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 conclude with a projection of the Sharks' protected list.
Two summers from now, the Sharks will have to submit their protection list for the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
While that may seem like quite a distance in the future, teams are already preparing for the arrival of the currently unnamed Seattle franchise, which will join the Pacific Division ahead of the 2021-22 season. Seattle's roster will be comprised of players from the other teams in the league (except Vegas) who were left unprotected by their respective clubs.
We've covered the rules that will govern the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, and identified the goalies, defensemen and forwards San Jose is likely to both protect and expose. San Jose has two options at its disposal. Either a) protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or b) protect eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and one goalie.
Based on what we know now, here's an educated guess at who the Sharks will protect in each of those scenarios.
Option A: 11 players (seven forwards, three defensemen, one goalie)
Couture, Meier and Hertl are all locks to be protected. There's no chance Sharks general manager Doug Wilson lets any of them get away.
Kane is slightly more questionable, but hard to envision him not being protected in this scenario. He'll be entering his age-29 season at the time and carries a $7 million cap hit, but there's a reason Wilson both traded for the dynamic winger and signed him to a long-term contract.
Labanc just re-signed a one-year contract with San Jose, but he appears to be a critical piece of their foundation moving forward. If the Sharks re-sign him to a long-term contract next offseason, you can be sure it's with the intention of keeping him in San Jose for more than a year.
Sorensen and True are the toughest calls here, as it likely means exposing other young forwards like Dylan Gambrell and Antti Suomela. However, True's development -- he led the AHL Barracuda with 55 points in 68 games last season -- makes that easier to swallow. Sorensen is due to hit unrestricted free agency during the 2021 offseason, but the bet here is that San Jose re-signs the speedy winger (who has been a favorite of Peter DeBoer's) and protects him as well.
Karlsson and Vlasic are certainties. Both have no-movement clauses and are thus automatically protected unless they waive those clauses, which they won't.
Burns, on the other hand, has no such clause, and there is certainly a scenario in which San Jose elects to expose him. For instance, if Burns declines rapidly over the next two seasons, and is entering his age-36 season with still three additional seasons left of an $8 million cap hit, the expansion draft would afford the Sharks the opportunity to get out of the remainder of that contract. Of course, there's no guarantee that he would be picked up by Seattle in that situation.
However, based on Burns' performance last season, a rapid drop-off doesn't seem likely. And if he is able to maintain anything close to his Norris Trophy-level production, there simply isn't another defensemen in the organization worth protecting over Burns at this time.
One could make the case the Sharks should expose Jones, but looking at the current organizational depth chart, San Jose might not be able to risk that. Of course, if 21-year-old Josef Korenar (2.54 GAA, .911 SV% in 34 games with the Barracuda last season) makes the leap between now and the expansion draft, things could get very interesting.
Option B: 9 players (eight skaters, one goalie)
The tough decisions here revolve around Kane and Burns. If the Sharks choose to go with Option B, it's difficult to envision them using three of their eight skater protections on defensemen. With Karlsson and Vlasic having no-movement clauses, Burns is the odd man out.
It could certainly come down to a choice between Kane and Burns, given their sizeable cap hits. If one of San Jose's young forward prospects, such as Alex Chmelevski or Ivan Chekhovich, emerges between now and then, it might allow the Sharks to expose Kane and protect Burns (or anyone else) instead.
This is a projection for True, but if he continues along his current trajectory, the 22-year old will be worth protecting in either scenario.
See Option A. Unless another goalie emerges, the Sharks probably won't be able to afford to let Jones get away. However, San Jose likes its organizational depth at that position, and it will be worth keeping an eye on who Jones' backup is over the next two seasons.
As things currently stand, it sure seems like San Jose's evaluation of Burns heading into the 2021 offseason will have a determining effect on which option the Sharks choose to go with. If they feel like he can still play at a high level two years from now, then Option A would seem to be the way to go. But if Burns falls off, or if San Jose needs to find a way to get out of some major salary, he could be on the chopping block.