NHL expansion draft: Sharks could protect, expose superstar defensemen


NHL expansion draft: Sharks could protect, expose superstar defensemen

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 defensemen the Sharks likely are to protect and expose.

If one of the Sharks' position groups drives home the uncertainty of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, it's their defense. 

San Jose currently has three blue liners under contract for the 2021-22 season, which will be Seattle's first in the NHL: Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Whether the Sharks opt to protect 11 players (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie) or nine (eight skaters and a goaltender), Karlsson and Vlasic likely are going to have their names on the protected lists. 

That's because both players' contracts contain no-movement clauses. Unless they opt to waive those clauses, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson will have to protect both players ahead of the expansion draft. Burns, who will be 36 at the time of the draft and is under contract until 2025, would not have to be protected. 

Could the Norris Trophy winner -- and three-time finalist -- be available for the Metropolitans Sasquatch Salmon Unnamed Seattle Franchise when the team joins the league in 2021? Much of that will depend upon Burns' performance, and just what San Jose's defense looks like in two years. 

According to the league's rules, the Sharks will have to expose a defenseman who is under contract for Seattle's first season (2021-22) and has played in either 40 games in 2020-21 or 70 total games in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Defensive prospects Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley could reach those totals if they're on the NHL roster, but both players automatically are protected since neither would have played more than two professional seasons at that point. 

Brenden Dillon, Tim Heed and Radim Simek all can hit unrestricted free agency in 2020, when the Sharks would have $62 million in salary commitments and 11 players under contract, according to Cap Friendly. That probably won't cause a salary-cap crunch that resulted in forwards Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist departing as unrestricted free agents while San Jose worked out an eight-year deal with Erik Karlsson and a four-year deal with Timo Meier.

But Kevin Labanc's new contract and/or Ferraro, Merkley or another prospect being ready for a bigger role could make the Sharks let Dillon, Heed or Simek test the market. 

As a result, the 2020 offseason should be instructive of the Sharks' plans for the expansion draft the following summer. Retaining any of the aforementioned three players likely would give the Sharks at least one defenseman who they are able to expose other than Burns, assuming they hit the games requirement. A prospect who already has made their pro debut, such as Nick DeSimone or Jacob Middleton, emerging as an NHL option could add another eligible unprotected player, as would signing a defenseman from a large free-agent class next summer.

If Burns, who just scored a career-high 83 points and has played 82 games each of the last five seasons, continues to perform at an elite level into his mid-30s, the Sharks conceivably could protect him in an expansion draft for the second time in five years. As it stands right now, they would need to retain some of their pending free agents or have a younger internal candidate replace one of them.

If Burns begins to decline, San Jose conceivably could choose to expose him in the draft. They have parted ways with two of the four longest-tenured players in franchise history (Pavelski and Patrick Marleau) in two of the last three offseasons, and exposing Burns would clear an $8 million cap hit. 

[RELATED: Which goalie will Sharks protect in expansion draft?]

Of course, that doesn't mean he would be Seattle-bound. The NHL's 32nd team would need to take on enough salary to reach at least 60 percent of the 2020-21 salary-cap ceiling, but general manager Ron Francis might turn to Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee's playbook and take on shorter-term contracts.

Plenty can change between now and the 2021 expansion draft, and the Sharks' lack of salary commitments outside of their big three on the blue line creates plenty of possibilities. We know which defensemen the Seattle franchise won't be able to choose, but the ones it can are up in the air.

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

What Sharks can learn from last time they missed Stanley Cup playoffs

The Sharks we so bad in 2019-20 that they couldn’t even qualify for an expanded 24-team NHL playoff field designed to wrap a campaign paused by the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ll be watching playoff hockey from home for just the second time in 16 seasons, an outlier outcome for a team that has been as steadily successful as any in professional sports.

The Sharks fell flat during a disastrous season where they finished dead-freaking-last in the Pacific Division and never got off the canvas after a brutal start. A team full of veteran stars finds itself in an odd position heading into a prolonged offseason, trying to find a way to rebound quickly from a disappointing campaign.

Many top players were around the last time the Sharks missed the postseason in 2014-15, and while the situations are not identical, there are lessons to be gleaned from the experience and their previous response to disappointment.

They finished above .500 in that 2014-15 season, and didn’t miss the postseason by much. The Sharks went 3-10 in the month of February, which sank their playoff chances and prompted the team and head coach Todd McLellan to mutually part ways.

But the Sharks reached different depths in 2019-20. They were the Western Conference’s worst team despite a roster full of heavyweights, with injuries to key players and some internal discord preventing the Sharks from reaching their vast potential. The letdown also led to Peter DeBoer's in-season firing and a coaching search now underway.

But Sharks captain Logan Couture knows a lot can be learned from that last offseason.

“I think a lot of guys went home during that summer determined to be in better shape and add some bite to their game,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said last week during a video conference with local reporters. “[Sharks GM Doug Wilson] challenged a lot of us to step up our games and improve as players. We wanted to come into the next year and prove that we were still a good team here in San Jose. I believe that summer a lot of people wrote us off and said the window was closed, that the team was done and to stick a fork in them.”

The Sharks surely will see similar predictions this offseason, just as they did five years ago, and it could prove to a motivating factor this time around.

“I think that lit a fire in a lot of us, and I think we’ll have a similar response this year,” Couture said. “There are going people writing those same articles. There are going to be fans thinking the same things. The only way that can change is if we make it change and show everyone we’re still a good team.

“We still have the pieces, in my mind, to compete. That’s all we can do, just work as hard as we can this summer and be as prepared as we can heading into the next training camp. I don’t think our camp this year was up to par, so we need to have a better one and get off to a good start, because we didn’t have a good one this year.”

Defenseman Erik Karlsson hasn’t been in San Jose long, but experienced plenty of disappointing seasons with the Ottawa Senators. He missed the playoffs four times with that club and each time – he was traded after missing the 2017-18 postseason -- the team responded to each setback with a playoff berth the following season.

“Every time you have a letdown, when you don’t feel that you performed up to the standards that you would like, it gets to everybody on the team and within the organization,” Karlsson said. “You have to make sure you come into the next year as prepared as possible to avoid having a bad situation repeat itself. That type of response shows a lot of character, and we have a lot of high-character guys on this team. I feel like, ever since we found out our season was ending, everyone has committed to coming back stronger next year.”

[RELATED: Couture believes Sharks' ambition must be high in long offseason]

The Sharks came back super strong after missing the 2014-15 playoffs, reaching the Stanley Cup Final the following season. It will take some discipline and consistency to find similar form after a down year, with possibly eight months between their last game and the start of next season, which should be delayed due to a prolonged hiatus due to the ongoing public health crisis.

“Even not playing now, you’re going to have to train for seven or eight months. That sucks,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “It’s not fun. It’s tough work to get your body and mind ready for a year and we have to figure out how to do that for double, triple the time. Guys train as hard as they can and thank the gods it’s only two and a half months away from the game. It’s going to be difficult.”

Sharks vow to learn, grow from adversity faced during 2019-20 season

Sharks vow to learn, grow from adversity faced during 2019-20 season

The Sharks aren’t used to losing. Say what you want about the team’s inability to complete a NHL playoff run and hoist a Stanley Cup, but there’s no doubt this team has been an excellent regular-season unit and a perennial contender for more than two decades.

The Sharks last finished the regular season below .500 during 2002-03 season, going on a 15-season run of winning hockey snapped this year. The Sharks were terrible despite plenty of star power, unable to improve on an awful start that got Peter DeBoer fired and left the team languishing in the Pacific Division cellar.

The Sharks didn’t handle it well.

Goalie Martin Jones was honest about that fact in an interview with SportsNet’s Elliott Friedman.

“When it started to spiral, we went our own ways instead of coming together,” Jones said in a column published May 14. “It’s something that will be addressed moving forward.”

Airing dirty laundry, even with a constructive spin, isn’t always welcome in the aftermath of a season gone awry. Jones’ teammates, however, had no issue confirming the fact the Sharks frayed a bit as losses started to mount.

“When you’re losing and things aren't going your way, frustrating builds and it builds quickly,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said. “With us, a lot of guys in our room have never gone through a season like that. Some may have years ago, but not recently. From top to bottom I don’t think anyone handled it the best possible way. I’m obviously in that group. There’s a lot that I think I can learn from.”

[RELATED: What Couture learned from first season as Sharks captain]

The Sharks were tested during a difficult campaign and they didn’t always pass, but the veteran leaders are determined to use it as a teachable moment to handle adversity better in the future.

“It’s easy for guys to be good guys if everything’s going well, but you don’t really grow from that,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “You know what this feels like now. A lot of guys hadn’t been through a lot of that before. It’s not easy. Guys here know it’s hard. They have grown through a culture that has been very successful through a lot of work and a mental edge. It’s important not to lose that mental edge. It was not fun. There aren’t a lot of positives you can take from [season], other than not wanting to go back there. It’s frustrating. There’s nothing great about it.”

[RELATED: Sharks GM Doug Wilson discusses odd end of season, coaching search]

Defenseman Erik Karlsson wasn’t happy about the team’s response to adversity, but he didn’t consider it out of the ordinary or something that frayed relationships that could linger into future seasons. The Sharks’ goal is to contain a bad campaign and make it the outlier their history suggests it could be.

“When things don’t go your way individually and as a team, it’s nothing more than natural that you start thinking in different directions and looking for solutions that might not be there,” Karlsson said. “Overthinking is one of the biggest mistakes you can make but something we all do in tough situations. That’s especially true when you don’t feel like you are doing enough or playing up to your own standards.

“Anything that happened this year was a normal reaction you would’ve gotten on any team in any sport. … I didn’t see anything alarming, and I don’t really judge the things that happened this year. You get to see a lot of different sides of people you hadn’t seen before, and you learn a lot about yourself. This year is something for each individual to learn from when looking at the situation and what they could do differently if a situation like this creeps up again.”

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]