30 IN 30 - SAN JOSE SHARKS (11th place)
Another year, another early playoff let-down by the Sharks. Okay, let's be honest, a lot of teams wish they could have the same success San Jose has had over the last decade, but man it must be frustrating to watch as a fan. The Sharks have dominated the Pacific division for years with a star-studded roster, often forgotten by the East-coast media. That's the appeal for players like Joe Thornton, he can avoid the attention of big market critics, too lazy to stay up and watch him play on both his good and bad nights. Nice set up really. Hence why this team has had no issue drawing free agents to Northern California. The downside for the Sharks, however, is the much anticipated closing of their Stanley Cup window. This team surely only has two seasons left in it before a major overhaul is forced upon them. GM Doug Wilson has kept this team in contention since 2003, will he continue to go 'all-in' or begin to think about the future of this team without its perennial All-Stars in the lineup? Thankfully, if played correctly, expansion will allow Wilson to delay this decision a bit longer.
PROTECTION LIST STRUCTURE
- Braun ?
The Sharks present themselves as an interesting case for protection structure analysis. Both 7-3-1 and 8-1 are possibilities, with pros and cons attached to each. A lack of forwards under contract, thanks to the fortunate timing of UFAs Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, makes any decision up front a less damaging one. No matter the choice in structure, Pavelski, Couture, Hertl, Burns, and Vlasic are all locks to fill protection slots. Others like Timo Meier, and Joonas Donskoi are exempt by their 2nd year professional status. Looking pretty good for the Sharks so far, hey? Well let's take at look at the factors in play.
OLD, OVERPAID or underperforming
As mentioned, the Sharks are short on forward contracts. This means leaving two NHL calibre players (re: meet the expansion rules games played requirement) who are under contract to fulfill the expansion exposure requirement will have to be acknowledged in our Sharks breakdown. In our opinion, this results in Joel Ward and Mikkel Boedker as likely candidates to fulfill this mandate. Ward has been a quality checker in the league for years, but at 36 he is flat out too old for the Sharks to waste an expansion pick on him. Boedker, on the other hand, is an overpaid, overhyped, 2nd line winger. The praise received for his scoring ability doesn't match the reality of his production. The apparent 'down-year' for Boedker was actually fairly in line with his career averages. Without point-padding minutes on the team's first power play unit, Boedker's 5v5 stats remain pretty underwhelming. Roughly 1/3 of his points in each of the three seasons prior to joining the Sharks came with the man-advantage. On an offensive powerhouse like the Sharks, these minutes will be a lot harder to come by than they would've been in Arizona and Colorado. Without 5v4 production, Boedker's totals fall back in line with that of Melker Karlsson, and Jannik Hansen; both $2.0M players. Therefore, at a $4.0M for another three years, Boedker's contract marks him as an expendable candidate. Whether or not Vegas wants that contract is another story.
Age, once again, could be a similar point deception for the Sharks on defence. Paul Martin just turned 36, and carries two more years at a $4.85M cap. With retirement in sight and the Stanley Cup still in his mind, after two near misses with Pittsburgh and San Jose, the selection of Martin doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the Golden Knights. Sure, they may be able to utilize him for a year to show their young d-men the ropes, but the only way they reap trade deadline value for the aging defencemen is if they eat his salary in return for a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick. Seems like an inappropriate strategy for an organization looking to build active player depth over that of entry level draft selections.
With that said, our favoured protection becomes the 7-3-1 structure. San Jose will be able to protect young forwards Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson this way, in addition to late season acquisition Jannik Hansen, who provides quality checking line value at the very affordable rate of $2.0M (thanks to Vancouver retaining $500K of his salary). The decision will then come down to defence. Who grabs the 3rd protection list spot?
Brains over braun?
The group of defenders vying for the third and final protection list spot includes: Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon, Dylan Demelo, and Mirco Mueller. As experienced defenders, Braun and Dillon have compiled enough of a statistical history for us to assess an average with relative confidence, while Demelo has only played parts of two seasons with the big club. The youngster, Mueller, has suited up in a mere 15 NHL games over the past two years and thus provides us with a restricted statistical window into his capabilities.
Justin Braun has provided the Sharks with consistent top-four minutes in each of the past four seasons, as his pairing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic has stood pat as the Sharks' shut-down duo. Traditionally more heady players than overtly physical, the two have shown continued success pushing the play up the ice to the team's dangerous group of forwards. Although Braun saw a unilateral dip in his goal differential, his strong career average and small gap in pay from his counterpart at the right hand D-spot, Brenden Dillon, are valid enough reason to keep the 30 year-old over the rest of this lot.
Dillon, as mentioned, plays the key role of right shot defender in a league obsessed with finding lefty-right pairs to deploy against their opposition. Noticeably a bottom-pair physical defender, he's best utilized when paired with an offensive-minded partner. His career possession numbers have been solid, but a generally low goal differential displays an inability to shut down high quality chances without counteractive on-ice scoring production.
Dylan Demelo is likely a name few hockey fans will recognize. His NHL exposure may be low, but he displays an obvious offensive acumen for a young defender. Wielding confidence from the point, Demelo has managed to surpass young prospect Mirco Mueller in the Sharks prospect pipeline, despite his former 6th round selection status. However, concern should be had for his inability to improve the play of his primary defence partner. Brenden Dillon and Demelo did not appear to mesh well as a pair, as both saw a clear jump in positive impact when playing apart.
Former first round selection Mirco Mueller has had a tough time adjusting to the professional game since joining the club out of Junior. In his first season (2014-15), the Sharks threw him in the deep-end, suiting up in 39 NHL games after only 9 AHL games of experience. Since then, Mueller has struggled to crack the Sharks' lineup, leading many to question the handling of his development. He has since been lapped by Dylan Demelo, as well as Swedish free agent Tim Heed. Although he cannot be expected to match the offensive game of these two, Mueller has struggled to force his way into a Sharks' lineup already stocked full with stay-at-home/defensive-minded defenders. With Heed the prime candidate to join the Sharks next season and exempt from the process, it shouldn't be a surprise to see the Sharks gamble with Mueller's availability come expansion draft day. As an RFA he presents appeal with his rights in restriction, but at the same time, doesn't seem worth the investment for an expansion team already limited to 10 expansion selections for players not under contract.
tHE Golden Knights selects from the bay area...
With Braun unavailable, the Golden Knights selection will basically be limited to the three other defenders outlined above, and Boedker. A scenario remains in which the Sharks protect Boedker by signing a player like Michael Haley to a one-year extension, in order to fulfill their forward exposure requirements, but the necessity for such a move is low. If Vegas were to pick him, the Sharks would be rewarded with $4.0M in cap savings and the ability to bump Timo Meier into the top-six role he needs. Frankly, the Golden Knights should pass on Boedker if he's exposed. The team may be inclined to take on bad forward contracts elsewhere in expansion day trades, so choosing a forward within the selection process whose salary fails to match their on-ice output without additional compensation is a mistake.
This means Vegas will instead choose to load up on defenders throughout the selection process with the intention of trading a few of them after the draft to opposing teams hungry for right shot defenders. This strategy will allow them to build up their developmental group in the AHL and stockpile entry draft selections for the next couple years. With that said, we will select the best player available (and most experienced defender of the lot); Brenden Dillon. He can either provide a physical presence to the Vegas blue-line or be swapped for alternative compensation. We understand his contract is a tad steep, but he remains a very tradable asset as a 26 year-old right shot defencemen in a league that conveys lefty-righty defence pairings.
The Sharks have wisely left their veteran free-agents unsigned, choosing instead to partake in potential hand-shake deals with Thornton and Marleau once the expansion process has ended. San Jose desperately needed this extra roster flexibility without much left in the forward prospect pool. Sure, they've picked a few winners in Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier, but their history developing prospects selected outside the first round is ugly. Add this onto management's reckless abandonment of future draft picks in effort to keep their Stanley Cup window open, and a future without their two aging stars begins to look pretty grim. Throwing money at the issue via free agency will only take a team so far in the salary cap era. Sure hope Tim Heed is the X-factor he's hyped up to be.
Next up: St. Louis Blues