Sports: An offseason checklist for the San Jose Sharks

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The offseason has arrived with roughly half of the league finished up after missing the playoffs and several more joining them following their first-round eliminations. It’s time to examine what those teams need to accomplish over the coming months. Next up is a look at San Jose.

Tomas Hertl standing on a baseball field © Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Sharks were supposed to be a team that was set to contend. That was the idea behind the Erik Karlsson trade three years ago and while they did that in 2018-19, they missed the playoffs entirely a year ago and weren’t much better this season. Their veteran core struggled mightily and while they had a bit of cap space to add some mid-round picks at the deadline, they don’t have a lot of wiggle room to significantly shake up their core. With that in mind, GM Doug Wilson’s checklist for the summer is somewhat restricted with seven of their eight highest-paid players having some form of trade protection.

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Donato Decision

One thing the flattened salary cap did last offseason was increase the number of players that were non-tendered to avoid salary arbitration. With the Upper Limit staying at $81.5M, that’s likely to be the case again this summer. San Jose has one of those players in winger Ryan Donato who is owed a $2.15M qualifying offer in July.

The Sharks acquired the 25-year-old in October for a third-round pick, a reasonable price to pay for someone that has shown some flashes of being an impact NHL forward, albeit mixed in with some inconsistent play as well. Unfortunately for Wilson, Donato provided more of the latter than the former, finishing up his year with six goals and 14 assists in 50 games while averaging 12:37 per game.

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In a normal year, he’d be likely to get another opportunity given his previous stretches of being a productive top-six piece. Give him a small raise and go from there. But in this cap environment, it’s hard to envision Donato getting $2.15M on the open market. Bottom-six forwards were largely squeezed out a year ago and with teams as cap-strapped now as they were then, that’s not likely to change.

As a result, if San Jose wants to retain Donato, they need to try to work out a new deal before free agency opens up in late July. Offer a cut in pay to see if he wants to stick around – that’s perfectly legal despite the qualifier that’s owed – with the understanding that if an agreement can’t be reached, he’ll be non-tendered. It’s a bit of a heavy-handed approach but don’t be surprised if many other teams take a similar approach with some of their RFAs.

Add A Goalie

It was only a few years ago that Martin Jones looked like their long-term goalie of the future and his $5.75M AAV through 2023-24 potentially being a bargain. No one’s saying that now.  The 31-year-old posted a .896 SV% for the third straight season, a rate that is well below average for a backup let alone a starter. All of a sudden, forget about the old thought of it being a bargain contract. Now, Wilson may need to give serious consideration to buying him out. If you’re curious as to what that would cost, the cap hit would range from $1.667M to $2.917M over each of the next six seasons. That’s a steep price to pay but it would give them a bit of space to try to add a better option.

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Even if they don’t buy him out, the Sharks need to add another goalie, preferably a starter instead of another reclamation project. Josef Korenar had some good moments in his first taste of NHL action but he has another year of waiver exemption; he needs to be playing as much as possible in the minors and he’s not ready to push for full-time NHL duty just yet. As is often the case, there are quite a few goalies available in free agency and the trade market could feature a few more options than usual. They should be able to nab a reasonably-priced option and with the struggles they’ve had between the pipes lately, the right choice could yield a few more wins in the standings on their own.

Extension Talks For Hertl

If you were curious as to which of their eight highest-paid players doesn’t have any trade protection, it’s Tomas Hertl.  He will be entering the final year of his contract next season so when free agency begins and the calendar flips to the 2021-22 season, the 27-year-old will be eligible to sign a contract extension.

While many of the top players in San Jose underachieved offensively this season, Hertl was one of the exceptions. He finished second on the team in scoring to Evander Kane and had he been healthy and played in all 56 games, he might have got the top spot. Nevertheless, his 19 goals and 24 assists in 50 games was good enough for the second-highest point per game average of his career, a pretty good showing.

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When Hertl signed a four-year, $22.5M deal back in the 2018 offseason, it looked like it might be a bit high considering he had only reached the 20-goal mark twice and never had more than 46 points in a season. Since then, however, he has certainly lived up to the deal, picking up 153 points in 170 games, well above a 46-point pace over a full regular season.

With that in mind, it’s likely that Hertl’s camp will be seeking an increase on his next contract, even with wingers taking a hit in free agency last summer in a marketplace that is likely to be more restrictive than usual for the next few years. Wilson will have to decide if the time is right to do that or to let the season play out first. One thing he can dangle now that he can’t next fall? He can offer to put in trade protection into the final season of his existing contract as he’s now old enough to have that protection in his deal (only UFA-eligible players can have it). Maybe he won’t be the only highly-paid player without that for much longer.

Redirect Cap Spending To Offense

The Sharks have been in the bottom ten in scoring in each of the last two seasons. Part of the reason for that is that they’ve dedicated a lot of money away from the forwards. By the time they round out their roster for next season, it’s going to be close to a 50/50 split in terms of money on forwards versus goalies and defensemen. It’s hard to improve offensively with that much money tied up in non-forwards.

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Granted, Karlsson and Brent Burns are supposed to help carry the load offensively but that simply wasn’t the case this season. Add a slumping Marc-Edouard Vlasic to the mix and their big three on the back end counts for $26.5M without much production from that group. In a perfect world, they could get out of one of those contracts which all run through at least 2024-25 but their high price tags and trade protection make that extremely difficult.

One smaller move they could try to make to add some money to the pot for their forwards is to move out Radim Simek. His four-year, $9M contract is hardly excessive in terms of cost but he has had difficulty staying healthy and had a limited role when he did play this season. Finding a new team for him would give Wilson a little bit more room to try to add up front which, with their veteran defenders slowly down offensively, will be needed if they want to have a chance at working their way back into playoff contention.

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