June 17 2016 11:00AM
The San Jose Sharks are fresh off of their best season in franchise history. It didn’t have the storybook ending that fans had hoped for, but even reaching the Cup finals has to be considered a major leap forward for the franchise. But where do they go from here?
The club came into 2015/16 with a bit of a chip on their
shoulder. Their 2014/15 campaign saw them finishing well out of the play-offs,
and season-long speculation was that the team needed to be “dismantled”. This
past season, they came out on a mission, finishing with a nine-point
improvement in the regular season, and a huge run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The big question facing the Sharks now is: just how much
longer will their window be open?
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau will be entering their
age-37 seasons. Joel Ward and Paul Martin their age-36 seasons. Brent Burns and
Joe Pavelski their age-32 seasons. That’s a hefty amount of core players on the
downswings of their careers. Aging hasn’t yet shown to be a significant problem
– Thornton topped 80 points this year, Pavelski scored 39 regular season and 14
play-off goals, Brent Burns is a Norris candidate – and the Sharks are more
than just their aging core players, but it’s a legitimate question.
The Sharks boast one of the best top lines in the league in Pavelski, Thornton and whoever happens to be on their left side at the time. They were 61.6% Corsi and 67% goals for with Dainius Zubrus (76 minutes), 60.6% Corsi and 67% goals for with Joonas Donskoi (120 minutes), 52.5% Corsi and 67% goals for with Melker Karlsson (193 minutes), and 56.8% Corsi for and 72.3% goals for with their most frequent linemate, Tomas Hertl (505 minutes, the fifth most frequently used line at 5v5 in the NHL this season).
Outside of Zubrus, all three of those linemates are slated
to return in 2016/17. Karlsson is not really a top six option, but Donskoi and
Hertl can easily take those minutes. Logan Couture leads the second line,
playing with Marleau and the other one of Donskoi or Hertl. As you can see in
the chart above, the Sharks are reliant on their big four forwards – Thornton,
Pavelski, Marleau and Couture – to munch minutes, and use a rotation of wingers
to round out their top six. The Sharks are blessed to have seven forwards who
have performed at a second line average or better in 2015/16, plus a whole
whack of guys who are useful third liners. The only two negatives – Spaling and
Zubrus – are both expiring contracts.
On the blueline, the Sharks will have one more year of Brent Burns at a bargain salary of $5.75 million. Burns made a huge splash league-wide last season as the highest goalscoring defender in the NHL, and kept it up in the play-offs, potting a point per game (7 goals, 17 assists) and finishing third in the league in shots (79) and tops in the league in individual Corsi (236, over 50 more than second place Phil Kessel). Beyond Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic does yeoman’s work carrying the bulk of defensive responsibilities. His offensive game took a big step forward this season as well, as he posted 39 points in 67 games. His even strength points/60 of 1.20 smashed his previous best of 0.81 (from 2013/14). Justin Braun and Paul Martin round out the strong top four. Neither will own a scoresheet but both are very strong defensively with enough offensive ability to back it up. Brenden Dillon is an expensive number five, but if he’s paired with someone who isn’t overmatched at the NHL level, he should be able to keep his head above water.
In net, the team is justifiably steaming forward with Martin
Jones as their starter, but are without a lifeboat in case of emergency.
Back-up James Reimer is a UFA and likely will be looking for a starting gig
elsewhere, and their AHL goaltending tandem of Aaron Dell and Troy Grosenick
aren’t blowing down any doors to get NHL playing time. 24 year old Mantas
Armalis recently signed with the team and should secure one of the three
possible goaltending spots in the NHL or AHL, but it would be difficult to not look
elsewhere for a more surefire option.
While the majority of the Sharks roster is set for 2016/17,
there will be considerable questions facing the team regarding shoring up the
roster depth in all facets, especially in net.
As mentioned, the Sharks’ Window of Contendership is closing and, post-2016/17, the team is going to have some very difficult decisions facing their management team: Thornton, Marleau and Burns will all be UFAs. Thornton and Marleau are candidates to stay on board at similar or reduced rates, but Burns is going to explode in cost and in order to accommodate him, the team may need to make some hard roster choices.
But that’s more of a problem for next year’s Because It’s
the Cap post.
This off-season is a little less significant for San Jose.
The team has about $10 million in cap space, and two notable RFAs to sign, plus
one or two roster spots that could be filled with new additions, but may also
be able to be fixed internally at bargain costs. Beyond their NHL depth,
however, is where the water gets a little murkier.
Tomas Hertl is the big RFA for the Sharks. The 22 year old
posted 21 goals and 46 points in 2015/16. He hasn’t posted the gaudy per-game scoring
rates of his rookie season (25 points in 37 games), he’s still been a very
versatile and effective forward, capable of playing anywhere in the top nine
and improving his teammates at almost every opportunity.
If the Sharks are able to work out a bridge deal with Hertl, he should be pretty cost effective for the next couple of years. If the team chooses long-term, we’re probably looking at between $4-$6 million per year. He is probably not worth that much right now, but it would be a reasonable risk for the team to take. If his development continues, in a couple of seasons that deal would look like an absolute steal.
Matt Nieto, of Long Beach, CA, is also a first-time RFA. Nieto’s
primary contribution to the team is his hustle and speed, but he’s not exactly
an offensive dynamo. He’s best suited for bottom six play. The Long Beach kid
put up just 13 even strength points this season in 67 games. He will be an affordable
signing for the team, as his salary will most likely double (and maybe even –
gulp – triple, depending on the deal) but will not break the bank.
It’s a decent bet that the team brings back impending UFA Nick Spaling to play a bottom six role. While he wasn’t very effective in his role (six points in 23 regular season games just one assist in 24 play-off games), he was a favourite of coach Peter DeBoer. His -9.6% Relative Corsi was second worst on the team, and paying him anything near the $2.2 million he made this year would be ludicrous, but stranger things have happened.
Should Spaling re-sign, that would leave the team with only losing Dainius Zubrus from the main roster forward group. The 38 year old performed admirably but should be easily replaceable with a younger body. His roster spot could go to 21 year old Nikolay Goldobin, who posted 21 goals and 44 points in 60 games with AHL San Jose this season. 20 year old Timo Meier posted 110 points over 70 QMJHL regular season and play-off games and will play his first pro season next year. The 6’0”, 210 pounder is a physically imposing winger with a laser beam wrist shot. He is by no means a lock for an NHL spot, but with his size and ability to play anywhere in a top nine, he could impress during camp and force the hand of management.
On the blueline, four of the top five defenders are signed
for 2+ years, with Burns being the notable exception. Beyond the top five,
there’s not a whole lot in the way of proven depth. Dylan DeMelo did well in a
limited stint but did not see any play-off time. 2013 first round Mirco Mueller
hasn’t earned consistent playing time in his first two pro seasons. The team traded
for veteran Roman Polak and chucked him into the deep end in the play-offs, and
his pairing with Brenden Dillon was one of the worst in the entire league at
controlling play and exiting their zone. It would be a surprise to see Polak return, but it would not be a surprise to
see the Sharks dip into the UFA or trade pool to try and pick up another
veteran blueliner to fill his spot. The list of useful, NHL-capable
right-shooting UFA dmen is pretty slim,
but there are some options.
As mentioned, goaltending beyond Martin Jones is a total
crapshoot. Lithuanian netminder Mantas Armalis will get a shot to sink or swim,
but he’ll be playing his first year of North American hockey and will almost
certainly face some sort of turbulence. It should be priority one to bring in
an experienced tweener in case Armalis has trouble adjusting. Fortunately,
there are almost always cheap goalies available in the UFA pool who could do a
decent, if unspectacular, job. Al Montoya, Justin Peters, Chad Johnson, Anton
Khudobin are all going to be available for minimal salary this off-season. It
may also be an option to bring in a veteran on a pro tryout heading into the
season, who can be cut loose if Armalis or Troy Grosenick impress in camp and
earn a back-up spot.
Basically, the Sharks already have the blueprint for a successful repeat of this season's run. It's simply a matter of addressing the lower end of the line-up to keep everyone above board.
Depth at forward – outside of Goldobin and Meier, there isn’t much in the way of useful AHLers to take over NHL roles in the case of injuries. Depth at defense – a veteran sixth defender would be a good idea, as Mueller and DeMelo could be plugged in for short term spots but may not be ready for full-time roster duty. Depth at goaltending – bringing a useful veteran aboard will be a necessity, as an injury to Martin Jones would be catastrophic for the team and scuttle any chances of an extended play-off run.
The Sharks are a team built on versatility up front and
stability on defense. Their forward group is anchored by three first liners and
a crew of middle six players who move up and down the line-up as necessary.
Their defense features a tremendous top four with a bit of a mish-mash third
pairing. This was the plan in 2015/16 and should continue to be the plan for
2016/17 as the team hopes to build on their Stanley Cup appearance and go all
the way in 2016/17.
This could possibly be their last major shot at the Cup for the next several years, so management is likely going to go all-in to reach that ultimate goal.