As many San Jose Sharks fans would like to, let’s forget last season ever happened. In fact, forget the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals run ever happened. Because, there is a move that almost happened in the 2018 offseason that could have made the Sharks a powerhouse, and have the best forward core in the league.
Of course, I am talking about the sweepstakes for 2018 free agent John Tavares. The former Islanders captain was linked with numerous teams, even the two Stanley Cup finalists of the ensuing season, the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins. However, the Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs were the final two teams in on the center.
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Tavares would have been an extraordinary addition. Although Tomas Hertl was close in 2018-19, the Sharks have not had a point-per-game forward since Joe Thornton reached that mark in 2015-16. With Tavares, the team could have gotten a consistent thirty-goal scorer, and often point-per-game center.
Unfortunately, the Sharks missed out. With large amounts of cap space and in need of a large move to bolster the roster for the upcoming season, Doug Wilson sought the services of Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy Winner. However, this was not a free agent signing, and on the first day of the 2018-19 training camp, the organization dealt assets that would surely benefit the current roster.
Obviously, Erik Karlsson’s contract, and many of the Sharks’ current deals, are magnified by lack of cap space from the NHL. For example, it was anticipated that 2019-20 would increase the salary cap to $83 million, however it was only $81.5 million. And, there was expected to be a large salary cap increase for the 2021-22 season due to the new NHL television rights contract being renewed, however, the pandemic has soured that opportunity. Commissioner Gary Bettman has speculated the salary cap will remain flat for the near future.
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So, when Wilson offered Tavares a seven-year deal rumored to be near $12-$13 million annually, this was done in anticipation of there being more cap space than there is currently. Regardless, if the Sharks had reeled in the big free agent, the current team could have one of the league’s best forward cores.
Elite Forward Depth
Missing Tavares has greatly affected the team’s center depth, however, a key piece of the Sharks’ current depth up the middle likely would not have returned. In light of Tavares’ announcement he was heading to Toronto, the Sharks announced the early extension of their current captain.
Although Logan Couture’s bridge contract was not set to expire until the 2019 offseason, Wilson decided to announce an eight-year extension for the center in 2018. This $64 million contract is hefty currently, and with seven years remaining will surely be brutal in the distant future.
So, in this imaginary world, the Sharks have Tavares and not Couture, which is not a magnificent difference with the Sharks’ captain having a quality 2020-21 season. However, the team’s center depth would improve greatly in other ways. In the Karlsson trade, Wilson dealt 2012 second-round selection Chris Tierney, and 2017 first-round pick Josh Norris. Both center iceman, these two would be quality centers for the club right now, much better than the current third and fourth line centers Dylan Gambrell and Patrick Marleau.
Tierney played on the third line ahead of heading to the Ottawa Senators, and he would be a quality member of San Jose currently. He ordinarily produces near a half-a-point per game, and would be a great compliment to the young wingers the Sharks have currently, like Ryan Donato and John Leonard.
Losing Norris is incredibly rough for San Jose. Only 21-years-old, the centerman has been terrific in his first full NHL season, with nine goals and 20 points through 39 games. He would certainly be the Sharks’ current third-line center and grow into an eventual top-six forward given his current age.
So, with this center core of Tavares, Hertl, Norris, and Tierney, Couture would, unfortunately, have departed the club in free agency most likely, because the Sharks would have no need for him. And with this extra cash, the Sharks could have surely retained one of the wingers they lost in 2019 free agency.
Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, and Jonas Donskoi all departed San Jose, and the Sharks felt the loss in their top six at the start of the 2019-20 season. These losses resulted in Lukas Radil and Lean Bergmann playing second line minutes at the start of the season, neither of which currently play in the NHL, and eventually, Patrick Marleau taking over the role.
The missing of these top six quality wingers is a large reason for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 rosters lacking offensive magnificence. If the Sharks had been able to keep their former captain Pavelski and continue slotting him at right winger, I’d imagine the forward core would look something like this:
Timo Meier-Hertl-Kevin Labanc
M. Nieto/M. Sorensen/B. Goodrow-Tierney-Gambrell
But you may be asking: “Wouldn’t the Sharks’ defense core be horrid without Erik Karlsson?” And the answer is yes, but not all that much different. I would speculate that if last season San Jose had the mentioned above forward core, the team would not have to deal Brenden Dillon, additionally, the Sharks moved two right-handed defensemen recently that could also have been kept.
First, Dylan Demelo, currently 27-years-old he was sent to the Senators in the Karlsson trade. He mainly resides on their bottom pairing and paid $3 million per year. With the Sharks needing more right-handed defenseman because they lack Karlsson, I could see him having possibly returned.
Also, the Sharks dealt defensively solid and long time San Jose player, Justin Braun during the 2019 offseason. This move was done because of the cap not increasing as much as anticipated. Braun was a long time Shark, and his pairing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic was sensational defensively for the team for a while. He signed a two year extension with the Philadelphia Flyers at an affordable $1.8 million cap hit.
Dillon probably could not have remained on the Sharks. He was dealt in a trade at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline that netted San Jose Tristen Robbin and Brandon Coe, two of their picks from a quality 2020 draft class. His $3.9 million annual price tag would be outside the team’s price range at the moment.
However, if both Braun and Dillon played in San Jose for the duration of the 2019-20 season, given the possible elite forward group, I would suspect the team would have been much better off. Currently, I would project the team’s blueline to look similar to this, in this imaginary world:
Overall, to remain within the current salary cap with Tavares making a $12-$13 million salary, the Sharks would be essentially replacing Karlsson with Braun, which is surely a downgrade. However, without much question, the above forward core with this blueline and the same goaltending largely outclasses the current San Jose roster.
Is Doug Wilson to Blame?
I find it hard to blame Wilson for missing out on Tavares. The star player wanted to play for the team he grew up watching, which is out of the control of the Sharks’ general manager. San Jose offered more money, there’s not much else they could do. And, the team was in on another elite center during the 2018 offseason, with rumors that the Sharks were interested in Ryan O’Reilly ahead of his trade from the Buffalo Sabres to the St. Louis Blues.
And of course, it’s easy for me to say that the Sharks should have done this because I have the benefit of hindsight. Contrasting Wilson, who had to project how acquisitions he made two-and-a-half years ago would play out. However, Wilson’s insistence on making a large splash ahead of the 2018-19 season, extension to Couture, and the re-signing of Karlsson resulted in how the club looks in the present day.