After a 6-0 battering by the Vegas Golden Knights, the San Jose Sharks have finished the season 21-28-7. This sees the club currently sixth-worst in points-percentage in the league and finishes second-worst in the top-heavy Honda West Division.
The Sharks will look toward a busy offseason filled with a high 2021 NHL Draft selection, Seattle Expansion decisions, and numerous restricted free agents (RFAs) to bring back. This offseason will show if general manager Doug Wilson will opt to rebuild or re-tool to return to the postseason after two seasons of missing.
Regardless of how you feel in the comment section below about rebuilding vs. not rebuilding, Wilson will have a huge decision this offseason about how he continues the future of his club on the wing. Especially with Alexander Barabanov seeing huge success alongside Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane, he has secured a one-way contract and presumably large role entering the 2021-22 season.
So, what does this mean for the numerous wingers the Sharks have in their arsenal. For starters, I would foresee the Sharks not signing any unrestricted free agent wingers and the departure of legend Patrick Marleau, Matt Nieto, and Kurtis Gabriel.
With quite a few RFAs, including Rudolfs Balcers and Ryan Donato looking to stay in San Jose, John Leonard and other rookies looking to gain larger roles, and clear-cut starters like Timo Meier wanting to keep roles, the Sharks simply have too many wingers entering next year.
So, I think it’s important to look at the only position the Sharks have depth entering next season, and how likely every forward is to return in teal next season.
The “Need to Keep ‘Em” Group
Kane headlines this group. In my opinion, no player on this list is considered “untouchable,” but the only way I see him not returning is if the bankruptcy drama continuing. In 56 games, the 29-year-old had a resurgent season with 22 goals and 49 points. Unless his bankruptcy filings eventually result in contract termination, I would be shocked if Kane did not return.
I cannot see a world where Barabanov is not a Shark next year. Acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs and recently signing a one-year extension, he tallied three goals and seven points in nine games on Hertl’s wing. His play is likely elevated by his linemates, but his production for San Jose was a pleasant surprise and he’s surely locked a roster spot heading into next season.
Of the youngsters on this list, Leonard is probably the winger with the highest upside. In his rookie season, after dominating college hockey in 2019-20 with 27 goals in 33 games, the 22-year-old tallied three goals and 13 points in 44 games. His ice time was lackluster, as were his teammates after he saw demotion to the bottom six, and adjusting for ice time, he was eighth in points per 60 minutes of ice time. His goal-scoring ways did not carry over into the NHL this season, and he will be 23 starting next season, but he has a ton of potential to be a quality goal scorer for San Jose.
Last on this list, I cannot see a scenario in which the Sharks move Sasha Chmelevski. He had an extremely slow start for the San Jose Barracuda due to him beginning 2020-21 on the taxi squad and having limited ice time. However, when moved from center to winger later this year, he exploded, potting nine points in his last four games. He added two assists in five NHL games. Turning 22 soon, Chmelevski has lots of room to grow and with his recent success, I cannot see the team dealing him away this offseason.
Probably Not a Great Idea, but Could Happen
There are some players where I feel the team probably does not want to deal them, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Meier likely returns in teal, but after he saw constant fluctuation up and down the lineup, in a season where every player was struggling, yet he was the target for demotion, I could see the 24-year-old be dealt.
Meier had a poor season by his standards. The Swiss power forward had at least 20 goals each of his first three full seasons, including 30 goals in 2018-19, and he led the team in points in 2019-20. However, 12 goals and 31 points in 54 games is not the expectation for him. He still finished tied for third on the team in goals despite this slump, and given his prior success, I cannot see Wilson trading Meier unless it’s a massive trade or the beginning of a rebuild.
Balcers started hot with the Sharks, even warranting a top-six role at multiple points in the season, but finished with just eight goals and 17 points in 41 games. He showed flashes of brilliance, and warrants a middle six role, and was a quality waiver pick-up early this season. Just one point in his last seven games, he finished poorly and likely receives extension from the Sharks.
Ivan Chekhovich, 22-years-old, had a dominant 2020-21 KHL season with 17 goals and 34 points in 43 games. When returning to North America, he tallied only two goals and seven points in 17 AHL games. He had one assist in four NHL games and was only given limited ice time. I think San Jose should wait and see what they have in Chekhovich before considering dealing him. Players will take time adjusting back to smaller rinks, and if he can return to his form from the KHL, he could be a great NHLer.
Much More Likely
This is the point of the list where I need to make something clear. I do not think all of the below players will be dealt. But, seeing as the Sharks have a lack of draft capital for a team that needs to better their prospect pool and have glaring weaknesses at right defense, goaltender, and center, I could see these forwards being dealt in multiple scenarios.
Kevin Labanc stands atop this list. In his first of a four-year deal worth $4.75 million annually, he had an up and down season that overall fell below the expectation when he was signed long-term. However, sixth on the team in points and tied for third in goals is not bad. 2018-19 saw Labanc score 56 points from the third line, and he’s yet to recreate the promise shown that season. With the Sharks’ depth at winger and his large price tag, I could see the team moving on from him.
It will be interesting to see how Wilson values Ryan Donato this offseason. He has the versatility also to play center but played most of his 50 games on the wing. Six goals and twenty points were not the expectation when he acquired from Minnesota, but to reiterate, nearly every player had lacking production for San Jose. He will be an RFA this summer and could see movement given the wing depth San Jose possesses.
Also with the versatility to play center is Noah Gregor. With five even-strength goals and one assist, he was not too quality in the 30 NHL games he played. However, his three goals and nine points in 10 AHL games saw him look too quality for that level. An RFA needing a new contract, the speedy forward seems to be in purgatory between the AHL and NHL and would need to battle for a roster spot at camp.
Joachim Blichfeld seems in a similar spot. He was tied for the lead in goals and first in points on the Barracuda. He is the same age as Gregor, 22, and his 12 goals and 22 points in 25 AHL games show he was too good for that level. He added one goal in five NHL games, where he was given limited ice time, and would also find himself in a roster battle at training camp when he could likely receive more time on a club less loaded at wing.
Jonathan Dahlen will move from the Allsvenskan, the second division of Swedish hockey where he led the league in points and was second in goals, to San Jose. He will be a fascinating case study to see how a second division Swedish dominant talent translates to the NHL. He will look to continue his offensive dominance in North America, but given the Sharks’ impressive wing depth, he may not remain in teal.
Using Depth to Fill Other Gaps
Each team needs just eight wingers, and currently, I see the Sharks’ best entering next season as Kane, Meier, Labanc, Barabanov, Balcers, Leonard, Donato, and Gregor. This leaves so many youngsters to continue their AHL dominance and not see the NHL time they warrant.
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Considering the Sharks have a regressing Logan Couture and no offensively gifted third center to eventually grow into the top six, glaring defensive depth issues, and lack a starting NHL goalie, the Sharks do not need these many wingers. I would not be surprised to see the Sharks move two or three of their wingers to gain value on the current roster or in the draft.
Besides Dahlen, I am confident all these wingers are or will be NHL-level players that the Sharks lack roster spots for. These players all have value that the Sharks should cash out to maximize their assets. Gregor and Blichfeld may not start on this club, but their talent would see them gain roles on teams that lack offensive skills.
The Sharks have numerous glaring needs that must be solved in the short and long-term future, and using their plethora of wingers will surely allow the club to become more well-rounded.