What exactly is Sharks’ plan after Hertl signing?
It is easy to see why the San Jose Sharks would want to re-sign Tomáš Hertl . He is one of their best players (arguably the best player), a homegrown star, a fan favorite, and a player that should still have quite a few years of really productive hockey ahead of him. His eight-year, $65.1 million contract extension he signed on Wednesday evening should provide good value for the bulk of the deal.
In that context, it makes a lot of sense. When you have good players, especially players you develop, you typically want to keep them.
But it still creates a lot of questions for the Sharks, and to a lesser degree, Hertl himself when it comes to how this will all work out long-term.
[Related: Sharks keep Hertl on eight-year, $65.1M extension]
For Hertl, this summer could have been his one chance to pick his next team and see what his value is on the open market. He could have chosen to not re-sign, the Sharks could have traded him before Monday’s trade deadline, he would have had a chance to impact a Stanley Cup contender this season, and then looked to cash in on the open market with a similar deal in what might be a better environment to potentially win.
The latter point is where this gets curious for the Sharks.
What, exactly, is the plan here?
While the Sharks have shown some improvement this season in the standings, they are still heading for their third consecutive non-playoff season. It is also an older team that has some major -- MAJOR -- money tied up in long-term contracts for players whose best days are in the rear view mirror. It is not anything close to a contender, and by signing Hertl to a long-term deal it is also saying that it is not a team looking to really rebuild.
Hertl will be in his age 29 season when his new contract begins next season and it will run through his age 37 season. Even though his career is not really in danger of a steep, sudden decline in the near future, it is still not a stretch to suggest he will be a vastly different player in the second half of that contract than he is today. The majority of that contract will pay him through his mid-30s, and we all know what happens to offensive production for players in that age range. On its own, there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes contenders need to sign players for a little more or a little longer than they might want to keep their core in place, and as long as it is an actual core player at the top of your lineup, it works.
[Related: 2021-22 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]
Hertl definitely qualifies.
The problem is the Sharks’ current salary cap and roster structure is loaded with significant long-term contracts for players that are already well into their 30s and already starting to decline.
Logan Couture will be 33 next season and is still signed for another five seasons at an $8 million salary cap number. He is still productive, but not a game-changer.
Erik Karlsson will be 32 next season and is signed for another five seasons at an $11.5 million salary cap number. He has had a nice bounce back season when healthy, but he is not the Norris Trophy contender or elite player he was a few years ago.
Brent Burns will be 38 and is signed for another three years at a salary cap number of $8 million per season. He can still rack up points, but his overall impact is a fraction of what it used to be.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be 35 and signed for another four years at a salary cap number of $7 million per season. Once one of the league’s most underrated defenseman, his play has noticeably declined in recent years.
All of that together means that over the next three years they will have more than $42 million committed to five players whose average will be 33 next season and only increase each year, while most of them have already started to decline. It will be more than $36 million for at least the next four seasons.
Hertl, Couture, and Karlsson are signed even beyond that.
[Related: NHL Trade Deadline Primer: Is there a surprise trade to be made this year]
There is not another team in the league that has that much money invested in a core of players that are that old and for that long.
It would be one thing if this Sharks team was still in Stanley Cup contention and still chasing a championship. Signing a player like Hertl to that type of contract indicates that is the short-term goal. But the Sharks have not been a playoff team since the 2018-19 season and still have plenty of holes throughout all levels of the roster, both short-term and long-term. They are also going to have very limited salary cap space to fill those holes without finding a way to dump one of those significant contracts. While no contract is unmovable, that is still easier said than done.
The farm system has improved and has some intriguing players (led by William Eklund and Ryan Merkley) but they are going to need to some significant and rapid contributions from those players to make a difference.
In the end it only seems to leave the Sharks in that undesirable middle ground of NHL teams, stuck between contention and rebuilding. You do not want to be in that middle ground because it can be tough to escape. Contending with this current roster is obviously going to be a challenge, as they have shown. And even if they decide to tear it down and go through a rebuild in the next couple of years, is a 30-something Tomas Hertl the player you structure that rebuild around? Probably not.
Easy to see why the Sharks wanted to sign him, but it does not really provide much clarity for their future.