At the start of the 2018-19 season everyone knew what lay ahead for the Sharks come the offseason. Summer 2019 would be a busy one for San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. With a bunch of key unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents on the horizon, hard decisions come June and July were inevitable.
As we approach the opening of free agency this Monday July 1st, a couple of early offseason dominoes have already fallen. Arguably the biggest domino fell when the Sharks re-signed Erik Karlsson to an eight-year extension worth $11.5 million per season back on June 17. Karlsson no doubt makes the Sharks a better team than they would be had he left in free agency, but with the high salary increase, (nearly double his previous salary of $6.5 million) the Sharks are tight up against the salary cap. Ergo, the Karlsson deal likely means the end of the Joe Pavelski era in San Jose.
San Jose’s captain is coming off the final year of a five-year, $30 million-dollar deal that saw him perform at a tremendous level. A 38-goal season this past year was incredibly impressive. But at 35-years old this July, any team that signs him to a long-term deal is taking on a big risk at the salary he is bound to command. The latest reports have Pavelski speaking with a handful of teams ahead of July 1st. If Pavelski receives an annual raise of $1 million on a three-year contract, a team will be paying him $7 million come the 2021-22 season as a 37-year old.
The only player in the league this past season aged 35 or older who made more than $7 million was New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The next three highest salaries for 35 and older players were Mark Giordano ($6.75 million), Patrick Marleau ($6.25 million), Ilya Kovalchuk ($6.25 million), David Backes ($6 million) and Johnny Boychuk ($6 million).
Giordano won the Norris trophy this season, but the rest of that list are guys who were pretty big disappointments. The Maple Leafs had to convince a team to take Patrick Marleau’s contract off their hands by offering up a first round pick. Kovalchuk scored just 16 goals and 34 points for the Kings, Backes was a frequent healthy scratch for the Bruins and Boychuk saw a significant decrease in ice time for the Islanders.
Most Sharks fans would love to have captain Pavelski back on a two-year deal, but anything more than that is far too risky for a player of his age. If Pavelski is a stickler for an annual raise and a three-plus year contract, the Sharks would be wise to stay away. Even with the recent salary dump trade of defenseman Justin Braun, the Sharks likely don’t have enough cap space to add Pavelski at $7-plus-million annually. Even if the term were just two years, it would be extremely difficult to squeeze in that salary. San Jose currently has just a little over $14.8 million in salary cap space with seven forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract.
Even if one conservatively estimates that restricted free agents Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc sign bridge deals worth $4.75 million and $3.75 million respectively, that leaves San Jose with just $6.3 million left in cap space to add at least three more forwards to the roster. Typically teams carry an extra forward and a defenseman, in that case they would need four more forwards and another defenseman. Even a low cap hit for a veteran like Joe Thornton and some entry level contracts filling up the roster, there likely isn’t enough for Pavelski.
If San Jose were to get lucky with cheap deals for Meier and Labanc, they probably would have been signed already. That said, if they are to get lucky on the low side of those contracts, San Jose in theory could trade out some relatively replaceable players that are carrying some significant salary. The $3.27 million in salary for defenseman Brenden Dillon, and both the $2 million cap hit of forward Melker Karlsson and $1.5 million cap hit of forward Marcus Sorensen could be moved. That would make for an additional $6 million in space, which could be enough to squeeze Pavelski back in, but a lot would have to go right for Doug Wilson.
Post-Pavelski Landscape Looks Manageable
It looks more and more like we have come to the end of the Pavelski era in San Jose. Losing their captain won’t be an easy pill to swallow. The former seventh-round pick is the best tipper in the league and as a right-handed faceoff guy, he provides a value that few players in the league bring to the table. Winning right-side draws is much more difficult for left-handed shooters. Unfortunately, right-handed centermen are about as common as left-handed relievers in baseball. They exist, but they are always in demand because the supply isn’t nearly as large.
There are two primary holes Pavelski would be leaving the Sharks if he signs elsewhere. Fortunately for San Jose, they could very well be filled internally. The captaincy will almost assuredly be handed off to Logan Couture, who has quietly become one of the best two-way centers in the league. Perhaps Couture doesn’t quite have the defensive acumen of a Patrice Bergeron, but Couture takes on opposing team’s top lines night after night and still manages to be a dominant playoff performer. One could argue that he should have won the Conn Smythe in 2016. Despite the Sharks losing the Stanley Cup final, Couture led the league in playoff points in 2016. Not to mention he led the entire NHL in playoff goal scoring this year with 14, even with the Sharks bowing out in round three.
Furthermore, Couture is the only elite Sharks player who regularly calls out himself and his team to the media when they underperform. Pavelski has never really been particularly critical and a guy like Brent Burns often refuses to admit any wrongdoing by himself nor the team. Couture is the heart and sole of this team and it has been that way for awhile. In terms of leadership from the captain position, San Jose will be in great hands with Couture wearing the C.
As for the on-ice skills that the Sharks will need to replace if Pavelski walks? Well, a lot of that will be on the shoulders of 22-year old, right-handed centerman Dylan Gambrell. The 2016 second-round pick also needs a new contract this offseason as a restricted free agent. His experience at the NHL level is extremely limited, but he excelled at the University of Denver where he finished with 132 points in 120 games over three seasons. In his first season at the AHL level last year Gambrell was nearly a point-per-game player with the Barracuda, finishing with 45 points in 51 games. While he has yet to register a single point in 11 regular season NHL games, he did score the only goal and generally looked like San Jose’s best forward on the ice in the final game of the season, a blowout loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.
If Gambrell can be a 40-45 point player and fill the role as a reliable right-handed faceoff guy, that will go along ways in replacing the production of a guy like Pavelski. He doesn’t have to score 30 goals and 60 points, but 15 goals and 40-45 points with a faceoff percentage around 52-53% is well within reach if Gambrell puts in the work.
Without Pavelski the Sharks will still have four 30-goal scorers in Couture, Meier, Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. They just need Gambrell to play the way he did in that final game of the season. Be fast, get in on the forecheck, force some turnovers and win some faceoffs. As a top-9 winger, he will likely have either Couture, Hertl or Thornton as his center. Those are some pretty easy guys to play with, just get them the puck and get open for them.
As far as what the Sharks forward lines might look like next season, the following might not be too far off. Since Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist might each be too expensive, that would possibly open the door for the re-signing of a guy like Joonas Donskoi for significantly less money.
That’s still a top-9 that features a solid duo on each line in Meier-Couture, Kane-Hertl and Thornton-Labanc. The players playing third fiddle on those lines, Marleau, Donskoi and Gambrell are all capable of helping produce offense. Marleau in a third line role can still pot 15-20 goals. We already discussed Gambrell’s potential and while Donskoi is a streaky goal-scorer, he is a consistent play driver and skilled playmaker in space.
That is a more than solid forward group, and then you still have two Norris-winning puck movers on the back end in Karlsson and Burns.
The only real question will once again be what kind of goaltending are the Sharks going to get out of Martin Jones?