Sharks

Sharks

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.