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Despite terrible season, Sharks may finally have direction

March 27, 2023, 10:33 PM ET [3 Comments]
Ben Shelley
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The San Jose Sharks are set to miss the postseason for the fourth year in a row.

In what was already a poor season, the Sharks have been terrible over the last month or so, winning one of their last 15 games. Over those 15 games, they’ve given up at least five goals in eight of them. Their last home win was exactly five weeks ago today.

With only nine games left, the Sharks are currently dead last in the NHL and could be frontrunners for the first-overall pick. But despite the disastrous end to the season, the Sharks may finally have something they've lacked for a few years now: a direction.

For the last couple seasons, the Sharks were in a completely stagnant spot. Following an unexpectedly terrible 2019-20 season, the Sharks didn’t have their own first-round pick in 2020 as a result of the Erik Karlsson trade. With limited cap space and no prospects coming up the ranks, it was inevitable that the Sharks weren’t going anywhere from there. This itself isn’t the problem – teams go through cycles of competing and after a lengthy run as a very strong team, the Sharks’ core had kind of run its course.

In the next two years though, it almost seemed like the organization felt as though the team was a lot closer to getting back to the playoffs than they actually were. The Sharks brought in depth players in the offseason and didn’t seem to make any sort of an active effort to start moving pieces for future assets. They were always going to miss the playoffs, but ended up 22nd overall in the league last year, with limited odds at actually getting a top draft pick.

On the verge of a potential last-place finish though, there’s now no denying that this team isn’t close to getting back to the playoffs.

People may classify the last few seasons as a ‘rebuild’, but that’s not necessarily the case, because the Sharks haven’t actually done much to tear down, or start accumulating future assets.

San Jose notably had a decision to make on Tomas Hertl last season, in terms of either trading him for future assets or re-signing him. They chose to re-sign him rather than taking the assets, locking the 29-year-old into a contract that will take him until 2030. The logic to keep him was flawed, given there were few pieces around him to compete and by the time the Sharks are competitive again, he'll likely be well into his 30s and nearing a decline, but still locked into a big contract.

An argument could be there weren’t a ton of other pieces to trade off, but we’ve seen that wasn’t the case. While we can debate the return of the Brent Burns trade under Mike Grier, the Sharks did get back some assets in the move.

More importantly though, the Sharks were faced with nearly the same decision under Grier this year as they were with Hertl last season, in terms of whether to deal Timo Meier. This time around, they made the right call. Whether the Sharks got back a good return or not is debatable, but at least the logic of dealing him in the first place was sound, rather than keeping Meier as part of a team that wasn’t going to be able to compete anyways.

It marks the first time in a while the Sharks may have a legitimate direction. The team has been in desperate need of a true rebuild for multiple years now and this should signal the beginning.

In terms of remaining pieces to move, perhaps we do see an Erik Karlsson trade actually come to fruition this summer. The Sharks will only be retaining salary on Burns after this season, so they could possibly still try to make something happen, even if the Edmonton Oilers are unlikely to be an option after the Mattias Ekholm deal. Alexander Barabanov could also bring back assets as well, given his increased production and very low cap hit.

Even aside from just getting back assets in the Burns and Meier trades, they’ve also moved out cap space. Now, they’re able to hopefully start using some strategies they should’ve implemented over the last few years. Whether it’s signing a player to a short-term deal then flipping them for assets at the deadline like the Chicago Blackhawks did with Max Domi, or taking on bad contracts for draft picks like the Arizona Coyotes have done a great job of, San Jose has some flexibility.

As of now, the Sharks don’t have a ton of prospects who are close to being NHL impact players. William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau have both had good seasons with the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL, but each is still a couple years away from potentially being high-end NHL players. Henry Thrun (who just signed his entry-level contract) could be a big add for the Sharks’ blue line, but has yet to play at the professional level. Filip Bystedt also has yet to make the jump to North America. The organization is building a decent base, but it’s going to take some time.

Of course, getting the first-overall pick and selecting Connor Bedard could help to make San Jose more competitive right away. Even with him in the lineup though, the Sharks aren’t going to be a playoff team over the next little while.

The next few years need to be about actively building and adding future assets. Take a couple seasons and trade what current roster players you can, take on bad contracts if possible and aim for good draft picks. The Sharks should be looking towards 2025 or 2026 as a realistic timeline to begin competing. They’re locked into some bad contracts for the time being like Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s $7 million cap hit, and with over $4 million in dead cap space alone over the next couple years, it would be hard to build, even if the team tried.

So while it’s been a brutal end to the year, you could argue this is the most direction the Sharks have had in a long time. They’re a bad hockey team but since Grier took over, they’ve usually acted accordingly, making active efforts to try to move top players for future assets and cap space. Even if it’s not being labelled as such, the Sharks are rebuilding and there’s now at least some interest in where the team will go from here.

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