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Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

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Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

It wasn't that long ago that the Sharks had a talent advantage over just about every other team in the NHL. However, due to a combination of departures, injuries and the general passage of time, that advantage has been significantly diminished, if not evaporated altogether.

And, barring some one-sided trades, it's unlikely to be built up again in short order.

In addition to the fact that San Jose has an aging roster, it doesn't have many obvious solutions waiting on deck. The Sharks don't have a first-round pick in the upcoming 2020 draft, and their minor-league system lacks a stable of sure-fire future NHLers. If that wasn't frightening enough, their prospect pool pales in comparison to almost all of their current division rivals, according to The Athletic's Scott Wheeler.

Wheeler has been unveiling his 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings over the last month, and while he is generally higher on the Sharks' prospects than most other evaluators, that assessment is relative. Of the 31 teams in the league, Wheeler ranked San Jose's prospect pool No. 25 overall. Of all the Pacific Division teams, only the Calgary Flames' prospect pool was ranked worse (No. 26).

Now for the scary part.

The Los Angeles Kings were ranked No. 1 overall, while the Anaheim Ducks (No. 6) and Vegas Golden Knights (No. 10) also fell in the top 10. The Vancouver Canucks came in at No. 13, and the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars were ranked No. 15 and No. 18, respectively. 

Yikes.

Most other teams in the division have caught up to San Jose this season, and based on the prospect pool rankings, they're well situated to shoot right on past the Sharks in the near future. Wheeler's rankings are based on both volume and quality, but projected skill level is paramount. That's where San Jose gets dinged.

[RELATED: Sharks' Burns advises Ferraro how to better protect himself]

To be eligible for Wheeler's prospect pool rankings, a player must meet three criteria:

  • Be younger than 23 years old (for goalies, under 24)
  • Not currently in the NHL (with rare exceptions)
  • Either signed to an NHL contract or selected in the entry draft, without the expiration of either of those rights

For each team, Wheeler ranked a minimum of 15 prospects and a maximum of 20, all of which he believes have "even a remote chance at the NHL." Starting at the bottom with the No. 31-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets and moving upward, the Sharks were the first team listed with more than the minimum 15 prospects (they have 18). Wheeler is impressed by the depth in San Jose's system, but admits he's "not in love with many of the guys near the top."

"The result is a lot of interest, without a ton of fascination," Wheeler summarized. "A lot of players who have tools that might help them into depth roles but overall very few I’d bank on as top-of-the-lineup options."

In addition to ranking the prospect pools across the league, Wheeler also broke down each team's respective prospect pool into tiers. San Jose was split into four, with a description of each:

Tier 1: Ryan Merkley

"On talent and upside alone, Merkley is the clear No. 1, with the ability to play higher in the lineup and make more of an impact offensively than any other prospect in the organization." 

Tier 2: Joachim Blichfeld, Jonathan Dahlen, Sash Chmelevski, Artemi Knyazev and Noah Gregor 

"A really strong group of five prospects who I think have a chance at being middle six contributors."

Tier 3: Alexander True, Lean Bergmann, Jeremy Roy, Ivan Chekhovich, Yegor Spiridonov and John Leonard 

"Another group of six players with legitimate NHL hopes."

Tier 4: Nicolas Meloche, Jayden Halbgewachs, Vladislav Kotkov, Karlis Cukste, Timur Ibragimov and Dillon Hamaliuk

"A final group of prospects that all have intriguing NHL qualities and an outside chance."

While Wheeler's prospect pool rankings paint a somewhat bleak picture for the Sharks, it could get considerably brighter soon, depending on what happens at the upcoming trade deadline and in the 2020 entry draft. With the playoffs all but out of the picture, San Jose has every reason to see what it can get in return for anyone who could provide more value to the organization elsewhere than if they remained with it.

The Sharks don't have a first-round pick right now, but there's a decent chance they could acquire one, or at least add some more selections or prospects to their arsenal. If the near future is going to be brighter for San Jose than the present, the Sharks will not only need some of their current prospects to quickly take steps forward but also acquire new ones that will raise the overall talent level in the system.

How Sharks can use 2020 NHL trade deadline to upgrade goalie position

How Sharks can use 2020 NHL trade deadline to upgrade goalie position

It's no secret the Sharks have suffered from below-average goaltending over the last two seasons. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning scored more goals than San Jose last year, and yet they were one of seven teams with a better goal differential than the Sharks, who finished with the worst cumulative save percentage in the NHL (.889). It's barely been any better this season, as the tandem of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has posted a .894 cumulative save percentage thus far, ranking 29th out of 31 teams.

Making matters worse, there's no obvious solution on the horizon. Jones, 30, has another four years remaining on his contract at $5.7 million per after this season, and he actually has performed worse in 2019-20 than he did in 2018-19. His save percentage and goals-against average both have continued to move in the wrong direction, and the fact that Dell appears to have taken over the No. 1 job doesn't exactly bode well for his ability to turn things around.

Dell, on the other hand, arguably has been San Jose's biggest bright spot in what has been a thoroughly disappointing season. His save percentage (.909) and GAA (.289) nearly are identical to the league averages. The problem is, he turns 31 in May and will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season. Chances are, Dell will get a more lucrative offer on the open market than San Jose will be able to afford.

Making the situation even direr, the Sharks currently don't have any other goalies in their system with NHL experience beyond Jones and Dell.

Of course, this all assumes San Jose maintains the status quo. But we're only a few days away from the trade deadline, which has the potential to shake up the established order. There are numerous potential trade possibilities through which the Sharks could upgrade the goalie position, whether in the immediate or with eyes toward the future.

Robin Lehner

Lehner had a tremendous season (25-13-5) for the New York Islanders last year, but for whatever reason, he didn't receive the long-term offers he was looking for in free agency, so he ended up signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. The 28-year-old has outperformed that contract this season, and has played better than his 35-year-old counterpart Corey Crawford, who, like Lehner, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. One naturally would assume Chicago would prefer to keep the better, younger goalie if forced to choose between the two, but Crawford has a modified no-trade clause and a no-movement clause in his contract, which basically rules out that possibility.

The Blackhawks would have to be highly motivated to part with Lehner, but due to his age and track record, San Jose would have every reason to be very interested in him. The Sharks would have to give up something they would prefer to keep -- maybe a package centered around Kevin Labanc? -- but as they've been constantly reminded over the last few seasons, good goalies are worth the price.

Casey DeSmith, Daniel Vladar

In an effort to find Jones' replacement, perhaps San Jose should use the same strategy it took in acquiring him. Jones had been trapped behind Jonathan Quick throughout his time with the Los Angeles Kings, but revealed himself to be a quality starting goaltender -- temporarily, at least -- once he got an opportunity with the Sharks.

Like Jones when he was with the Kings, Casey DeSmith, 28, has played well over a brief cup of coffee in the NHL. But with the Pittsburgh Penguins having one of the top young goaltending tandems in the league this season in Tristan Jarry (24) and Matt Murray (25), his path to the No. 1 spot is extremely obstructed. DeSmith has posted a 2.77 GAA and .908 save percentage over 36 AHL games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season, and carries a $1.25 million cap hit for the next two seasons after this one. He would cost significantly less to acquire than Lehner.

If the Sharks want to look further down the line and go even younger with their goaltending trade target, Daniel Vladar seems like a good prospect to focus on. The 22-year-old has posted a 1.79 GAA and .936 save percentage over 19 AHL games with the Providence Bruins this season, and with Tuukka Rask one of the leading candidates to win the Vezina Trophy, Vladar won't be taking over the top job with the Boston Bruins anytime soon.

Vladar is on the final year of his entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season  -- the exact scenario Jones was in when the Sharks acquired him. With Jaroslav Halak proving to be a more-than-adequate backup to Rask, San Jose might be able to acquire Vladar on the cheap depending on Boston's plans for him.

[RELATED: Why Sharks probably could have done better in Dillon trade]

Henrik Lundqvist

On the polar opposite end of the spectrum of Vladar is soon-to-be 38-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. The legendary goalie appears to be at the tail end of his impressive tenure with the New York Rangers, as he now is both considerably older and arguably worse than Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, who both appear to have passed him on the depth chart.

The Rangers only have been slightly better than the Sharks this season, so they, too, have every reason to look towards the future -- which Lundqvist doesn't figure into. The problem is, King Henrik is on the books for $8.5 million this season and the next before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

His peripheral stats this season are very similar to Jones, but he also has a much lengthier track record of success. Lundqvist is the NHL's current active leader with 184.1 goals saved above average throughout his career, according to Hockey Reference, which ranks as the 14th-most all-time. Jones, on the other hand, is at -21.7 over his seven-year career and has never ranked in the top-20 in that category in any single season during his tenure with the Sharks.

Might the two sides consider swapping their expensive, yet underperforming netminders? From the Sharks' perspective, they would get out of the remaining four years on Jones' contract and only take back salary for next season. Lundqvist also would potentially upgrade the position for San Jose, and would fit right into the franchise's hopes to get back into contention next year. For New York, the appeal would be in getting younger and cheaper in the immediate, and adding whatever else the Sharks likely would need to involve in the trade to get a deal done.

While it's uncertain how the Sharks plan to address their goaltending situation moving forward, there is no question that they must do so. The status quo clearly isn't working, and the trade deadline offers an opportunity for San Jose to go in a new direction.

Programming Note: The "2020 NHL Trade Deadline Show" is coming your way this Monday, Feb. 24 at 11:30 am on the MyTeams app and on NBCSportsBayArea.com! How will the Sharks be impacted heading into the Noon deadline? Don’t miss it!

Brenden Dillon thanks Sharks fans, San Jose after trade to Capitals

Brenden Dillon thanks Sharks fans, San Jose after trade to Capitals

Before the Sharks trade that would send Brenden Dillon to the Washington Capitals took place on Tuesday, the defenseman was emotional talking to the media upon the possibility of leaving San Jose.

After the inevitable deal happened, Dillon had a moment to say what spending six seasons with the Sharks meant to him.

"First and foremost, the city here, the fan base has been unbelievable," Dillon told the media on Tuesday. "Doug (Wilson) from day one, he really believed in me as a player, bringing me in here." 

'I've learned so much, and I think when I came here -- you know, a 22, 23-year-old guy, just trying to build this game, I think for my second year being part of going to the Stanley Cup Finals, see the grind, see how hard it is to get there, you need a lot of things to go right, you need a lot of the special people, I think that's helped me."

Wilson, the Sharks' general manager, mirrored the emotions on having to go through with a trade of this magnitude. 

"Such an amazing teammate," Wilson said about Dillon. "Wonderful guy, right from the day he's come here and he's made people around him better, and how he's carried himself, his fiancée Emma -- very much appreciate everything they've done for this organization."

For Dillon, the Sharks received a 2020 second-round draft pick (Colorado's previously acquired by Washington) and a third-round draft pick in either 2020 or 2021 from the Caps.

The 29-year-old came to San Jose in a trade from the Dallas Stars in November of 2014. Across those six seasons with the Sharks, he appeared in 439 games, posting 88 points with 13 goals and 75 assists. He has played the ninth-most games in Sharks history, and has the seventh-most penalty minutes in franchise history.

Programming Note: The "2020 NHL Trade Deadline Show" is coming your way this Monday, Feb. 24 at 11:30am on the MyTeams app and on NBCSportsBayArea.com! How will the Sharks be impacted heading into the Noon deadline? Don’t miss it!