With the NHL reportedly agreeing to allow each of its teams two amnesty buyouts—that would count against the players' share of hockey-related revenue but not the salary cap—in order to ease the free-fall from a $70.2 million ceiling in 2012-13 to the $60 million cap proposed by ownership for 2013-14, it's only natural to speculate on how the Sharks will be exercising their buyout options. As I mentioned the last time transitional measures were the topic du jour during this cyclical lockout (always twirling, twirling, twirling towards a new CBA), San Jose could be in a bit of a cap crunch if it doesn't shed salary with just $5.7 million in cap space to sign 9 players, including Ryane Clowe or a replacement.
But the more I look at the Sharks' cap situation going into 2013-14, the less I'm convinced that amnesty buyouts are the big solution. Partially because the team doesn't have a Scott Gomez or Keith Ballard or Matt Stajan on its payroll; there isn't an obviously odorous contract Doug Wilson would be salivating to expunge. The deals with the three largest cap hits all expire just a year after the likely buyout period while the only true long-term contracts on the team belong to Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, who decidedly aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But the CBA's amnesty provision also fails to present a clear path to cap salvation for the Sharks because the question we should be asking isn't so much "who should the team buy out?" as it is "where do the Sharks go from here?", with added profanities sprinkled in for flavor. Buyouts should only be the means to whichever end the team decides to pursue.
This is a team that was among the league's elite for almost the entire duration between Gary Bettman's second and third lockouts yet, with all due respect to the President's Trophy, they have nothing in the way of postseason hardware to show for it and their primary core of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle—the players carrying the aforementioned three largest cap hits—aren't getting any younger. The summer of 2013, during which an amnesty buyout period would presumably take place, should be something of a crossroads for the organization. Thornton, Marleau, Boyle and Joe Pavelski will all have just one year remaining on their respective contracts and there will likely be a temptation to take a meat cleaver to the roster rather than maneuver around the edges in order to become cap compliant. As far as I can tell, these are the two basic options Doug Wilson and the rest of the Sharks' brass will be presented with at that point:
Option A: Gentlemen, Start Your Rebuild
Blow it up. Set a course for a multi-year scorched-earth rebuild and hope you come out the other end looking more like Chicago or Pittsburgh than Columbus or the Islanders. I would normally strongly advocate against this option but it might not turn out disastrously for the Sharks. They have a reasonably solid infrastructure in place with Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl all likely to be top-six forwards at the end of a moderate rebuild while Vlasic and Burns should comprise an above-average top pairing well into the future, Jason Demers and Justin Braun will likely be reliable top-four types if they progress as expected and prospects from Sean Kuraly to Matthew Nieto to Travis Oleksuk to Freddie Hamilton to Chris Tierney should ensure a rebuilt franchise won't suffer from the same woeful forward depth it does now.
The primary objective of such a rebuild would be to acquire young, high-end forward talent; in essence, to replace Thornton and Marleau, which is far easier said than done. Those two were the 1st and 2nd overall picks in 1997 and it stands to reason the Sharks would need similarly high draft selections in order to find viable replacements. So how would an amnesty buyout or two accelerate this process? Well, I'm not entirely sure it would. In order to begin the hunt for a new Thornton and Marleau, the Sharks would need to deal the versions currently on their roster, both because they represent two of the club's better trade chips and their presence on the team likely helps keep the Sharks out of the draft lottery.
The catch is that both players, as well as Martin Havlat, are equipped with no-movement clauses which Doug Wilson has previously stated he wouldn't ask a player to waive. It's entirely possible all three of them agree to be traded of their own volition after being informed of an impending rebuild but, if not, it might make sense to bite the bullet and buy out two of their contracts. The Sharks won't add the valuable assets they may have otherwise received for those players and eating millions of dollars for the right to have Thornton suit up for a different team would likely be anathema to an ownership group that cares about real dollars more than cap space. The only real upside is that the moves would get them under the new cap ceiling and expedite a tank job.
Buyouts should clearly be the last resort for the organization in the case of a rebuilding plan. Dan Boyle, he of the limited no-trade clause that kicked in last July, should certainly be traded if the team opts to rebuild and, if at all possible, so should Thornton and Marleau. With no blue-chip forward talent in the pipeline and another bottom-third first rounder likely coming in June, the Sharks can't afford to buy out or let walk their best forwards without getting something—anything—in return to kick-start a rebuild.
Option B: Stay The Course, Avoid Turning Into Calgary South
Of course, a rebuild isn't all sunshine and lollipops and TSN draft lottery specials. It's a veritable minefield of paralyzing risks, especially for a mid-market team like San Jose. Even if absolutely everything goes the Sharks' way and they end up trading for or drafting a new set of first-liners while all of their prospects reach their ultimate upside, they could just end up back at square one. The unfortunate reality is that there is no magic formula for winning the Stanley Cup outside of "acquire as many good players as possible," which the Sharks have most certainly done over the years yet still repeatedly come up short in the playoffs. Who's to say the team doesn't just end up right back where they started, routinely being one of the better regular season teams in the conference but unable to break through to that upper echelon of playoff contenders? And that's the best-case scenario.
At worst, the team goes through several years of a purged roster playing to a half-empty HP Pavilion while it bleeds money even without the help of creative accounting and the relocation vultures circle overhead. It might be more prudent for Doug Wilson to instead opt to stay the course when he reaches that fork in the contractual road this summer. After all, the Sharks have attempted to emulate the Detroit Red Wings in every other conceivable way; who's to say they can't seamlessly transition to a new core of talent the way the Wings went from Yzerman and Fedorov to Datsyuk and Zetterberg without missing a beat?
If they do decide to keep on truckin' with their current core intact while presumably tweaking the roster around them, it remains unclear whether an amnesty buyout would be in the cards. Boyle should still be traded to make the team cap compliant, mostly because the Sharks' defensive depth means they can stomach the loss of Boyle to a far greater extent than they could afford to expel one of their top-six forwards. If Boyle is dealt without significant salary coming back the other way and Clowe is re-signed to a rather generous cap hit of $4.5 million, the Sharks would have $7.8 million to spend on 9 players at which point it does make sense to turn to financially digestible buyouts as a method of roster surgery.
I seriously doubt Wilson would consider buying out a player he signed less than a year ago, but ditching the final three years of Adam Burish's 4-year, $7.4 million deal would be a wise move seeing as Burish could easily be replaced by a cheaper free agent or prospect without any damage to the team's competitiveness. Erasing the last two years of Antti Niemi's $3.8 million cap hit and going with one of the slew of goaltending prospects the franchise has seemingly been developing in perpetuity would be another option, albeit a risky one considering the mediocre start to Harri Sateri's career in North America and Alex Stalock's league-average performance as an AHL starter this year.
Somewhat ironically, there is probably more potential for the Sharks to utilize a sensible amnesty buyout if they decide to solider on with their current cast of key players than if they detonate the whole thing. Personally, I'd buy out Burish in search of more cap space with which to sign or acquire a competent third-line center. It might not have the sex appeal of a complete makeover, but I can't say staying the course would be an irrational decision. The Sharks were one of the best teams in the NHL as little as two years ago and despite the advancing age of Thornton and Marleau, they can likely be that again with improved forward depth and a normalized 5v5 shooting percentage.
I have strong opinions on ridiculously insignificant things like why the Sharks shouldn't re-sign a 7th defenseman they haven't even officially considered bringing back yet but, for whatever reason, I can't muster much more than ambivalence about which direction Doug Wilson decides to drive the bus this summer. I'm open to being convinced of the merits of either route (or, for that matter, an entirely different one) but the respective risks and rewards of a rebuild and a slight, cap-motivated retool appear a wash to me, at least before further analysis of how teams in similar situations chose and ultimately fared. My only hope is that the organization devises a plan and commits to it. Scratch that, my only hope is that we actually get to see the Sharks play a hockey game before decision time arrives. This lockout has gone on far too long.