The start of free agency is days away, and the Sharks are awaiting the decision of prized free agent-to-be John Tavares. On Friday, The New York Islanders center will reportedly decide whether or not to return to the only franchise he’s ever known.
Should he decide to re-sign with the Islanders, or sign with one of the other four teams he met with at CAA headquarters during the interview period, San Jose will need to turn to other options in order to upgrade its top-six forwards. With nearly $19 million in salary cap space, the Sharks would have plenty of flexibility for their back-up plan(s). Let’s examine the other options the team would have up front this summer.
Tavares isn’t the only player available, but he’s easily the best. He scored more points than any pending unrestricted free agent in 2017-18, and James van Riemsdyk is the only other player that scored more than 30 goals last year.
If San Jose opts to try to sign a center, Paul Stastny and Tyler Bozak are the next best options. The 32-year-old Stastny has scored 40 or more points in each of the last four seasons, while Bozak likely would have accomplished the same had he not missed 25 games in 2015-16. Neither player is Tavares, but they also won’t command as much money or term. With the amount of long-term contracts on the Sharks’ books, that may be a blessing in disguise.
There are deeper options on the wing. Van Riemsdyk and James Neal are two of the 25 most prolific goal-scorers since 2013, while Michael Grabner, David Perron, and Thomas Vanek are intriguing to varying degrees. Rick Nash may not play next season, but can’t be ruled out given his history with Joe Thornton.
When it comes to restricted free agency, the Sharks may not have the assets to sign a player to an offer sheet capable of bringing them to San Jose. The Sharks can only sign an offer sheet worth up to $4,059,322, which likely wouldn’t be enough to sign a difference maker.
The trade market
The trade market appears far more plentiful. Rumors flew during draft weekend that San Jose was close to acquiring Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, and the teams reportedly discussed a deal before the draft, according to The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz.
Pacioretty is far from the only name on the block. Artemi Panarin is not yet willing to sign an extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Carolina Hurricanes are reportedly shopping Jeff Skinner actively, and NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Boruk noted there were rumors of a potential Wayne Simmonds swap.
Of course, there’s also two-time Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson, whom the Sharks reportedly inquired about at the trade deadline. San Jose has the space to acquire a player, and even a bad contract alongside them in order to drive down the cost in terms of trade assets.
Most of general manager Doug Wilson’s biggest splashes with the Sharks have come via the trade market, and the amount of players reportedly available may convince him to dip back into those waters.
Standing pat...for now
San Jose doesn’t have to necessarily do anything this summer. The Sharks were a 100-point team last season, and a healthy Joe Thornton in the lineup at the same time as Evander Kane should give them a boost.
Re-signing restricted free agents Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney while otherwise maintaining salary cap space would give San Jose the flexibility to acquire a player (or two) in season, and perhaps at a lower cost in terms of trade assets than over the summer. Preserving it beyond the season would allow the Sharks to better complement an aging core with capable depth.
Plus, free agency can still be an option in 2019. San Jose could, conceivably, have additional chances at acquiring Pacioretty, Panarin, and Skinner, depending who does and does not sign contract extensions.
The Sharks would surely regret missing out on Tavares, who’s the best free agent available in recent memory. But next summer’s free-agent class is shaping up to be much deeper than this year’s, and landing one of the biggest fish then wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.