The less said about the San Jose Sharks’ dismal 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the better. If you feel the need to re-live that embarrassing example of “playoff drive” hockey, you can read here:
Instead, let’s talk about Doug Wilson’s work during the Trade Deadline.
San Jose was involved in three of the day’s 17 trades, but I guess quantity doesn’t mean quality, as we could gather from some online reactions:
You can't convince me that the Sharks didn't just trade for an anime series https://t.co/FzHfKsD2Fh
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) April 12, 2021
TSN's Jeff O'Neill on Antti Suomela. "Never heard of him." Welcome to Toronto, Antti!
— Curtis Pashelka (@CurtisPashelka) April 12, 2021
Regardless, you can’t say anything bad about any of Wilson’s actual moves.
On Saturday, he recouped the fifth-round pick traded to Minnesota for Devan Dubnyk by getting a fifth-round pick back. There was some thought about a month ago that Dubnyk might command more in a trade, but frankly, the netminder lowered his own value, finishing his brief San Jose Sharks tenure with a 3-9-2 record and a .898 Save %.
Wilson also moved a couple low-upside pieces for a couple players with marginally higher upsides. He sent spare defenseman Fredrik Claesson to Tampa Bay for 20-year-old goaltending prospect Magnus Chrona; then he dealt Antti Suomela to Toronto for Alexander Barabanov. The young Chrona obviously has more upside than a veteran depth defender in Claesson; meanwhile, KHL veteran winger Barabanov is enduring a shaky North American debut campaign, but it’s just his first season here, as opposed to Suomela’s three. In other words, we know what we’ve got in the 27-year-old Suomela, the book isn’t as closed on the 26-year-old Barabanov.
Finally, Wilson rented out cap space, getting a fourth from Toronto to take on Nick Foligno’s $1.375 million cap hit and a fifth from Vegas to eat Mattias Janmark’s $562,500 hit. You can’t argue with that, even helping the division rival Golden Knights: Wilson correctly observed that this San Jose Sharks team wasn’t a group that really deserved to be augmented for a Cup push. Basically, it’s a team that’s not really going places this year.
It’s what Wilson didn’t do – and I’m not talking about keeping Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto – that I’m most curious about.
Is he keeping the core of this mediocre San Jose Sharks team together?
27-year-old Tomas Hertl, two years away from unrestricted free agency, didn’t move, despite being at perhaps the height of his trade value.
36-year-old Brent Burns, four years left at $8 million per, might’ve been able to attract 50 cents on the dollar in a trade.
Martin Jones is now the last starter standing in San Jose – are the Sharks, despite his three years of struggles, going to keep him and his three years remaining at $5.75 million per?
Going back to last off-season, I understood giving this San Jose Sharks’ core another chance – they had one bad year after a trip to the 2019 Western Conference Finals. It was reasonable to hope for a Burns and Erik Karlsson revival this season – that Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Kevin Labanc would have bounceback years.
“Our core of our team, we think is a very good core,” Wilson said after the Trade Deadline. “I think most of [our top players] have done a really good job of [re-establishing their game].”
After a torrid start, Couture has a goal and three assists in his last 17 games. One-time 30-goal scorer Meier is on a full season 16-goal pace. Burns’s current 0.59 Points Per Game is well off 2015-19’s 0.92. Karlsson’s current 0.43 Points Per Game is also well off 2015-19’s 0.92. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is now a bottom-pairing defenseman.
I don’t want to get too caught up in counting stats – there are many ways to win games, not just by piling up goals. But the San Jose Sharks aren’t necessarily defending much better – their 3.29 Goals Against Average is fourth-worst in the NHL.
I know, more counting stats – but rest assured, the underlying stats don’t love the San Jose Sharks either.
To Burns’s credit in particular, he’s still playing No. 1 defenseman minutes and hasn’t been given as many offensive opportunities as he’s been afforded in the past. Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc are enjoying solid-enough seasons – Kane is enjoying a career-high 0.85 Points Per Game pace right now. Couture, and others, may be playing hurt.
But if this is the best that this core can do? – fringe playoff team – and a number of these players are on the wrong side of 30, is this core actually “very good”? What are they going to look like next season, another year older? This is a San Jose squad that appears to be in hockey purgatory right now — not good enough to be a true Cup contender, not bad enough to rebuild with high draft picks.
Now I don’t expect Doug Wilson to show his hand publicly – of course, he’s going to talk up his guys to the media. Maybe he’s waiting to expose Burns in the expansion draft? To buy out Jones and/or Vlasic in the off-season?
In fact, if Wilson believed so much in this exact core, why didn’t he add to it via free agency this past off-season? During the Trade Deadline?
So it’s going to be fascinating to see who Wilson, after this up-and-down campaign, believes his core pieces are.
Hertl seems to be one of them. Unlike a Burns or Karlsson or Vlasic or Jones or Meier, trading Hertl could’ve brought back tremendous value. Resisting that temptation seems to solidify Hertl’s standing in San Jose. This also suggests that Wilson’s “reset” isn’t a full rebuild – in a full rebuild, the most logical move would be, I think, to trade Hertl.
After this trying season, besides Hertl, who else should be part of the San Jose Sharks’ core? Couture is the captain, the culture-setter. Of all the big contracts, Kane has easily been the most consistent performer of the bunch over the last two seasons. Meier’s upside is too high and he’s young enough where you don’t want to give him up three quarters on the dollar.
Burns, Karlsson, Vlasic, and Jones’s places should all be in question, but their contracts are hard to impossible to move straight-up. In fact, the focus is only on Burns because his play has been the most consistently competent of this bunch i.e. his contract is the most movable and attractive.
Labanc is a little in between: He’s young and has performed well enough compared to expectations. Also, his contract is reasonable, all things considered. He is, as noted, a “right price” guy.
The scariest thing for the Sharks though, I think, is to run with this exact core next year and count on different results. Box office busts don’t usually get one sequel, much less a Part III.
Hopefully, that’s not Wilson’s plan. This isn’t “a very good core” anymore. San Jose Sharks fans should hope that he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth there.
Now I understand you can’t just divest yourself from every long-term contract – the penalty, be it in cap space lost via buyout or draft capital surrendered in a trade, would be too great.
But rid yourself of a couple tough contracts, spend wisely with the opened-up cap space in what should be another buyer-friendly UFA class, hope for continued improvement by your youngsters – that’s probably the most prudent path for San Jose if they want to jump back in the playoff picture immediately.
At the moment though, in the immediate aftermath of the Trade Deadline? The San Jose Sharks appear to be in a state of inertia. So stuck between bad contracts and worse contracts, what’s Wilson going to do this off-season to pull the Sharks out of hockey purgatory?
Sheng’s Travel Fund
Help fund Sheng's travel! Every dollar goes to the cost of getting to and from Sharks road games.