Martin Jones

NHL expansion draft: Who Sharks might be forced to leave unprotected

NHL expansion draft: Who Sharks might be forced to leave unprotected

We don't know when the next NHL season will begin or end, but once it does, a new team officially will join the fold.

The still-unnamed Seattle expansion franchise will become the league's 32nd team, and in the process, the Sharks will lose a player from their roster as part of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

Not everyone in San Jose will be up for grabs. The Sharks, along with the other 30 current NHL teams, will be permitted to protect a group of their players from the expansion draft according to one of two options. Either a) protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or b) protect eight skaters and one goalie.

So, where does that leave the Sharks? 

By narrowing down who San Jose is likely to protect, we can zero in on which players are likely to be exposed.

Automatically protected: Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (no-movement clauses)
Certain to be protected: Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier
Very likely to be protected: Evander Kane

That's six pretty-darn-sure things already, plus an unnamed goalie. So, under this assumption, the Sharks would only be able to protect three more forwards and one additional defenseman under Option A, or just two more skaters under Option B.

Though nearly all of San Jose's top prospects will be automatically exempt due to lack of service time, Jonathan Dahlen -- generally regarded as the Sharks' second-best prospect -- will be eligible for inclusion due to his playing AHL games in 2017-18. So, chances are, they'll protect him as well.

Regardless of which option San Jose goes with, that doesn't leave them many more choices. As such, here are some of the more notable names that the Sharks might be forced to make available to Seattle in the expansion draft:

Brent Burns

What the Sharks decide to do with Burns likely will depend on the trajectory of the team heading into the 2021 offseason. If San Jose successfully turns things around in short order, then keeping the 36-year-old Burns -- who has another four years left on his contract at $8 million per season -- will make a lot more sense than if an extended rebuild appears to be on the horizon.

The Sharks have several large salaries on their books, and making Burns available would be one possible way to alleviate some of that building pressure. Of course, if Burns has a Norris-type season next year, San Jose likely will do everything it can to keep him. More than anything, Burns' performance next season likely will have the most determining effect on who the Sharks make available.

[RELATED: Why Sharks shouldn't be counted out if Eichel seeks trade]

Martin Jones

Assuming he's still on the roster and doesn't have a major bounce-back season, Jones would seem to be one of the more likely inclusions on San Jose's unprotected list. He carries a hefty price tag and hasn't lived up to it for the last couple of years.

Of course, the Sharks don't really have anything in the way of an established goalie behind him -- Aaron Dell is an unrestricted free agent -- so if one doesn't emerge, they might be forced to protect him. If San Jose makes Jones available, that likely means one of the Sharks' goaltending prospects made a significant leap or a free agent outperformed him in the year ahead.

Kevin Labanc

He brings plenty of talent to the table and has been useful on the power play. But Labanc's problem is consistency. On some nights, he's one of the best players on the ice. Others, you hardly notice him. He bet on himself last offseason, but it didn't appear to pay off.

A restricted free agent, San Jose should be able to re-sign him at an affordable price. He still is only 24 years old, though. Should Labanc take a couple steps forward next season, it likely will come at a discount, which the Sharks would likely want to protect. If he's ultimately made available, he could offer the combination of youth and talent that would pique Seattle's interest.

Stefan Noesen

Acquired early in the season, Noesen, 27, made a strong impression during his first year in San Jose. He provided the occasional offense, scoring six goals in 34 games, as well as some sorely-needed toughness. He also immediately became a leader in the locker room.

Noesen currently is an unrestricted free agent, but it would be surprising if he didn't start next season in a Sharks sweater, and he shouldn't be too costly either. If he can build off this past season's performance, one would imagine San Jose would prefer to keep him around. Who else the Sharks protect likely will determine if he can be protected or not.

Dylan Gambrell/Antti Suomela/Alex True

Gambrell has accomplished the most of the three, but he's running short on time. A restricted free agent at the end of next season, he'll be eligible for inclusion in the expansion draft if he plays in at least 20 games. Unless he breaks out, Gambrell seems likely to be one of the names the Sharks leave unprotected.

You could say the same thing about Suomela -- assuming the restricted free agent is re-signed -- who has notched four goals and 11 assists over 47 NHL games across the last two seasons. He's still only 26, but has yet to live up to his potential. True, on the other hand, is younger (22 years old) and was fairly noticeable over the course of his NHL debut this season. He should have a good opportunity to begin the season with San Jose, and would seem to be the most likely of the three to carve out a long-term role with the big club.

Martin Jones reveals what he thinks went wrong for Sharks this season

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Martin Jones reveals what he thinks went wrong for Sharks this season

Whenever the NHL season concludes, the Sharks will finish well below expectations.

The Sharks were last in the Pacific Division and Western Conference at the time of the league’s coronavirus suspension in March, less than a year after reaching the Conference final. Sure, San Jose lost wingers Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi in free agency, and the Sharks traded Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers.

But how did a team that still had Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the blue line, plus Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Evander Kane up front, miss the playoffs? Goaltender Martin Jones pointed to a lack of cohesion.

“When it started to spiral, we went our own ways instead of coming together,” Jones told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in his “31 Thoughts” column on Thursday. “It’s something that will be addressed moving forward.”

The Sharks entered the year counting on a handful of rookies to make their mark, but only defenseman Mario Ferraro truly managed to stick in the lineup. San Jose entered December with a winning record (15-12-1) following a rocky start but won just 14 of the next 42 games as Jones and, to a lesser extent, backup Aaron Dell largely continued to struggle between the pipes.

Jones faced a comparable rate of quality 5-on-5 chances in 2019-20 as he did the previous season, but the Sharks no longer had the offensive firepower to compensate. Jones’ 5-on-5 save percentage (.892) was the worst among goalies who played at least 1,000 full-strength minutes this season, according to Natural Stat Trick, and San Jose (unsurprisingly) allowed more full-strength goals than every team but the Detroit Red Wings.

Could Jones’ workload have something to do with his decline over the last two seasons? As Friedman noted, no goalie has played in more regular-season and playoff games or played more minutes since Jones joined the Sharks in 2015-16. He might benefit from some time off, which he and the Sharks seem in line for.  

The Sharks wouldn’t make the playoffs under a 16- or 24-team playoff format, and the NHL reportedly is considering going straight to the playoffs when this season resumes and starting the next one as late as November.

“Obviously, you want to play, and we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen,” Jones said. “But if you look back at the last few seasons, I’ve never had time in the summer to get in extended training. Being tired mentally is not something I like to admit. But a step back from the grind could be really good. I feel as motivated as I have in quite some time.”

[RELATED: Karlsson thinks Sharks returning this season not worth it]

Jones has a $5.75 million cap hit and a modified no-trade clause, so he’s likely going nowhere between now and next season.

The Sharks will need much better performances from him and everyone else on the roster next season. Jones seems to know how they can get out of him and his teammates.

NHL rumors: Sharks 'front-runners' for Russian goalie Alexei Melnichuk

NHL rumors: Sharks 'front-runners' for Russian goalie Alexei Melnichuk

It would appear the Sharks are inching closer to adding another goaltender.

TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported Friday that San Jose is "in the lead" to sign Russian goaltender Alexei Melnichuk.

On Thursday, Sports-Express' Igor Eronko reported that Melnichuk was "set to sign" with the Sharks, though nothing is official as of yet. Eronko added that he expected Melnichuk would need at least one season in the AHL.

Melnichuk, 21, has spent his entire career up to this point playing in the three highest tiers of Russian hockey. Last season with SKA St. Petersburg, he went 8-5-1 with a .930 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average across 16 games. He also posted four shutouts.

Listed at 6-foot-1, Melnichuk offers good size for the position. According to LeBrun, he is in high demand, and it's easy to see why the Sharks would be very interested.

San Jose's goaltending arguably has been its Achilles heel over the last two seasons, and there isn't exactly an obvious solution on the horizon. Martin Jones will return for a sixth season with the Sharks, unless he is traded or bought out. Backup netminder Aaron Dell is a restricted free agent, and very well could end up playing elsewhere next season.

In the minors, both Andrew Shortridge, 25, and Josef Korenar, 22, struggled with the Barracuda this past season, with both posting a goals-against average above 3.00 and a save percentage below .900. To be fair, though, that's probably more a reflection of the team's last-place finish. 19-year-old Zacharie Emond, currently with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL in Junior hockey, might be the future at the position, but he is still quite a ways off.

[RELATED: How NHL season pause could favor Sharks in free agency]

Frankly, as for who is going to be the man in between the pipes for San Jose, even two seasons from now, your guess is as good as any. Given the high salaries the Sharks have tied up in their top veterans, it certainly wouldn't hurt to have a cheap, young goaltender for roster-building purposes.

Maybe Melnichuk could be that guy.