If the NHL's latest proposal in their ongoing labor negotiations with the Players' Association is accepted, the 2012-13 salary cap will be set at $58 million. 16 teams, including the San Jose Sharks, are currently over that total and, according to CSN Philadelphia's Tim Panaccio, there won't even be a rollback in player salaries commensurate to the cap reduction to make up that difference with the players instead paying it back through escrow.
What does that mean for the Sharks, who would be $7.2 million over the proposed cap, and the 15 other teams also currently slated to spend more than $58 million in cap space next season? It's impossible to say for sure since the few specific details that have leaked out regarding the league's new proposal don't seem to cover that. But it's probably a good bet that there will be some sort of amnesty buyout period in which teams will be allowed to buy out a certain number of player contracts without the standard cap penalty. In anticipation of that, Cam Charron over at Canucks Army ranked Vancouver's best and worst contracts yesterday and I thought it might be interesting to do the same for the Sharks.
Obviously this is little more than a fun exercise since there's been no indication the NHLPA is receptive to the league's proposal, given their seemingly murky redefinition of hockey-related revenue, but there's been little else to discuss lately as most signs continue to point to another lockout. After the jump, we'll look at the five best and worst contracts on the Sharks' payroll in an attempt to figure out which ones were evidence of sound managerial judgment and which ones should be on the killing floor in the event of an amnesty buyout period.
Fifth-worst: Martin Havlat, 3 years remaining on a 6-year, $30 million deal
Despite placing him in the "worst" contracts column, I don't think Martin Havlat's deal is all that bad. It looks even less odorous when you consider that it's the result of Doug Wilson miraculously ripping Dany Heatley's $7.5 million/year mega-deal out of the books. Heatley's sharply declining even-strength scoring rate and inability to keep his head above water territorially would have likely had him ranked as the worst contract on this list if the Sharks had not been able to ship him to Minnesota for Havlat last summer.
Havlat likely earns his $5 million paycheck when he's in the lineup but an inability to stay healthy has always been the knock on him despite the fact that he averaged 77 games a season between 2008 and 2011. Last year did nothing to dispel that notion as offseason surgery and a freak line change injury kept the Czech winger out of commission for more than half the season. When he was in the lineup, Havlat wasn't all that productive although it's hard to place the blame entirely on him as he scored on an abnormally low 2.6% of the shots he took 5v5 after maintaining an 11.6% 5v5 shooting percentage from 2007 to 2011. Havlat is very likely to have a bounce-back season next year, both in terms of games played and overall production, and his presence on this list is more because the Sharks have a dearth of legitimately poor contracts rather than his being particularly awful.
Fifth-best: Justin Braun, 3 years remaining on a 3-year, $3.75 million deal
With Braun, the Sharks are essentially paying third-pairing dollars to a defenseman more than capable of breaking into the team's top four in the near future. His ability to move the puck through the neutral zone and experience as a shutdown defender at UMass have helped mold Braun into an effective two-way threat already despite having fewer than 100 games of NHL experience under his belt. Last season, in his first full year in the big leagues, Braun started a greater percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other San Jose blueliner but still managed to drive play forward at a better rate than any other Sharks d-man. He was also able to help raise fellow youngster Jason Demers' game to a greater extent than anyone else on the team's blueline in what was a difficult year for Demers in 2011-12.
It will be intriguing to see if Braun can take on and best more formidable opposing forwards next year under the tutelage of Larry Robinson but even if he doesn't improve at all beyond what he showed last season, the Sharks definitely have a bargain in Braun locked up for years to come.
Fourth-worst: Brad Stuart, 3 years remaining on a 3-year, $10.8 million deal
Again, Stuart's contract isn't terrible and there's no way I'd seriously suggest the organization should consider buying it out before the defenseman has even stepped on the ice for his second tour of duty in San Jose. Still, I'd argue it represents a slight but real overpayment for a player whose skills have been somewhat declining and who likely won't be able to help improve the Sharks' woeful penalty kill.
Still, there are mitigating factors that make Stuart's tenure in Detroit less than perfect for predicting what the former Sharks first-rounder will look like and contribute in his return to San Jose. Stuart's usage in Detroit's system as primarily a puck-retrieval defenseman with little responsibility in advancing play through the neutral zone means his impact on shot differential was limited and could experience an uptick on the Sharks. Then again, a big reason Mike Babcock and the Wings coaching staff used Stuart in that role was likely because his puck-moving ability is sub-par. Overall, Stuart's contract isn't cap-crippling and is probably reasonable if he can be a capable top-four option alongside Brent Burns or Dan Boyle.
Fourth-best: Joe Thornton, 2 years remaining on a 3-year, $21 million deal
As Tyler Dellow demonstrated earlier in the week, one of the main effects of the salary cap instituted the last time the NHL locked out its players has been the relative decline in salaries earned by the league's elite. Under the current system, it's just not possible to pay guys like Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and Zdeno Chara what they're truly worth. Thornton might not be quite at that level anymore but, at least in terms of overall value, he's pretty damn close. So while $7 million a year is a lot of money, it's probably a bargain rate considering how many wins Thornton provides the Sharks. He's coming off arguably his best season in San Jose and, based on historical comparables, should produce offense at a first-line level for the remainder of his current contract. If he can continue to combine that with the ability to take on the opposition's best every night and demolish them territorially, he'll be worth a good bit more than $7 million a season.
Third-worst: Douglas Murray, 1 year remaining on a 4-year, $10 million deal
If the Sharks are paying third-pairing dollars for a second-pairing defenseman in Braun, they'll also be spending top-four defenseman money on someone who, if last season is any indication, has probably declined to being little more than a depth player in Douglas Murray. Fortunately, given a fully healthy blueline, the Sharks won't be counting on Murray to be more than a 6th defenseman at best after a season in which the hulking Swedish blueliner was a boat anchor to almost every d-man he was paired with. Unfortunately, he'll still be taking up $2.5 million in cap space to play that role. If no one is willing to trade a draft pick or prospect for him, Murray would make a fine target for an amnesty buyout even though, realistically, the savings from such a move would only be around $1.8 million against the cap since the team would then have to sign a replacement-level defenseman. Still, Murray's cap hit, age and declining performance make him one of the most expendable Sharks.
Third-best: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 1 year remaining on a 4-year, $12.4 million deal; 5-year, $21.25 million extension follows
Vlasic faced some of the toughest competition of any defenseman in the league last season and still managed to keep his head above water, although it certainly didn't hurt to spend a substantial chunk of his minutes playing behind Thornton and Pavelski. He's consistently been the Sharks' best shutdown defenseman for nearly every season of his six-year career and it's difficult to deny that both the contract Vlasic has a year remaining on and the extension he inked earlier this offseason that will pay him about a million more per are some of the best deals Doug Wilson has ever managed to sign his players to.
Even a cursory look at some of the defensemen with comparable cap hits to Vlasic (Ed Jovanovski, Keith Ballard, Tomas Kaberle, Anton Volchenkov, Jack Johnson, Braydon Coburn) reveals Pickles to be a cut above. The Sharks should be thrilled to have one of the best positional defenders in the NHL, who likely still has some offensive upside at just 25 years old, locked up long-term at an enviable price.
Second-worst: Adam Burish, 4 years remaining on a 4-year, $7.4 million deal
As with Stuart, it makes no sense to buy a player out before he's even worn a Sharks sweater in game action so for the purposes of amnesty consideration, Burish and his deal are irrelevant. Burish isn't all that expensive and it's a testament to the organization's record of not getting swept up in free agent frenzy that a player carrying just a $1.8 million cap hit can seriously be considered to have one of the club's worst contracts. It's the term that bugs me as, no matter how you look at it, 4 years is an awfully excessive commitment to the type of player available on the trade deadline and free agent scrap heaps annually. Burish isn't a bad player but he also isn't a terrific fit for what the Sharks need in their bottom six and committing to him further into the future than any other current Sharks forward doesn't seem like a solid bet.
Second-best: Joe Pavelski, 2 years remaining on a 4-year, $16 million deal
We might as well be a Joe Pavelski fan site at this point. In my opinion, he was the Sharks' most valuable player last season and likely still has a few years of his prime remaining. Since 2007, only eleven players have faced a higher quality of competition in a single season than Pavelski did in 11-12 and none of them even came close to being in the same stratosphere as Pavelski's shot differential and scoring numbers. He may not get the press he deserves due to playing on the American west coast but Pavelski is every bit the versatile, two-way demon the likes of Ryan Kesler, Patrice Bergeron and David Backes are. He also carries a smaller cap hit than all of them and is locked up for two more years.
Worst: Michal Handzus, 1 year remaining on a 2-year, $5 million deal
I don't mean to beat a dead horse here but Handzus was terrible last season. We've discussed the mitigating factors--his hip injury and the KHL plane crash tragedy that claimed the life of his close friend Pavol Demitra--but, as that post explored, Handzus wasn't all that more effective in Los Angeles although his inability to get the puck out of the defensive zone was somewhat excusable as he was tasked with much tougher minutes.
The Sharks' biggest issue going into next season, whenever it begins, will be their woeful forward depth and penciling in Handzus as their third-line center is one of the biggest problems thereof. Paying him $2.5 million to actively hurt the team's chances of winning hockey games is difficult to stomach and the no-move clause that describes Handzus' skating ability as well as the team's inability to trade or demote him without his consent makes matters even worse. If there is an amnesty buyout period prior to the start of the next season, Handzus should undoubtedly be the Sharks' first priority to dump.
Best: Logan Couture, 2 years remaining on a 2-year, $5.75 million deal
Given the widespread death of the "second contract" in the NHL, with teams' gross overspending on young players coming off their entry-level deals one of the myriad reasons the league is currently on the brink of another lockout, Couture's contract is a rare breed and one of the last of its kind. It was a steal when it was inked as an extension a year ago, with a season still remaining on Couture's ELC, and it looks like even more of a steal now in light of deals signed by players like Jeff Skinner and Taylor Hall with similar production and NHL experience.
Not only did Couture lead the Sharks in both goals and 5v5 shots per 60 minutes last season (clocking in at 23rd in the league in the latter category) while producing a point total comparable to many first-line centers, he also provided tremendous value with his well-rounded two-way game. If there's room to knock this deal, it's obviously the length; Couture will undoubtedly get paid handsomely after the 2013-14 season but the Sharks should also have the cap space to dole out such a deal that offseason with Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Pavelski and Boyle all coming off the books. Couture is one of the Sharks' few beacons of hope for the future and they should get 30 goals and around 60-70 points out of him each of the next two seasons at ridiculously good value.