In a recent press conference, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson explained his thoughts on the status of his team. The Sharks are tied for second-to-last in the Honda West Division, eight points out of a playoff spot. Although a good performance against the Anaheim Ducks led to three consecutive wins, the chances of the team contending are slim to none.
However, Wilson did not seem fazed by the Sharks’ poor performance and coined a new term. Rather than committing to a rebuild, the GM indicated this season ought to be a ‘reset’ to contend again in 2021-22.
While fans would likely rather the GM rip off the band-aid and sell off their older players, it’s easy to see why a reset is in Wilson’s best interest. He indicated that he and owner Hasso Plattner have yet to discuss his future with the Sharks.
Wilson’s commitment to his core players has left the team with money spent long-term on former stars whose best days are behind them. If the Sharks are unable to rebound from the recent poor play, with the core Wilson has locked up long term, he could be on the hot seat. This is because if his roster cannot contend currently, the team will only become worse as these players regress with age and the team is unable to bring in more talent given limited funds. So, it makes sense to ‘reset’ the roster by bringing in young talent who can, hopefully, bolster the roster and keep Wilson’s job.
The Sharks’ Core Is Here to Stay
The Sharks are committed to the five players for at least the next four seasons, paying them each over $7 million per year: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Evander Kane, and Logan Couture. Kane and Couture have had terrific rebound seasons, while the other contracts look bad and will become worse over time.
Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy-winner, is in the second of an eight-year deal worth $92 million. He’s looked sharp since returning from a minor injury with solid transition play and offensive creativity that has led to six points in his last eight games, but he is not the player he used to be defensively. In his best games this season, he is even at controlling scoring chances for vs. against, making his bad games very poor.
With a full no-movement-clause and an $11.5 million cap hit, Karlsson will not be moved. However, he stated in a recent press conference that he wants no part in a rebuild, which is why he was relieved to be dealt to San Jose in 2018. His game is on an upward swing, so if the Swedish defenseman can maintain his recent offensive success, he will be a key part of the Sharks’ future.
Vlasic is a different story. A former stalwart defensive-defenseman, he has not been effective this season even in a sheltered role on the third pairing, having a 50% share of scoring chances, making him quite average. However, he is the most sheltered defenseman in terms of quality of competition faced, and defensive zone starts. In his third year of eight at a $7 million cap hit, Vlasic will be in San Jose long term. His no-movement clause and large salary make him unmovable. However, the left-handed defenseman turns 34 later this month and has regressed in each of the last three seasons. I think management is content moving forward with Mario Ferraro, Nikolai Knyzhov, and Radim Simek on the left side, which should make Vlasic a healthy scratch often in the future.
Brent Burns has produced offensively this season, with 14 points in 25 games, but defensively, he has not been solid. He is in the third season on an eight year deal that carries an $8 million cap hit, but possesses only a limited no trade clause. He would add value to many NHL rosters, but his long-term deal and hefty cap hit makes him difficult to move.
Wilson could expose Burns in the Seattle expansion draft or offer him to another organization, but the GM’s determination to ‘reset’ the roster would suggest that Burns will remain on the team. This is also true of Couture and Kane, who each have more than 10 goals and 20 points this season. Both forwards also have full no-trade clauses, so they too are here to stay.
Other pieces of the Sharks’ core include Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Tomas Hertl. While moving one of these players would bring in quality assets in return, Wilson’s commitment to a rebound season in 2021-22 means it’s unlikely the team will move on from these young talents who have reasonable contracts.
How Can Wilson Supplement the Core?
The Sharks have ten players under contract (non-entry level) for next season: Martin Jones, Burns, Karlsson, Vlasic, Radim Simek, Kane, Labanc, Meier, Couture, and Hertl. Despite just one goalie, four defensemen, and five forwards on that list, their combined salaries equal about 81% of the team’s $81.5 million cap limit. With roughly $15.7 million in available cap space, Wilson has to fill almost half his roster.
The most obvious way to do this is with rookies who make less than $1 million against the cap. In 2021-22, Ferraro and Knyzhov will still be earning their entry-level salaries though they play on the team’s top two defensive pairings. John Leonard will also be on his rookie contract next season and has earned a middle-six forward role.
Ryan Merkley, Sasha Chmelevski, and Ivan Chekhovich could make the team full-time next season, but would not be guaranteed roster spots if the Sharks are set on winning now. Netminder Alexei Melnichuk could slot in if needed but may need more seasoning in the AHL.
With the three rookies sure to be in the lineup next season, the Sharks would have $13 million in cap space with half their forward group and a goalie to sign. Wilson could free up cap space ahead of free agency if he buys out Jones’ contract, which is possible given its structure and, unfortunately, his rough play the last three seasons.
Jones has no remaining bonuses on his deal, and a buyout would save the team $3.8 million in cap space this season. The move is beneficial from 2021-22 to 2023-24 which is the tenure of the current contract. However, the team would endure $1.7 million in penalties from 2024-25 to 2026-27, making this move have a large impact on the very distant future of the franchise. There is value in increasing the team’s available cap space to $16.8 million entering free agency and moving a goalie who hasn’t recorded a save-percentage over .900 since 2017-18.
In restricted free agency, the Sharks must look to lock up their young wing core. Ryan Donato and Rudolfs Balcers are consistent contributors to the Sharks’ lineup and will surely be re-signed by the organization. Noah Gregor and Joachim Blichfeld have looked decent in their NHL stints, and would likely re-sign with the club.
However, the team will also need to add key pieces in order to improve and contend in 2021-22. The Sharks’ biggest position of weakness is their third-line center and their goaltending. Luckily, the goaltending market is filled with options, and with the flat salary cap for the near future, the price should not be too high. Petr Mrazek, James Reimer, and Jaroslav Halak could be signed for within the Sharks’ price range and without a long-term deal. Tuukka Rask, Frederik Andersen, Pekka Rinne, Antti Raanta, Linus Ullmark, and Jonathan Bernier are also set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, but these netminders likely re-sign with their current teams or be outside the Sharks’ price range. The Sharks may also look for an inexpensive backup if they buy out Jones.
There are less obvious options to find a center in free agency. If the Sharks want to help their future chances of winning the Cup, Wilson should consider signing Casey Cizikas, Carl Soderberg, Eric Staal and – all of them or and/or? Erik Haula. – why these players? again, are they affordable? The Sharks’ center depth was completely exposed when Hertl was out of the lineup with COVID-19, and even after his return, young offensively talented wingers such as Donato and Leonard are not aided offensively by Dylan Gambrell or Patrick Marleau.
My Take on the ‘Reset’
I expect the Sharks’ lineup as they lean into a “reset” to look something like this:
The expansion draft throws a wrench into this plan. I expect the Sharks to lose a young forward like Gambrell or Balcers. Protecting or not protecting Burns is a debate I will not settle now, but I would be shocked if the Kraken take on his hefty contract.
As I mentioned in a recent article regarding a possible Sharks rebuild, I argued that not tanking could harm the team’s future. Given the West Division’s powerhouse teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, the Sharks were not expected to compete for a playoff spot this season.
However, improvements to the roster would be just enough to sour the team’s chances at a high draft pick in 2022, a highly-touted draft class. This would also harm the Sharks ahead of the 2022 offseason, when Hertl, Ferarro, and Leonard all have expiring contracts. If the team commits more than a year of term to players this offseason, it could greatly impact the team’s chances of retaining important those pieces.
However, I understand Wilson’s approach. He must contend with the core he signed to long-term deals, so he can prove to ownership his lengthy contracts do not harm the franchise’s future. Yes, with this plan he would be doubling down on his mistakes, but that’s how I think Wilson will structure his “reset.”