This offseason could easily prove to be the most confusing in NHL history and a lot of that centers around the salary cap. As first reported by The Globe & Mail, the cap's upper limit is tentatively set at $70.3 million for the 2012-13 season but the catch of course is the league's current collective bargaining agreement expires on September 15th, before the pre-season schedule even gets going. It's entirely possible a new CBA, if agreed upon before then (thereby preventing a lockout), could establish a salary cap lower than $70.3 million. Which would lead to some hilarious, panicked scrambling by the likes of Paul Holmgren, Glen Sather and Brian Burke as they desperately attempt to sell off or bury in the minors as many players as they need to in order to get back under the new cap before October 1st.
So it's possible the Sharks have plenty of cap space, it's possible they only have a little and, in the event that Gary Bettman owns extremely compromising photos of Donald Fehr, it's also technically possible they're already over what the cap will be after September 15th. All we know is that the Sharks will have roughly $15 million in cap space for the duration of this summer with at least eight roster spots needing to be filled. How much of that they choose to spend and what the consequences would be of spending to the cap, I haven't a clue. At any rate, here's a look at the Sharks' current salary situation and a five-step gameplan for what the team should look to accomplish this offseason.
1. Re-sign key free agents
As you can see in the chart, four forwards and two defensemen who finished the season with the Sharks are currently slated to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, as is the recently acquired Brad Stuart. Daniel Winnik is by far the most important and the team should strive to lock him up before he even tests free agency. He's a terrific defensive forward who might be the best penalty killer in the league; unless the (largely unsubstantiated) rumors his camp was looking for a cap hit of $2.5 million on an extension from the Avalanche were true, there's little reason for the Sharks not to sign Winnik. Up front, Torrey Mitchell and Brad Winchester are likely goners and although both added some value to the team (especially Mitchell during the 2010-11 season) neither will be sorely missed nor should they prove to be irreplaceable. It's clear now that Dominic Moore has more important things on his mind than where he signs his next contract and it also seems very likely his less-than-stellar performance in teal after being acquired at the deadline had to do with those same issues. His track record as a third-line center suggests he'd be a good fit reprising that role with the Sharks but, at the same time, he's also not someone the team wouldn't be able to find an upgrade on via free agency or trade. On defense, neither Jim Vandermeer nor Colin White deserves to be re-signed and I'd be shocked if they were. I already discussed the case for signing Stuart; like Moore, he'd be a solid addition at the right price but shouldn't be retained if he expects an average salary matching that of his previous deal with the Red Wings.
All of the Sharks' restricted free agents with the possible exception of Benn Ferriero should be tendered qualifying offers with Justin Braun and Tommy Wingels the obvious priorities to ink to contracts. Despite extremely impressive underlying numbers, the counting stats weren't there for either player this past season meaning the Sharks could get some serious value out of those deals going forward. Andrew Desjardins proved to be a very capable fourth-line center in 11-12, particularly when given competent linemates late in the year, and should definitely be retained and re-cast in that role next season. Which brings us to the most puzzling of the Sharks' free agents (at least in my mind): T.J. Galiardi. It was difficult to get much of a read on where Galiardi might fit into the lineup over his 14 games in teal at the end of the year. There's some skill there but he hasn't been able to turn it into much that adds significant value at the NHL level over his career, save for an 09-10 season with the Avs when everything went Galiardi's way in the face of some terrible underlying numbers. The front office should certainly tender Galiardi a qualifying offer but if Wilson is able to turn him, Douglas Murray and a draft pick into two good third-liners, that's a deal he shouldn't hesitate to make.
2. Find a partner for Brent Burns
This might be Doug Wilson's single most important task this summer. As we've discussed before, the Murray/Burns pairing Todd McLellan ran for a good chunk of the season was a trainwreck. They were woefully outshot at even-strength, frequently unable to advance the puck through the neutral zone. The Sharks have several options here. One, of course, would be to reunite Burns with Vlasic. The two combined to be the Sharks' most successful defense pairing last season although they were generally deployed against second-tier competition. That would leave Wilson and the front office with the job of finding a partner for Dan Boyle. They could also use Demers, Burns' third-most frequent defense partner in 11-12, in that role. I'd prefer the Sharks retain their third pairing of Demers and Justin Braun and continue to use Vlasic/Boyle against top competition. That leaves a hole on the second pairing alongside Burns that Murray shouldn't be the one to fill. I'm not convinced Stuart is a great option in that spot either but it's far from obvious who a realistic, superior partner for Burns would be.
On the free agent market, Matt Carle remains an intriguing possibility but even if the Flyers are unable to retain him he'll likely either cost too much as a result of the inevitable bidding war that should erupt over his services since he's clearly the best non-Suter d-man available or just not be interested in San Jose as a destination just like so many high-profile free agents before him. Jason Garrison has been a very good tough-minutes defenseman for two seasons now but his flukey goal-scoring year probably earns him another million or two on the open market that the Sharks shouldn't be suckered into paying. Apart from those two (and Stuart), it's remarkably slim pickings in the UFA department as San Jose probably isn't a guy like Barret Jackman's first choice and Ryan Suter isn't even worth discussing as a potential signing.
So the answer is probably going to come via trading. As a purely stop-gap solution, two veteran defensemen slated to become unrestricted next July who could do the trick are the Islanders' Mark Streit and the Flyers' Kimmo Timonen. The latter will probably only be available if Philadelphia manages to nab Suter (and, even then, he's probably far down the list of players Holmgren would be inclined to move to create cap space) while Streit might be someone the Isles would rather receive assets in return for rather than risk losing for nothing next summer. Pittsburgh's Paul Martin, who's received much of the blame for the colossal failings of Penguins golden boy Marc-Andre Fleury, remains an interesting candidate but his $5 million cap hit would eat up a chunk of the Sharks' available space for years to come. Toronto's Carl Gunnarsson performed admirably against the toughs and possesses the outlet passing ability the Sharks could use alongside Burns, who didn't quite excel at that aspect of the game in 11-12. Wilson will need to get creative but there are options here outside of the obvious (signing Stuart). The only thing he needs to make sure doesn't happen is Burns sharing the ice with Murray for any stretch of 5v5 time next season.
3. Rebuild the third line
San Jose is in a relatively enviable position up front, at least in the short term, in that their top six forwards are very, very good. Regardless of injury concerns about Martin Havlat and a poor season from Ryane Clowe, the Sharks have a dominant first line that proved capable of clobbering elite competition and a second line that can control play against and outscore the second-toughs. What the Sharks lack is much in the way of depth beyond that and re-establishing an effective third line than can excel in all three zones should be one of the team's primary objectives this summer.
Accomplishing this goal probably goes hand in hand with getting rid of Michal Handzus in any way possible. Ideally, Wilson would be able to find a trading partner and convince Handzus to waive his no-movement clause but since that seems exceedingly unlikely, a buyout is probably the way to go. Once Handzus is out of the way, the Sharks have a plethora of options; internally, on the free agent market and via trade. The organization should look to keep Desjardins, Wingels and hopefully a re-signed Winnik as the team's fourth line, leaving Galiardi as the only RFA or signed forward remaining. As discussed above, I'm not totally sold on him as a full-time NHLer and would rather see him either traded or retained as a 13th forward but giving him a role on a depth scoring line with protected minutes wouldn't be the worst thing.
The Sharks won't have to spend all that much money to construct a superior third line to the McGinn/Handzus/Mitchell unit they were running for much of last year, which is really more a comment on the ineptitude of that trio than anything else. David Moss, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Dustin Penner and Mikael Samuelsson would all make excellent wingers who could presumably be had for cheap as free agents (although Penner's playoff performance might price him out of the Sharks' range). All four can provide valuable depth scoring and none of them are slouches on the defensive side of the puck; Samuelsson and Ponikarovsky in particular can drive play with the best of them. If the Sharks strike out with those guys, there are palatable cheaper options such as Jake Dowell and John Mitchell although it's quite a stretch to unequivocally call either a top-nine forward. As with the team's other primary roster hole, second-pairing defenseman, the trade route might be the way to go. I've been beating the Michael Frolik drum pretty hard so far this offseason since I think he's an immensely talented forward who's gone through a particularly awful run of shooting percentages the past few seasons. He'd be a shrewd "buy low" candidate for the Sharks, as would the Penguins' Tyler Kennedy if available.
Finding someone to center the third line might prove tricky if the team decides to walk away from Moore. Daymond Langkow would be nice on a one-year deal as would fellow veteran Jason Arnott but both are likely looking for more long-term security which should make the Sharks wary, lest such a deal blow up in their face a la Handzus. If Flames GM Jay Feaster is looking to move Mikael Backlund after what was a disappointing season for the young center from a counting stats perspective, the Sharks should certainly place a bid although it's likely their tradeable assets would pale in comparison to those of most other teams who would be involved in that derby. A promising target could be ex-Shark Marcel Goc who may be available if Dale Tallon doesn't grasp his full value. Goc would give the Sharks an incredibly dependable two-way center signed to a steal of a contract.
4. Don't trade for Rick Nash
Just don't do it.
Seriously, don't. As I mentioned on twitter a few days ago, a quick perusal of hockey-reference reveals that, on average, NHL forwards decline in scoring at about a 28% rate from the age of 27 to 33, which is what Nash's current ridiculous contract takes him to, at an annual cap hit of $7.8 million to boot. As Eric T. of Broad Street Hockey was quick to point out, that number is probably a significant underestimation of aging's true effect on NHLer production as the players who decline at an even more rapid rate are usually out of the league by 33. Even if we're charitable and assume a 28% decline for Nash, that makes him a 43-point scorer by the final season of his deal for a $7.8 million cap hit and $8.2 million in real money. That's an albatross of Gomezian proportions.
And it's not like this line of thinking is merely speculative and theoretical--Nash's point total has gone from 79 to 67 to 66 to 59 over the past four seasons. His Relative Corsi rate, a measure of the extent to which a player improves his team's control of puck possession by stepping on the ice, has gone from 5.9 per 60 minutes to 2.9 to 4.5 (when he played extremely sheltered minutes) to -0.1 over the same span. And, while certainly the product of more randomness than points or Relative Corsi, Nash's 5v5 shooting percentage has regressed each of the past four seasons, from 10.5% to 9.3% to 8.4% to 7.3%. It's impossible to know for certain but all signs point to Nash being far more likely to follow the career trajectory of Vincent Lecavalier or Dany Heatley than that of Jarome Iginla or Patrick Marleau. He's almost surely already peaked, both in terms of offensive production and his contributions to team possession and goal differential. Those who naively believe Nash would be able to once again contend for Rocket Richard trophies if he was placed on Joe Thornton's wing are the ones who said the same things about Heatley. Trading for Nash is trading for the right to allocate nearly $8 million a year in cap space for a player who will likely never crest 30 goals over the life of the contract or provide anywhere near enough value in other facets of the game to compensate for his lack of production. Scorers who age well are the exception, not the rule, and based on recent trends it's extremely unlikely that Nash proves exceptional.
There's also the whole matter of sending assets back to Columbus. The type of return Scott Howson is reportedly expecting for Nash seems hilarious to me as the winger should be considered little more than a cap dump. But apparently there are GMs lining up with offers and the one most commonly cited on the Sharks' end involves Joe Pavelski. That's, frankly, ridiculous. Not only has Pavelski outscored Nash two seasons running, he laps the field with Nash in every other facet of the game; Pavelski is one of the best possession forwards in the league while Nash is barely above average, Pavelski has consistently played tougher minutes than Nash throughout their respective careers and Pavelski contributes much more on special teams than Nash does. He also comes at half the cap hit and isn't signed until the end of time. Other rumored deals involving Logan Couture or Patrick Marleau are just as woefully misguided. But really, even if the Sharks were getting Nash for a bag of pucks and a replica Slappy ventriloquist dummy signed by Joe Thornton, it would be a bad move for San Jose based on his contract alone.
5. Fix the penalty kill
Easier said than done but it's obviously an area of concern after a season in which the Sharks were 12 goals worse on the penalty kill than a league-average shorthanded team, costing them two whole wins and, therefore, four standings points they would have earned just by being utterly mediocre on the kill. The Sharks have been just that in terms of shot suppression the past two years but there's more to penalty killing than preventing shots alone as shorthanded save percentages at the team level tend to be somewhat repeatable from year to year.
If I could add a sixth item to the list, more as a general guideline than a concrete suggestion, it would be for the front office not to overreact to the calamitous second half of the season that resulted in the Sharks' lowest finish in the standings since missing the playoffs in 2003 and the quickest postseason exit in franchise history. There will likely be pressure for management to either go for broke and make significant changes to the team, a route many perceive as the only way back to contender status, or for the organization to cave to conventional wisdom that suggests they should be building towards the future at the cost of the present. Neither option makes a lot of sense.
The Sharks shot 6.1% and posted a 980 PDO at even-strength over the final 41 games of the season. That's not something that we should expect them to repeat next year; on the other hand, barring injuries, they will almost certainly be a strong possession squad once again. Even if the team does nothing this summer apart from re-sign their own RFAs and fill in the remaining roster spots with prospects, I think it's very likely they'll finish higher than 7th in the conference thanks to regression alone. As of right now, the only Western Conference teams bringing back rosters next year that are definitely superior to San Jose's are St. Louis and Los Angeles. Strong arguments (that I would be inclined to agree with) can be made for Vancouver and Chicago while Detroit is largely a wild card until the dust settles on the first week or so of free agency. Still, that leaves the Sharks as somewhere around the 4th or 5th best team in the conference.
The team absolutely needs to strive for improvement (their underlying numbers fell off a fair amount from 2010-11) but detonating the roster isn't the solution there; careful, measured moves to strengthen the team's bottom six and bolster its defense corps as well a strategic shift on the penalty kill would be much more effective. People doomsaying the franchise based on a half-season of awful luck should really dig deeper. The Kings' and Devils' playoff runs re-affirmed that as long as you can get to the dance with a team that plays great fundamental hockey, anything can happen.