The San Jose Sharks re-signed defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year, $92 million deal, by far the richest in team history. The Sharks have six high-end players under contract going forward. Along with Karlsson, they are defensemen Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic plus forwards Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl.
Three players who are not under contract are team captain and leading goal-scorer Joe Pavelski, Hall-of-Fame lock Joe Thornton and emerging star Timo Meier. Getting all three under contract is going to take some creativity, but can be done. No doubt Meier returns (a restricted free agent) and likely Pavelski. Thornton has shown a willingness to take a discount previously, whether he wants another NHL season is the issue.
The Sharks Middle Class
Retaining Pavelski and Meier will force the Sharks to jettison almost all of their middle class, players earning roughly between $2.0-$5.0 million.
Here’s the list of players either earning this money now or likely to earn it for next season.
The Sharks will need to part with most of them, getting whatever they can in trade for those who aren’t unrestricted free agents. Kevin Labanc will fetch a very good return while Justin Braun could get a decent return. The Sharks will need to keep lower cost defenseman Tim Heed in this scenario. Melker Karlsson won’t get much and Aaron Dell is probably a challenge to trade.
The Sharks have one more potential trade piece, which is the bought out contract of Paul Martin. Of course, the Sharks will need to give up something to get rid of the final year of the buyout.
The Squeeze Is On
The Sharks can roll out a terrific defensive group and two very competitive lines, but things get sketchy without their middle class.
Karlsson’s signing immediately squeezes the Sharks but doesn’t really limit their upside. From the above list, keeping only Brenden Dillon is something they should do. Instead, the Sharks have to focus on allowing growth from players like Lukas Radil, Antti Suomela and Dylan Gambrell. They’ll fight for ice time on the third and fourth lines. The team may need to find a new version of Eric Fehr, a low-cost veteran who had more game than people realized when the Sharks added him at the trade deadline in 2018. In essence, the Sharks will need to cobble together their lower lines.
Patrick Marleau Also A Possibility
Rumours of Patrick Marleau returning to the Sharks have floated around. Marleau returning would most likely happen under one scenario. He would have to bought out elsewhere and once he is a free agent, signs for what amounts to a bare minimum type deal with the Sharks. He’d fit in a third or fourth line role. Which might be a blessing for developing players like Radil, Gambrell or Suomela.
Cap Space Creativity
The Sharks don’t need great lower lines together to start the season. The roster, assuming it is mostly healthy, should get the team to the playoffs. But the roster which starts the season might not be the one which ends it. The trade deadline is key here.
The Sharks probably won’t be able to pull in any top-end players at the trade deadline, but third line sorts are often available at reasonable prices (recent examples include Carl Hagelin and Charlie Coyle, both traded in February 2019). If the Sharks leave themselves sufficient cap space to get one or two quality third-line players at the trade deadline, they’ll have what they need for the playoffs.
Another creative move the Sharks might consider, not signing Joe Thornton until mid-season. The NHL is a tough league and Thornton, who’ll be 40, doesn’t need to play 82 games to get ready for the playoffs. Signing him in January to a reduced contract gives him the time needed to get ready for the playoffs without the Sharks spending a full season cap hit.
The Sharks minor league affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, is essentially located down the hall from the parent club. The Sharks can squeeze a bit extra cap space by only roster 22 players at times, instead of the usual 23.
One asset Sharks management has is credibility. The team has asked players to be patient with them on contracts before while paying up a bit down the road. This is an essential but underestimated part of general manager Doug Wilson’s portfolio.
The Sharks Gamble
Did Wilson make the right move in signing Erik Karlsson? Many may think so. Though Karlsson came in too pricey (by about $1 million), he is worth the money when healthy. A healthy Karlsson and the Sharks are probably champions this past season. Alas, injuries play a role every season and Karlsson’s injury-related playoff struggles cost the team. It is a gamble, but when the prize is a Stanley Cup, gambles are required.
The Sharks are employing a different formula, but it has already shown it can work. The league’s best blue line with a legit top-six forward group and good goaltending is a different formula than most teams employ. But different seems to be an advantage in today’s NHL. The Stanley Cup often winds up with the team the zagged when everyone else zigged. The Sharks are clearly moving in one direction while the league moves in another. Whether this turns out to be the right move is something we find out together.