The San Jose Sharks saw their 2019 Stanley Cup dreams fall short yet again with their 5-1 Game 6 loss to the St. Louis Blues. To this point, the Sharks had been making another impressive run at their franchise’s first ring. Unfortunately, injury, including the loss of star defender Erik Karlsson, and a searing hot Blues team got in the way.
San Jose Sharks Should Let Erik Karlsson Walk
It is now time for general manager Doug Wilson to pivot towards next season. The Sharks have a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents in 2019. Perhaps the most intriguing of these free agents is their two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson was one of the injury casualties in the final game of the Sharks season. He is likely due for a huge contract reward around July 1st. His first season after coming over from the Ottawa Senators was not a failure. However, there were times in which he didn’t fit in. Despite this, Erik Karlsson is still one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. He will still only be 29 years old come the beginning of the 2019-2020 season.
With another cup run coming up short and a multitude of other contracts to handle, the Sharks need to let Karlsson walk this offseason.
Erik Karlsson and Lingering Injuries
Karlsson came into this year’s playoffs limping. After the Sharks February 26th contest with the Boston Bruins, Karlsson revealed he was dealing with a groin injury that was likely still affecting him throughout the playoffs. He would then miss the Sharks next 17 games as he prepared to return for the playoffs. In the two games leading up to his absence, he registered season-lows of 10:38 and 14:24 of time on ice. Karlsson would slide into the lineup for the first time since his injury in the Sharks 5-2 season finale victory against the Colorado Avalanche, tracking, a meagre number by his standards, 22:01 minutes of ice time.
Karlsson began the playoffs fairly strong, logging an average of 27:15 minutes of ice time in the Sharks opening round series against the Vegas Golden Knights. He registered an impressive nine points, all of which were assists, including three power-play points. Karlsson’s skating looked to be lagging a bit but was nothing his skill couldn’t make up for. He continued on a similar path against the Avalanche in round two. Karlsson put up another three assists in the series but committed a relatively high six giveaways. However, these were offset by his nine takeaways.
Western Conference Final
Then in round three, everything came to a boil. Karlsson was skating with a noticeable limp throughout the series which was magnified in Game 4. Here, Karlsson blatantly had trouble keeping up with the pace of the game and even keeping up with players from a near identical distance. Karlsson played over 25 minutes in the game. He was removed from the following contest after just 10:32 of ice time and a bad turnover leading to the Blues opening goal. In just five games in the conference finals, Karlsson committed the league’s second-most turnovers.
They Already Have Burns and Vlasic Under Contract
Going into 2020, the Sharks have a lot of contract concerns. However, their two best defenders don’t fall into that group. Both Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are under contract through the 2024-25 season. They come with fairly steep cap hits. Burns contract holds an AAV of $8 million per season and Vlasic’s holds one of $7 million per year. With the cap projected to hold at around $83 million in 2019-20, the combination of Vlasic and Burns will account for just over 18% of the Sharks total cap.
Considering both Vlasic’s and Burns’ contracts, the Sharks likely won’t have room for Erik Karlsson. It is reasonable to assume that Karlsson is likely due to be paid in the ballpark of both P.K. Subban‘s $9 million AAV and Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s newly signed $8,250,000. Karlsson is a better offensive defender than both, having registered more points in every season since entering the league in 2009. The only outlier was 2012-13 in which Karlsson missed most of the lockout-shortened year due to injury.
With the addition of a contract worth around $8.5 million, and likely more, the Sharks would then have about 28% of their cap tied up in three defenders. Two of which have incredibly similar offensive play styles. The big difference being; Burns is already under contract, has a lower cap hit, and hasn’t missed a game since the 2013-14 season. As much as the two contributed from an offensive standpoint, it’s likely the Sharks try to find another defender – similar to Vlasic – who can fix their play in front of their own net.
The Sharks Other Upcoming Free Agents
Of all the Sharks contracts on their hands, a couple need to be addressed before Karlsson. San Jose has only seven forwards of their top-15 in 2019 under contract for the upcoming season. Names on this list of unsigned forwards include captain and UFA Joe Pavelski as well as the Sharks breakout star of 2019 and RFA Timo Meier. The Sharks project to have roughly $24.7 million in cap space for the upcoming season and will likely spend a large portion on these two cornerstones.
Pavelski will turn 35 in July but it is hard to see the Sharks letting him go. He has been a member of the Sharks since 2006 and hasn’t missed real time, until this season and playoffs, since 2011. Pavelski had another good year in 2019, putting up 64 points and tied for 14th in the NHL with 38 goals. His hand-eye and presence around the net is also something incredibly valuable with Burns continually ranking in the top-10 in shot attempts from the point.
Meier was a stud for the Sharks in 2019. After seeing his first real action last season in 2017-18, he stepped up in a big way. In 2018-19, Meier put up 66 points, good for fourth in team scoring and a 30 point increase from the year prior. At just 22 years old, Meier could soon become the face of the Sharks franchise after the current regime departs. The Sharks know they need to lock him up for the foreseeable future.
Besides the two biggest fish, other high profile names of the Sharks free agent list are deadline acquisition Gustav Nyquist and the Sharks long-serving veteran Joe Thornton. Both these players are likely toss-ups to return. They bring different kinds of value to a variety of teams in free agency.
There are a lot of layers to why Karlsson needs to be let walk in 2019, none of which should undermine how great of a player he is. Karlsson is an elite #1 defender in today’s NHL but will simply have demands the Sharks cannot meet. Wilson took a big risk on moving so many assets for Karlsson in September knowing it would be hard to retain him, but San Jose’s season should be heralded as a success — Karlsson’s injury aside.
2019-20 was a great ride for both the Sharks and Karlsson but it is time for both to go their separate ways.
Main Photo: SAN JOSE, CA – DECEMBER 20: Erik Karlsson #65 of the San Jose Sharks in action against the Winnipeg Jets at SAP Center on December 20, 2018, in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)