Sharks

Sharks' five biggest summer priorities to return to playoffs

Sharks
Sharks' Doug Wilson
USATSI

This Sharks season ended much like the last one, minus an interruption of a few months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

San Jose will be Stanley Cup playoffs spectators for the second consecutive year. The Sharks, officially, are in the longest postseason drought of general manager Doug Wilson's tenure.

Wilson and the front office are in a tricky place this summer, with much of his roster publicly stating they expect the team to be competitive next season. But after two consecutive cellar-dwelling finishes, and with no real blue-chip prospects on the verge of their NHL debuts, is that a reasonable expectation?

It is for this franchise, at least, considering the Sharks have never missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons in their history.

With the 2020-21 regular season over following the Sharks' 6-0 loss to the division rival Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday, here are San Jose's biggest offseason priorities eyeing a return to the playoffs.

Find a solution in net

Rookie goalies Alexei Melnichuk and Josef Korenar both made their NHL debuts after the trade deadline, but both are too green to be the Sharks' starter next season. They've combined for just 92 AHL appearances and a .895 save percentage in the NHL's top minor league.

It's also clear that Martin Jones is not the Sharks' answer in the crease. This season was his third straight with a .896 save percentage, and he was pulled from more starts (eight) than any other campaign in his career. San Jose tried to platoon Jones with Devan Dubnyk, but the former's season was more of the same.

 

Jones is signed for each of the next three seasons with a $5.75 million cap hit, so the Sharks -- short of a buyout -- will have to get creative to find him a new home. The free-agent class is loaded with goaltenders, too, but the Sharks will have to be careful not to make the same mistake as they did with Jones by locking up another netminder who isn't elite.

Extend -- or trade -- Tomas Hertl

Hertl was one of the Sharks' few bright spots this season, scoring 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists) in 50 games. He's also an unrestricted free agent in 2022, meaning he's eligible to sign a contract extension this summer.

The Sharks could use more depth behind Hertl down the middle, but San Jose also needs to see where the Czech center fits on a team with five players -- all older than 28 -- making at least $7 million through 2025, all as the salary cap remains flat for the foreseeable future. Trading him this summer, and at the draft, in particular, could allow the Sharks to replenish their prospect pool and the bottom of their roster.

Of course, it's hard to envision the Sharks making the playoffs without Hertl, but a decision on his future must be made either way. San Jose's trade leverage will only decrease after the draft, and entering the season with a lingering contract dilemma would be far from ideal.

Shed a contract in the Expansion Draft

The Sharks, as it stands right now, have just shy of $8 million in space under the salary cap with 19 players under contract. That could make San Jose a player in free agency and, potentially, to acquire another team's unwanted contract.

Wilson could use some more flexibility, though, and the Expansion Draft is a unique opportunity to gain some. It's difficult to envision him exposing all of Jones, defenseman Brent Burns and winger Evander Kane, but he should consider it. Each of those three makes at least $5.75 million through 2024, and the Sharks could be real players this offseason with one of those contracts off the book.

Kane was the Sharks' best player this season, and top prospect Ryan Merkley probably isn't ready to take Burns' place on the blue line. San Jose would be foolish to incentivize the Seattle Kraken to take one of those three by attaching a first-round pick, but the Sharks should aggressively explore all side deals just short of that.

Tell Jonathan Dahlen the way to San Jose

The Swedish center once again dazzled in his home country, scoring 93 points in 60 games while captaining Timara to promotion to the top-tier SHL. With even more confidence under his belt, it's time for the Sharks to convince the 23-year-old to give the NHL another shot. 

Dahlen didn't have the best experience in the Vancouver Canucks organization, but the Sharks can offer Dahlen a real chance. Wilson identified center as a need this offseason, and Dahlen should be able to compete for a spot down the middle.

 

Dahlen would be, fairly easily, the most dynamic of the Sharks' collection of young forwards if he made the move to North America. San Jose will hope he's more like Joonas Donskoi than Antti Suomela in the transition, but Dahlen has talent worth gambling on.

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Add a top-six forward

Whether it's through free agency, trade or the continued development of some of their young players, the Sharks have a pretty big hole (or two) in their top six. And that's with the unexpected emergence of Alexander Barabanov.

If Kane and Hertl are on the roster, they'll be playing with Barabanov. Logan Couture will center one of the top two lines, but Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc didn't endear themselves at times to coach Bob Boughner during this shortened season. Rudolfs Balcers also cooled off after a hot start, as did Ryan Donato.

Could Russian winger Ivan Checkhovich seize a top-six role after a summer of development? Can Noah Gregor? At the very least, the Sharks could use another forward (or two) to push their young forwards in camp. Pushing them down the depth chart into roles they're best suited for would be even better.