The San Jose Sharks have made it clear: the club is not in a position to rebuild. As president Jonathan Becher relented in a recent press conference, the team is “highly unlikely — and I never say never — highly unlikely to go through a proacted rebuild.”
That left all the more confusion regarding Tomas Hertl, the club’s top center the last four seasons. The 28-year-old pivot was at the end of his bridge deal which paid him $5.625-million annually and was likely to command a lucrative return at the upcoming NHL Trade Deadline. Shouldn’t a team comfortably outside the postseason deal away that player for a large package of prospects and picks, and build for the future?
Well, the Sharks have now cleared up Hertl’s future. The former 17th-overall selection put pen-to-paper on an 8-year deal that will see him earn $65.1-million through the 2029-30 season. At a $8.1375-million cap hit, he is the 14th-highest-paid NHL center this year, just ahead of Logan Couture’s $8-million average annual value (AAV).
This contract will have the Sharks locked into just over $42.6-million AAV on five players: Hertl, Couture, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. A likely buyout for Vlasic could help that number, but the franchise should also anticipate a healthy raise for Timo Meier at the 2023 offseason.
Hertl’s Contract: Great in a Vacuum
As assistant general manager Joe Will, whose currently acting as GM in Doug Wilson’s medical absence put it, “Tomas has evolved into a premier top-line centerman in the league, competing against the NHL’s best players every single night and delivering significant results… there are few centermen in the NHL with his combination of physical and dynamic play.”
That’s a fair assessment. As JFresh’s player card illustrates, the Czech forward is one of the most well-rounded NHL centers. He makes a large impact on the offensive zone, team’s defensive play, and power play.
With a turnstile of wingers that includes Meier, Alexander Barabanov, Rudolfs Balcers, and Matt Nieto among others, Hertl has put up 25 goals and 48 points in 59 games. He is tied for first in goals and second in points for San Jose this season. His 21 even-strength goals are tied for 13th in the NHL.
Hertl is on pace to match his career-high in goals he set in 2018-19, with 35. He is one of three Sharks forwards with a positive on-ice goals%, with San Jose scoring 53 percent of goals with him on the ice. The club controls expected-goals three percent better with Hertl on the ice, second among forwards behind Meier.
All this is to say, Hertl is a top-20, maybe top-15, NHL center given his quality two-way impact and even-strength scoring rate. Adding in his fun-loving personality and fan-favorite status among Sharks’ supporters, this deal makes a lot of sense. So, what’s the worry?
The Sharks’ Contract Situation: A Lengthy Breakdown
To be clear, the Sharks were one of the most competitive clubs throughout the last two decades. From the 2003-04 season to the 2018-19 season, the organization missed the postseason three times, one of which was due to the 2004-05 lockout.
When looking at the contracts on the team, it should be expected they had to highly compensate players for their high-level of play on a perennial contender. But, those deals have not worked out.
I’ll start with Vlasic. Given his $2.5-million bonus for 2022-23, his likely buyout becomes most palatable in the following offseason. He currently costs $7 million against the cap through the 2025-26 season. However, he’s played third-pairing minutes for most of this season, when not scratched.
The team has $19.5 million locked into Burns and Karlsson. The Swede, the NHL’s highest-paid defenseman, has enjoyed a bounce-back season in terms of on-ice impact. With eight goals and 28 points in 36 games, he’s been stellar. However, upper-body injuries have sidelined him for 23 games this season, and the Sharks are 7-10-6 in those games.
Burns, who has averaged an insane 26:20 of ice-time this season, has been stretched too far this season. With an insane quality of competition, he’s put up 40 points in 59 games, with a large amount coming on the Sharks’ recently resurgent power play. He has been a negative impact on controlling even-strength scoring this season, however that is in part due to his usage.
Additionally, fellow center Couture makes $8 million annually. He’s recently regained his scoring touch and has 20 goals and 44 points in 55 games. This .8 points-per-game rate is his best since 2018-19 and he’s carrying the second-best impact on expected-goals among Sharks skaters, behind only Meier.
While some of these players have rebounded, as a group they’re going to decline with age. The youngest of them is Karlsson, 31 years-old, with a lengthy injury history. With Hertl, the Sharks have added yet another large contract to a core that is already failing to push for the playoffs.
Sharks Will Hope for Youth Support
Over half of next season’s salary will be spent on these five skaters. Ahead of the trade deadline, Alexander Barabanov and Jacob Middleton are the prime suspects for trades sending players away. Both of their contracts will expire this offseason and the Sharks already have Mario Ferraro and Jonathan Dahlen to sign, but they are restricted free agents.
Next season, the Sharks will need to hope for rookie contracts to make large contributions. William Eklund will be the most notable, but Ryan Merkley will probably make the full-time jump to the NHL next season as well. Other young players that could contribute include the currently rostered Scott Reedy and John Leonard, plus any of the top 2020 Draft prospects like Ozzy Wiesblatt, Thomas Bordeleau, and Tristen Robins among others who should turn professional next season.
The Sharks have to rely on cheap contracts to support their highly-paid core. The current roster has not done enough to make the postseason, and Wilson has little cap space to sign a marquee free agent this offseason. Rookie contracts will be the primary way the Sharks can add to their current group of players.
What do you think of the Sharks re-signing Hertl? Let me know in the comments!
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!