Sharks' Karlsson 'tenacious on the puck' as Hertl's replacement


Sharks' Karlsson 'tenacious on the puck' as Hertl's replacement

SAN JOSE – Melker Karlsson was one of the few bright spots on the Sharks during the mess that was the 2014-15 season. In 53 games, he posted 13 goals and 11 assists in being named as the organization’s Rookie of the Year. He was rewarded with a two-year, $3.3 million contract in the offseason.

This season, though, the 25-year-old has been one of the rare disappointments. Karlsson never really took that next step in his development, perhaps hindered by a lower body injury that kept him out from training camp until early November, and posted just 19 points (10g, 9a) in 65 games.

He’s suddenly in the spotlight in the Stanley Cup Final, though, as the replacement for Tomas Hertl on the Sharks’ top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. He spent the majority of Game 3 there, and with Hertl’s status still in doubt – coach Pete DeBoer said only that Hertl is day-to-day on Sunday – Karlsson will likely stick on the left wing with the two Sharks stars, where he spent the majority of his rookie season.

[RATTO: Sharks turn sprinting series into marathon with depth]

Karlsson said: “[Hertl] has done a really good job on that line and they like playing with him. It’s a tough break for him and for that line, but I’m trying to do my best to keep it a top line.”

“[Melker] made some great plays, created some energy and got in on the forecheck,” Pavelski said. “All the things that when we have played with Melk, that’s what he’s done. I think it was fine.”

In 17 minutes and 31 seconds of ice time, Karlsson didn’t record a shot on goal, while throwing four hits. 

Still, he made a few deft plays. He set up Brent Burns in front with a between-the-legs pass from below the goal line that the Wookiee couldn't quite finish off, and then in overtime, his tenacity helped keep the Penguins pinned in their own zone just moments before Joonas Donskoi’s shot beat Matt Murray.

“I just went to my guy and really don’t know what happened,” Karlsson said of his play on the overtime goal.

[KURZ: Sharks 'not too worried' about shot discrepancy with Pens]

Coach Pete DeBoer gave Karlsson more credit with helping the Sharks claim their first victory in the series.

“Melker, like the rest of our group, was great,” DeBoer said. “He was tenacious on the puck, he was in on the forecheck, caused the turnover on the overtime goal.”

DeBoer credits high-end players like Thornton and Pavelski for having the ability to seamlessly integrate other players into top line roles when necessary, much like the Penguins do. That can at least lessen the blow of losing a player like Hertl, who was probably the Sharks’ best forward through the first two games.

“I think when you have really good players up top, you can have those interchangeable parts,” DeBoer said. “Pittsburgh has got it. You look at the guys they pair with [Evgeni] Malkin or [Sidney] Crosby. They're not household names, some of them.

“Because you have quality people up top, you can stick in complementary guys like that, and they can be very effective. I think Melker is one of those guys.”

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Salary cap constraints

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Salary cap constraints

The Sharks' top priority this offseason was getting Erik Karlsson inked to a long-term contract.

Mission accomplished, but at a significant cost -- and I'm not just referring to the $92 million Karlsson will earn over the next eight seasons.

That isn't to say Karlsson isn't worth it. He most definitely is. During San Jose's most dominant stretches last season, he was unquestionably the Sharks' best player. Had he not suffered a debilitating groin injury that severely limited him at times during the postseason, it might have been San Jose winning its first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and not the St. Louis Blues.

Karlsson is worth the contract, and certainly would have received a similar offer -- if not larger -- on the open market. When healthy, he's the best defenseman in the game.

But in order to lock up the former Norris Trophy winner to a long-term deal, the Sharks had to face a harsh reality. It simply wasn't going to be possible to sign both Karlsson and former captain Joe Pavelski to market-rate contracts. In a salary-cap league, teams are forced to make tough choices.

Karlsson is in. Pavelski is out.

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson doesn't just chase the big fish; he's quite adept at landing them. Every team wants to have star players, but in order to have them, you have to pay for 'em.

The Sharks have a lot of big fish. Karlsson, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Evander Kane are all making at least $7 million per season for the next six years. That's a lot of money tied up in a small portion of the roster. Add in the contracts for Timo Meier (four years, $6 million AAV), Tomas Hertl (three years, $5.25 million AAV) and Martin Jones (five years, $5.75 million AAV), and you have a pretty good idea of San Jose's core for the foreseeable future.

And that's a major threat to the Sharks' ability to win a cup anytime soon.

San Jose has 21 players signed for the upcoming season with just over $4.6 million remaining in projected cap space, according to Cap Friendly. Moving forward, though, the Sharks won't have much wiggle room.

Outside of the aforementioned core, only Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow and Dylan Gambrell are signed beyond this coming season, and all three are due to become free agents the year after that. That means that San Jose currently has just 11 players under contract for 2020-21, with only $19.5 million remaining in projected cap space to fill out the rest of the roster. Looking ahead to 2021-22, the Sharks have only eight players under contract, with $22.625 million remaining in projected cap space.

[RELATED: Why looming NHL lockout is threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

Wilson has done a tremendous job identifying undervalued lower-salaried players that have provided depth throughout so many playoff runs. He's also done well to acquire top-end talent through the draft, despite frequently being without a first-round pick. Given San Jose's salary situation, and the fact that the Sharks don't have a first, fourth or sixth-round pick in 2020, nor a second-round pick in 2021, it's essential that Wilson continues to be successful in those two areas in particular.

If he's not, the Sharks won't have the depth to compete for a Cup in the near future, no matter how many big fish they have.

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Potential NHL lockout

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Potential NHL lockout

Editor's Note: Now that the Blues and Capitals have gotten off the Stanley Cup schneid, there's arguably no NHL franchise more "due" to win a Cup than the Sharks. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the five biggest threats to San Jose's championship aspirations in the relatively near future. We continue with the upcoming CBA negotiations that could result in a potential lockout.

The current NHL collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021-22 season, meaning there's no need to worry about any sort of lockout occurring before then, right?


Yes, the CBA expires after the 2021-22 season, but both the league and the NHL Players' Association have options to opt-out of it next month, just as teams are convening for the start of training camp. Even if neither side chooses to do so at that time, there is plenty of reason to believe the NHL could experience its fourth work stoppage under commissioner Gary Bettman at some point in the near future.

And, if that indeed does occur, one could make the case there are few teams that would be more negatively impacted than the Sharks.

San Jose has done an incredible job of prolonging its championship window -- more times than once. The Sharks only have missed the playoffs twice since 1998, reaching the Western Conference final five times in that span. The most recent of those trips came just this past season when San Jose was eliminated in six games by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues.

The developments of the offseason have done nothing to remove the Sharks from the list of legitimate contenders.

But, all good things must come to an end, and that window -- at some point -- eventually will close. The fact of the matter is, while general manager Doug Wilson has replenished the roster with several quality young players, the ones that have formed the backbone of so many of those playoff runs are getting long in the tooth.

Joe Pavelski is gone. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture will turn 35, 33 and 31 years old, respectively, this coming March. Erik Karlsson, who signed an eight-year contract at the start of the offseason, turns 30 in May. Surefire Hall of Famer Joe Thornton is 40, and while he's currently unsigned, you can count on seeing him in teal for at least one more season. 

All of this is to say, the Sharks can't afford to waste any time. They've come close -- very close -- to winning it all multiple times, but last year's team might have been the most talented in franchise history, and still it fell short. One naturally would assume that if San Jose is going to end its lengthy Stanley Cup drought, it will occur while some or most of that talented and decorated core still is intact.

Any sort of work stoppage -- for however long -- would therefore rapidly increase the speed with which that window closes.

Now, there is optimism that the two sides will be able to avoid any such lockout, but there are a few contentious issues that will be at the heart of the negotiations, most notably the percentage of player contracts held in escrow, and the feasibility of NHL players participating in the Winter Olympics mid-season. Given how certain star players have set up their contracts for the 2020-21 season, it's clear that optimism isn't shared by all.

[RELATED: Why 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is threat to Sharks' cup hopes]

For instance, $12 million of Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid's $13 million 2020-21 contract is in the form of a signing bonus to be paid in July. Similarly, Toronto's John Tavares will make more than $11 million of his $12 million 2020-21 salary in the form of a lump sum, thereby ensuring he'll receive the vast majority of his salary whether there's a lockout in 2020 or 2022, or not at all.

The most recent NHL lockout reduced the 2012-13 season to 48 games. The one before that eliminated the 2004-05 season altogether. If the next one occurs anytime soon, it will steal time from the Sharks that they simply don't have.