
The tame first option leads to more of what the team is doing currently. The Sharks have a very small chance to make the playoffs, and the value of selecting highly far outweighs the value of entering a playoff series as a huge underdog.
The franchise will soon make a huge decision about their future. The Sharks may enter a long rebuild, uncommon for a team that has not missed consecutive playoffs since 1996 and 1997. However, the team’s bleak current outlook leads one to believe they must take decisive action in order to maximize assets and have a great future.