The San Jose Sharks made one of the biggest trades of the NHL offseason roughly a month ago, shipping star defenseman Erik Karlsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Karlsson was coming off a Norris Trophy-winning season, where he managed to reach the 100-point mark. In the midst of a terrible year, Karlsson's success was the highlight of the season.
But coming off a 29th place finish and now without Karlsson as well, what can we expect from the Sharks next season?
Starting on a positive note, up front, the team is actually quite improved. They managed to acquire Anthony Duclair from the Florida Panthers for pennies, adding another legitimate top-six winger. Then in the Karlsson trade, the Sharks added Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman. While each player was essentially just taken on as a cap dump, they give the Sharks some middle-six depth that was sorely missing. That’s also not to mention they brought in former sixth-overall pick Filip Zadina, and the fact that the team will get Luke Kunin back after he missed most of the season with an injury.
The big storylines within the forward group can be divided into two different sections: whether any of their younger talent can take a step in their development, and which 2024 unrestricted free agents may be flipped for assets at the trade deadline.
In terms of their young forwards, Filip Zadina and Fabian Zetterlund remain their most interesting roster talent who could be due for a big year. Zadina will turn 24 years old in November, but was considered a high-end prospect for the Detroit Red Wings only a matter of a few years ago, with the potential to become a deadly goal scorer. In the shortened 2021 season, Zadina managed 19 points in 49 games, a pace of 32 points per 82, so there’s hope that he could benefit from a good opportunity in the lineup.
Then with Zetterlund, the winger scored 20 points in just 45 points with the New Jersey Devils last season before being acquired by the Sharks. However, he couldn’t get much going in his limited time post-trade, with no goals and three points in 22 games. He’s now 24 years old as well, but hopefully with a full season in San Jose, Zetterlund could emerge as a quality complementary piece.
Another name to watch would be Jacob Peterson, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars last season. At 24 years old as well, this would be the year Peterson needs to establish himself as a full-time NHLer.
I’d also add Luke Kunin to this bunch of players. He’ll be 26 years old later this year so he’s really not ‘young talent’, but he got into just 31 games with the Sharks before a torn ACL ended his season, so we didn’t get a huge sample size of play to judge. He was given a big role in his limited action last season, and with a year remaining on his contract, it’ll be a big season in deciding whether Kunin is a long-term fit with the team.
Speaking of contracts, we get to the UFAs, with the most notable of those being Anthony Duclair, Alexander Barabanov and Mike Hoffman. Barabanov likely carries some value based on how productive he is for his contract, while both Duclair and Hoffman could put up strong enough numbers to be flipped at the trade deadline for future assets. Duclair is the obvious candidate to bring back a decent return if he isn't extended, but the Sharks still have one spot left for retained salary, and if Hoffman can put up solid numbers with a large role, the Sharks could maybe get back an asset with salary retained.
So up front, the Sharks actually look quite a bit better. Last year, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture and Alexander Barabanov were the only forwards to end the year with San Jose who had at least 45 points (with every other forward below 35 points). Essentially, the Sharks relied a ton on the production from a few players to give them a chance. While their forward group is far from elite, they do actually have more weapons at their disposal now.
On the blue line though, it’s a different story. While Karlsson wasn’t without his defensive flaws, he still provided a hugely net positive impact last season. Without him, the Sharks’ blue line looks even worse.
While Mario Ferraro should continue to solidify himself as a key part of the Sharks’ future, and both Kyle Burroughs and Jan Rutta could be effective in relatively small roles, the team lacks most of an entire top-four group. The likes of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Matt Benning, Radim Simek and Jacob MacDonald could round out a blue line, but aren't the type of high-impact defenders the team needs.
The two defenders to watch though (other than Ferraro) will be Nikolai Knyzhov, who has missed significant time due to injuries, and Henry Thrun.
The team clearly still factors Knyzhov into their plans, given they signed him to a two-year contract extension at a $1.25 million cap hit. He was a great surprise in the shortened 2021 season and Knyzhov should get a great opportunity this year.
Meanwhile, Thrun was given a huge role in his limited action late last year, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game with San Jose. The team does have a fairly crowded blue line in terms of possible options for their roster, but Thrun could earn a role right out of training camp.
Other names to watch for as well are Nick Cicek and Nikita Okhotiuk.
Once again though, the Sharks’ goaltending situation is also unstable, even after the acquisition of Mackenzie Blackwood. At one point, Blackwood was regarded as a future quality NHL starter. But he’s had three underwhelming years in a row, and his capability as an NHL goalie at all is in question. The only other option the Sharks have is a wildly inconsistent Kaapo Kahkonen, who posted a disastrous .883 save percentage across 37 games with the Sharks last season. Essentially, the team is really counting on a bounce-back year from Blackwood.
It’s pretty clear what path the Sharks are taking this season – accumulate future assets and let young talent develop. They already have two first-round picks and two second-round picks in 2024, but we can expect some deadline moves to possibly pad their draft capital.
In terms of their development of young talent, two other prospects to watch will be William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau. I think there’s certainly a scenario where one (or even both) of these players get into a lot of NHL games this year, but they won’t necessarily just walk onto the team. Each player had quite a bit of success in the AHL last season, but with a fairly crowded forward group already, it won’t be easy to make the Sharks' roster.
Realistically, the Sharks are still at a point where they’re a ways away from competing. Their defense group and goaltending situation is especially weak heading into the year, and they could be in contention for last place in the West.
But if they’re able to continue adding future assets – and perhaps even more importantly, if some of their young talent are able to take major steps in their development – it’ll be a successful year.