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NHL expansion draft: Forwards who Sharks protect depend on approach

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AP

NHL expansion draft: Forwards who Sharks protect depend on approach

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will look ahead to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, at which time the Seattle franchise officially will join the league as its 32nd team. Every team in the league will be affected, as players from (nearly) every roster will be made available to Seattle for its inaugural roster. We continue with an examination of which forwards the Sharks likely are to protect and expose.

The Sharks are well-positioned to hang on to their key forwards when the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft rolls around. As long as they take a similar approach to the previous expansion draft, that is. 

San Jose can either protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and a goaltender. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson opted for the latter option ahead of the 2017 draft, protecting then-pending unrestricted free-agent forward Ryan Carpenter and six others from being exposed to the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Carpenter joined the Golden Knights the following season after the Sharks waived him, but there were few other forwards they could protect while also satisfying the NHL's mandate that two under-contract forwards who played at least 70 games in the two seasons before the expansion draft or 40 games in the season immediately preceding it. Those rules remain in place for 2021 when Seattle joins the league, and the Sharks would have quite a few forwards with expansion eligibility who are under contract and/or team control beyond then.

Tomas Hertl (contract expiring in 2022), Timo Meier (2023), Evander Kane (2025) and Logan Couture (2027) all signed multi-year deals over the last two summers. Kevin Labanc, Dylan Gambrell and Antti Suomela each are at least two years away from unrestricted free agency. Hertl, Meier, Kane, Couture and Labanc figure to be established parts of the Sharks' forward corps by the time the expansion draft rolls around, even as Kane approaches his 30s and Couture moves deeper into his. San Jose has hopes Gambrell and Suomela can join those five as well. 

Thus, much of that group should form the backbone of the Sharks' protected forwards list in 2021. Some, however, could be exposed depending upon what other forwards are on the roster. 

Prospects like Joachim Blichfeld, Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich automatically will be protected because they've not yet accrued any professional seasons. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson (2020), Barclay Goodrow, Lukas Radil and Marcus Sorensen (2021) conceivably could hit the games requirement, but each player would have to be re-signed in order to be eligible for exposure in the draft. 

If the Sharks opt to once again protect seven forwards in 2021, they shouldn't have to worry about exposing Hertl, Meier and the like. The risk drops if any of the previously mentioned role players re-signs, or if Gambrell and/or Suomela plateau as regular bottom-six regulars. Growth from any of those aforementioned players beyond a spot on the third or fourth line could present Wilson some difficult decisions, but he likely wouldn't sweat additional development from anyone in that group too much. 

[RELATED: Could Sharks lose big-name D-man to Seattle in expansion?]

Protecting eight skaters increases the risk of losing a talented forward, however slightly. Defensemen Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic must be protected because of their no-movement clauses, and protecting an additional blue liner leaves room for just five forwards. Still, it's difficult to envision the Sharks protecting any more than three defensemen as things stand right now, considering top prospects Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley won't be eligible for exposure. 

At that point, it wouldn't make sense for the Sharks to intentionally protect fewer forwards than the maximum allowed under the rules. As long as they acquire or re-sign depth forwards who are eligible to be exposed, Wilson and the Sharks likely won't have to stress losing a key piece up front to the NHL's newest team. 

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Erik Karlsson is arguably the best player on the Sharks. According to NHL Network, San Jose's defenseman is the 24th-best player in the league.

In counting down the best players in the current NHL, the league's network placed Karlsson in between 25th-ranked David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, and 23rd-rank Mark Giordano, the Flames' reigning Norris Trophy winner.

"We know that he can put the puck just about anywhere, he can skate himself out of trouble, he can pass himself out of trouble, he can do just about anything," NHL Network's Brian Lawton said of Karlsson. "For a defenseman in today's game that played on one leg basically last year … he did have 16 points in 19 playoff games and it wasn't quite enough, but it was pretty darn heroic if you ask me."

Karlsson totaled 45 points in 53 regular-season games with the Sharks after arriving in San Jose at the start of training camp last year. The Sharks had their best stretch of the season once he found his groove in early December, and if not for a troublesome groin injury, there's no telling how far San Jose could have gone.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner still managed to appear in the All-Star Game, and signed a lucrative eight-year extension with San Jose at the start of free agency. He tallied at least 62 points in each of the previous five seasons, and his 563 points since making his NHL debut are the most among all NHL defenseman, ahead of fellow Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (532).

[RELATED: Listen to Jumbo Joe mic'd up at a recent Sharks practice]

Karlsson will be an alternate captain in his second season with the franchise, and one would naturally expect him to benefit from having played a year in the system. He ranked sixth among NHL defensemen in points per game (0.85) last year, and with the departures San Jose suffered in free agency, it wouldn't be surprising to see that rate increase in the season ahead, particularly considering Karlsson says he feels "back to normal" after offseason surgery to address the injury that hampered him a year ago.

Assuming Karlsson stays healthy this coming season, you can expect him to be ranked even higher a year from now.

Mic'd-up Joe Thornton's youthful energy on display at Sharks practice

Mic'd-up Joe Thornton's youthful energy on display at Sharks practice

Whether or not Joe Thornton is a national treasure is debatable, but he's certainly a regional one.

The future Hall of Famer was mic'd up at a recent Sharks' practice, and he put that quality on display. The 40-year-old didn't appear as if his age has caught up to him, as he was quite talkative and involved throughout.

Just watch for yourself:

Whether it was chasing on the forecheck or missing an empty net, the eldest member of the Sharks looked anything but. Enjoying his first healthy offseason in recent memory, Thornton's energy is certainly palpable, and that bodes well for the Sharks as they attempt to get back to the playoffs for the 20th time in the last 22 seasons.

Thornton signed a one-year contract at the beginning of the month to return to the Sharks for his 15th season in San Jose. He'll be one of four alternate captains on the team, after Logan Couture was named the 10th full-time captain in franchise history, taking over for the departed Joe Pavelski.

With Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist leaving in free agency during the offseason, the Sharks are counting on several prospects to take a step forward this coming season -- and on Thornton to help them succeed at the NHL level. While line pairings are still in flux, it wouldn't be shocking whatsoever to see Thornton paired with one of those prospects on his wing.

[RELATED: Sharks' roster hopefuls still 'auditioning' as season nears]

Based on Thornton's mic'd up session, he'll be talking that prospects' ear off all game long.