It seems presumptuous to be discussing the 2013-14 season before the 2012-13 season has even begun (although, in fairness, that might never happen) but there have been rumblings that the NHL has thus far been unwilling in CBA negotiations to allow for amnesty buyouts that would ease the league's free-fall from a $70.2 million salary cap ceiling in the (as of yet hypothetical) 12-13 season to just $60 million in 13-14.
The Sharks are very much among the teams that would bear the brunt of that sudden drop in spending ability. San Jose already has about $54.3 million in cap space committed to 14 players for the 2013-14 season, leaving them just $5.7 million to sign another eight. It's far from an enviable position to be in, although they have plenty of company with everyone from Vancouver to Montreal to Philadelphia to Calgary slated to undergo a similar crunch. Assuming the league really does hold firm on barring amnesty buyouts and a salary rollback isn't in the cards, what are the Sharks' options here?
With Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit no longer on the books, San Jose's most expensive players are also their most valuable. Roster surgery is much more tricky when it involves vital organs. It's pretty much a contractual obligation that Patrick Marleau's name be mentioned in this type of speculation but Marleau's full no-move clause makes that a non-starter. A straight buyout of Marleau would be counterproductive due to the cap penalty the Sharks would incur and even on the off-chance Marleau would waive his NMC to play on Long Island or in Nashville, it remains a bad idea to jettison the team's longest-tenured player. Despite his detractors, Marleau still notched 30 goals during the Sharks' worst offensive season in years, is one of just two players in the team's top six with legitimate speed to burn and remains effective in all three zones and all three game states. It also makes little sense for purely logistical reasons since dumping Marleau and allowing Clowe to sail away into free agent waters would leave the Sharks with T.J. Galiardi as their top left wing. At which point you might as well blow up the team.
Thornton and Havlat, the Sharks' other big earners up front, also have no-move clauses making them unlikely to be dealt. Which really only leaves one sensible option: Dan Boyle. This past July 1st, Boyle's full no-trade clause was docked to a limited one in which he has the right to submit a list of eight teams he would veto a trade to. In summer 2013, Boyle would have just one year remaining on his contract at a $6.6 million cap hit, making him a low-risk, high-reward acquisition despite his advanced age for a bubble team with cap space. Boyle can still run a power play better than almost any other defenseman in the NHL and as late as last season could still log heavy minutes against tough opponents and come out ahead. He would be missed in San Jose for those reasons but with Brent Burns likely qualified to take on a full-time role on the top pairing alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic and either Jason Demers or Justin Braun capable of sliding into Burns' vacated spot, the team shouldn't miss too lengthy of a beat.
Of course, trading Boyle alone likely wouldn't be enough for the Sharks to ice a competitive roster under the new cap. Without Boyle, Doug Wilson would have $12.3 million in cap space with which to fill nine spots. That's a dicey proposition, especially when you consider that either re-signing or replacing Clowe won't be cheap and that unless Tomas Hertl or Freddie Hamilton progresses at an unprecedented rate, the team's bottom six would still be lackluster and in need of repair. It's difficult, however, to figure out where else the organization could turn in order to trim fat (insert obligatory joke about Kyle Wellwood no longer being on the team here). They could try to dump Antti Niemi and promote either Alex Stalock or Harri Sateri to the starter's job but that seems like an enormous gamble. They could replace Brad Stuart with a cheaper second-pairing defenseman but they'll need him if Boyle is gone and, besides, I can't see Wilson shipping Stuart out of town after just a half-season (or no-season) back in teal.
The league and union are meeting today and so-called "transition" issues that will decide how exactly the league's precipitous salary cap drop will work are certainly on the agenda. It's worth it for Sharks fans to pay particularly close attention to the sides' ultimate decision as it could have a significant impact on the team's immediate future. If amnesty buyouts aren't allowed (something ownership is looking to ensure) and a salary rollback doesn't occur (something the PA will fight for), the Sharks could be forced to ice a fairly bare-bones roster for the 2013-14 season before potentially having more room to operate the next year as Marleau, Thornton, and Joe Pavelski's contracts expire (along with Boyle's if he's still on the team). Or, should San Jose continue to struggle in whatever vestige of a season the league holds this year (although I really wouldn't put much stock into a 48-game sample size), Wilson might decide to use the cap crunch as an opportunity to kick-start a full-scale rebuild around Logan Couture, Pavelski, Vlasic and Burns.