When it comes to NHL rebuilds, there are teams who seemingly live in denial, like the Ducks. Every now and then, a team such as the Coyotes actually exceeds expectations. Then there’s the Sharks, a team that (deep down) might prefer to rebuild, but could just be flat-out stuck.
Be sure to cue the “Jaws” theme as you scroll through the Sharks’ page at Cap Friendly, because you won’t find an NHL team with bigger bloat. Add in Evander Kane‘s ugly situation, and reports about fractured relationships with teammates, and the situation looks more and more like a disaster movie.
Is there any room for a happy ending, then?
Frankly, the 2021-22 Sharks don’t look that different from the recent, wildly disappointing groups from recent seasons. Yes, they moved from Martin Jones, but it’s unclear if James Reimer – Adin Hill can transform their goaltending from a weakness to a true strength. In most cases, the Sharks are simply hoping that the bad things that happened before won’t keep happening.
So, where are the Sharks stuck, what are some trades/departures that are more realistic, and how might they improve what they currently have? Let’s attack this monster from multiple angles.
Kane, Hertl, and more pressing Sharks trade considerations
During the offseason, we’ve heard about the Sharks having little luck trying to trade Evander Kane. There have also been rumblings about Tomas Hertl, and murmurs about Timo Meier.
If Sharks management is self-aware, they really shouldn’t close the door on any trade possibilities, with the potential exception being the rare impact prospect, such as William Eklund. Instead, the question should be about when they should trade a player, not if.
- Hertl turns 28 in November, and enters a contract year this season. Even as a player whose all-around skill is sorely underrated, the Sharks must expect Hertl to get a nice raise from his current $5.625M cap hit. Making that investment in such a messy situation screams of added more sunk costs to a drowning group. So, instead, it’s imperative to sell as high as possible in a Hertl trade. With just a three-team no-trade clause, that could be difficult. On the other hand, does Hertl really want to linger in this bad situation for a full season?
It’s a delicate situation, and the Sharks don’t have the greatest recent track record of threading this needle. They need to get this one right — and that almost certainly means waving goodbye to one of the few players they employ who exceeds his contract value.
[Click here for more on the Sharks’ conundrum regarding possibly trading Hertl]
- Possibly trading Timo Meier is tricky, too.
When Meier signed his four-year, $24M contract in 2019, it looked like a steal. It’s been a bumpy couple of seasons for both the Sharks and Meier, who is now 24.
Trading Meier now would probably translate to selling low — he’s better than he’s looked. Maybe a lot better. Eventually, the Sharks may still need to accept that a Meier trade is the wisest long-term move. (Unless everything just kind of … works out this season.)
- At 30 years old, with an array of off-the-ice issues,* Evander Kane’s $7M cap hit runs through 2024-25. His situation is one of several Sharks scenarios where you just sort of shrug your shoulders. There aren’t many clean, easy answers.
* – And some on-the-ice ones, too. He has a penchant for taking bad penalties, for instance.
Sharks in quite a pickle with Vlasic, Karlsson, and others
Kane’s situation straddles the line between the previous section (Sharks who are still producing at or near their prime levels) and this current one (contracts San Jose simply might not be able to trade away). Naturally, his situation is complex for different reasons, yet it’s just part of the team’s headaches.
In an ideal world, the Sharks could just blow it all up. It might be tempting to view that as possible, as we saw NHL teams throw caution to the wind during this offseason, often ignoring what charts and recent play might say.
So, maybe there’s room for dreaming. If that door is cracked open even a little, the Sharks should not hesitate. Realistically, though? They seem stuck.
Jarringly, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn ranked three Sharks among the NHL’s 10 worst contracts (sub required). Not a single Shark was even an honorable mention on his best contracts list, so there’s not much to dilute that poison.
[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]
Certainly, there’s room to debate that Erik Karlsson deserves the absolute worst spot instead of Drew Doughty. Either way, few would deny that Karlsson’s contract is frightening for the Sharks. The 31-year-old’s mammoth $11.5M cap hit only expires after the 2026-27 season.
You could argue that Erik Karlsson’s story is, to some extent, the same as that of the Sharks. Considering the age of their core, their front office might have expected a drop-off, eventually. Just not this soon.
This xSPAR chart from Evolving Hockey charts that course in a graph:
It happened earlier, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic went sour sooner than expected, too. At 34, Vlasic’s already sliding to third pair duty, a disturbing fate for a defenseman whose $7M cap hit runs for five more seasons. Would a GM succumb to nostalgia for ‘Douard in a way that the Oilers did with Duncan Keith? Would retirement or an LTIR trip be the messy “solution” for Vlasic and/or Karlsson?
The Sharks likely weren’t expecting to mull these questions over this soon. Even with Brent Burns, there’s subtle slippage, which isn’t great being that he’s somehow already 36, and his $8M cap hit lasts for four more seasons.
Room for the Sharks to experiment? Maybe no excuse not to?
Leaf through the Sharks’ even-strength metrics at Natural Stat Trick, and you probably won’t be blown away by their level of play. Yes, you could argue that Martin Jones’ struggles dragged the Sharks from mediocre to abysmal.
If the Sharks want to aspire to something resembling contention — they spend like contenders, after all — then it might mean asking people to exit their comfort zones. Really, they might want to throw a bunch of ideas at the wall, and see what sticks.
[PHT’s 2021 Offseason NHL Trade Tracker]
Ponderous power play
It’s baffling that their power play ranked third-worst in the NHL last season (14.1-percent), and ranks fourth-worst during the two seasons since Bob Boughner took over as head coach (15.9-percent).
In November 2020, Jack Han shared some interesting insight about how Rocky Thompson and the Sharks wanted to make things work with Karlsson and Burns on the same power play. Thompson professed an interest in “nerding out about hockey” to Sheng Peng, but with Thompson gone due to COVID rules, maybe it’s time for even bolder experiments?
Erik Karlsson’s power play time with Brent Burns (79:07) nearly equaled his time away from him (73:16) last season. On one hand, that makes sense. Both take up a lot of oxygen, and each might want to play the point. In an NHL where teams lean toward 4F/1D setups, splitting the two up makes some sense.
Yet, with the way the Sharks are built, the best-case scenario would be to use their talents, and give penalty kills a lot to think about. Could the key be to convince Brent Burns to move his booming shot to “Alex Ovechkin‘s office?” Maybe on a more permanent basis?
Burns back to forward?
Truly, Burns might be the catalyst for multiple experiments.
Back in 2014, Fear the Fin argued that the Sharks were better off deploying Burns as a forward, instead of a defenseman. While that decision clearly worked out fine for the Sharks, the team’s predicament should at least prompt people to revisit the question.
Theoretically, moving Burns to forward could allow him to create even more offense, and soften the blow from defensive issues. As he gets older, he’s only going to have more trouble getting back into position if he decides to get aggressive offensively. What if that damage was mitigated by a position change?
Of course, Burns probably wouldn’t prefer that. As a forward, he’d almost certainly see a drastic drop in ice time.
But, frankly, are the Sharks really in a position to be that worried about ruffling feathers? (Granted, Brent Burns probably thinks about feathers more than any other NHL player. Although he has competition in Ryan Getzlaf.)
Overall, a Sharks turnaround is easier said than done
Sometimes you make big bets, only to come up empty. Long-term, big-money contracts rarely work out several years down the line in sports. Yet, with the Sharks, it’s truly dizzying just how quickly everything went south.
Do they stand much of a chance of turning things around in anything but the mildest ways?
In a putrid Pacific Division, being mildly competitive might be enough to at least linger in the playoff bubble. Considering all of the expensive bets the Sharks made, treading water — or remaining in the cellar — sure seems disappointing. Unfortunately, such a fate might simply be unavoidable.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.