Sharks

Why Erik Karlsson's vision, deception stood out in first Sharks season

Why Erik Karlsson's vision, deception stood out in first Sharks season

Erik Karlsson's game was well-known to Jamie Baker when the Sharks acquired the defenseman last September. 

The Swede joined San Jose as a two-time Norris Trophy winner, with a reputation as one of the NHL's best blueliners. Baker knew of Karlsson's strengths, but two managed to surprise the Sharks broadcaster and NBC Sports California analyst as he had more chances to watch Karlsson up close rather than just twice a year. 

"Watching him every day, it was his vision," Baker said in a phone interview earlier this week. "And I knew he had great vision, but watching on television or only seeing him twice a year live doesn't give you the full spectrum of what he sees out there, and also how he's so deceptive.

"... He's got the puck and there's three options, and everybody's thinking it's going to be option one or two, and he allows you to go to option three, which could be somebody where you're like, 'how did he even see that guy, and then how did he even make the pass?'"

The Sharks bet big on those strengths Monday, signing Karlsson to an eight-year extension that made him the NHL's highest-paid defenseman and the owner of the richest contract in franchise history. Groin injuries limited Karlsson to 53 regular-season games last year, and hampered the 29-year-old during San Jose's run to the Western Conference final. In large part because of the attributes Baker mentioned, Karlsson tied with fellow defenseman Brent Burns as the Sharks' second-leading scorer during the Stanley Cup playoffs with 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) despite playing hurt. 

The combination of Karlsson's vision and deception also set up San Jose's most memorable moment of the postseason. Karlsson assisted on Barclay Goodrow's Game 7 overtime-winning goal in San Jose's first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights, bringing the puck into the offensive zone before hitting Goodrow in stride. 

Baker said there are "not many defensemen in the league who would make that play."

"When he entered the offensive zone just before he passed it, he shifted over to his right just a little bit and then he kind of made a straight up-ice pass to Barclay," Baker explained. "He would not have been able to make a pass that was slightly on an angle, even if it was 30 degrees because the [Vegas] defenseman would have poke-checked it. So, the only way that he could get that puck on Barclay's stick is if he shifted over, which he did at the exact moment. [Then he] makes the pass, and now you've got the D flat-footed who can't -- he's not taking away the passing lane, and ultimately Barclay had already got enough speed.

"That's the intangible right there. It's an innate ability that he has, of timing. It's what all the greats have."

Baker added that Joe Thornton shares a similar sense of timing, noting that the veteran center can "peek" and find open teammates seconds before the play develops. The Sharks didn't see it from Karlsson for the entirety of the regular season, after he started slowly and missed 27 games down the stretch. Still, he tied for ninth among defensemen in assists (42) in the regular season and tied for fourth among all skaters in the postseason (14). 

Karlsson told reporters Monday that he will be ready for the start of the 2019-20 season after undergoing offseason groin surgery. With a clean bill of health and a contract year no longer looming, it's reasonable to think Karlsson can start strong in his second season in teal.

[RELATED: Burns finishes second in Norris Trophy voting behind Giordano]

But Baker said how Karlsson starts next year won't depend on him alone. Assistant coach Bob Boughner will return to the Sharks' bench and worked with the team's blue line during his first stint in San Jose. Managing the ice time of Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be a new challenge for the Sharks assistant, but Baker said he thinks Karlsson "is going to absolutely love" working with Boughner.

"I think it just fits seamlessly because [Boughner has] known [Sharks coach] Pete DeBoer for so long," Baker said. "He's already been here in San Jose, so he knows a lot of the players. He knows the D. He's got a great balance of understanding the technical part, the tactical part of the game, but more importantly the human nature part of the game. ... What makes each guy tick. You can show him video all day long, but sometimes it may not be about the video, it's sitting down and talking to a guy about something."

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Aging core of roster

Sharks' biggest threats to winning Stanley Cup: Aging core of roster

Father Time comes for us all. Sooner or later, it's going to come for the Sharks.

It's not as if the concept of aging only applies to San Jose. Obviously, that's not the case. But one could make the case the Sharks are running out of time much quicker than most other NHL teams.

Simply put, San Jose's best players, on average, are older than their counterparts. Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture are already in their thirties. Martin Jones and Erik Karlsson will join them next January and May, respectively. Evander Kane just turned 28, currently in the thick of his prime.

Then there's the matter of Joe Thornton. He's not technically under contract, but his pending return to the Sharks is the worst-kept secret in hockey. He's 40, with a couple of fairly recent serious knee injuries.

Other than Thornton, all of the aforementioned players are signed for at least the next five seasons. At that point, one can assume they'll all be on the downside of their careers, at best.

Once that core departs, who are the Sharks? What is their identity? Right now, it's too soon to know.

Now, it's not like all of San Jose's top players are dinosaurs. Tomas Hertl is 25. Kevin Labanc is 23. Timo Meier has the look of a prototypical power forward at the ripe age of 22. One would imagine those three will form a considerable portion of the Sharks' core for years to come. And, there are several promising young prospects like Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley blossoming in the lower levels.

Still, it's worth noting that Labanc is due to become a restricted free agent at the end of the coming season. Given San Jose's salary constraints, the Sharks run the risk of losing him if he plays well and is rewarded with a considerable offer. The point being: We know who the Sharks are now, but the future -- even just a handful of years down the line -- is a big mystery.

As such, San Jose's aging roster is one of the greatest threats to its ability to win a Stanley Cup in the near future.

[RELATED: Why 2021 expansion draft is threat to Sharks' Cup hopes]

Look around the Western Conference. Teams like the Oilers, Coyotes, Blackhawks and Avalanche haven't made much noise in recent years, but they should all be on the upswing with rosters littered with recent high draft picks. Across the league, young players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have taken over the reins, and you can fully expect their teams to be contending for many years to come.

The Sharks don't have that future certainty. The present is what they can bank on, and if they don't win a Cup with this core, there's no telling how long they might have to wait.

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.