Trying to piece together anything resembling an offseason gameplan for the Sharks this summer has felt awkward and largely futile. So much is up in the air regarding the franchise right now and it seems particularly pointless to highlight avenues by which the team could improve when improvement doesn't appear to be their goal, at least not in the short term. But with Joe Thornton's agent reiterating that his client isn't likely to waive his no-movement clause and Patrick Marleau declaring he wants to stay, and win, in San Jose, it seems like Doug Wilson's plans of rebuilding may have to be scrapped, or at the very least postponed.
This is a good thing. Despite the gut-wrenching series loss to L.A., the latest (and, arguably, greatest) in a long line of bitter playoff disappointments for the franchise, the Sharks finally enter an offseason with a combination of ample salary cap space and a high-end roster. If Wilson is forced by his stars' no-trade clauses to continue icing a contender rather than starting over, there aren't a ton of moves he would need to make in order to give this group their best shot yet at the Stanley Cup. The most obvious area of weakness is the blueline, which the Sharks have already taken a step to address by moving Brent Burns from forward back to defense. As long as Brad Stuart is penciled into top-four minutes, work remains to be done on the back end but there's an immediate question the Sharks will need to answer regarding Burns: who's going to replace him up front?
As a forward, Burns was the sixth-most efficient even-strength goal scorer in the NHL over the past two years. When he and Thornton shared the ice at evens last season, the Sharks controlled 60.2% of all shot attempts and scored 63.6% of all goals. Those numbers were at least in part a result of Burns being perhaps the single most effective forechecking forward in the league. It's going to be awfully difficult, if not impossible, for the Sharks to replace all of that. Let's look at three ways they can try to.
Option 1: Keep Joe Pavelski at wing on the first line
This is probably the most likely Burns replacement scenario. It also isn't ideal, for a couple of reasons. First, expecting Pavelski to repeat his 41-goal performance of a season ago, or even come all that close, is wholly unrealistic. Prior to 2013-14, Pavelski had converted 10% of his shots into goals over the course of his NHL career. Last season, that percentage skyrocketed to 18.2. That spike in shooting percentage alone is accountable for 18 additional goals relative to his career performance and it isn't a spike that's likely to be sustained.
Call it luck, call it variance, call it divine intervention from the hockey gods; the point is, Pavelski's scoring output from this past season isn't really indicative of his talent level and a decent chunk of it is a good bet to disappear. If the Sharks are okay with sacrificing their forward depth (and playing Pavelski at right wing on the first line rather than center on the third is most certainly accomplishing just that) with the expectation Pavelski will have another 35-40 goal season on Thornton's wing, they're likely in for an unpleasant surprise.
It's that negative effect on the bottom half of the Sharks' forward lineup that stands out as the real disadvantage of playing Pavelski in the top six. As late as the postseason, Todd McLellan maintained that Pavelski is at his best when playing center. He's right. At the very least, the Sharks as a whole are certainly at the top of their game when Pavelski is centering one of the best third lines in the league. The opportunity cost of playing Pavelski at right wing is that you're forced to trot out James Sheppard as your third-line center. Based on what we've seen from him thus far in that role, Sheppard is a very bad third-line center. Assuming the Sharks don't add a real third-line center from outside the organization (or, at the very least, experiment with Hertl in that spot as part of the overarching plan to build for the future), they'll be shooting themselves in the foot by using Pavelski on the top line.
Option 2: Promote Tommy Wingels to the first line
American hero and FTF favorite Tommy Wingels is coming off a breakout season and should be in line for a nice little raise because of it. He could also be in line for a promotion. Despite scoring 16 goals last season (14 of which came at even-strength, which is encouraging), Wingels probably wouldn't be a great bet to replace the offense the Sharks are losing with Burns' switch back to the blueline but he could bring comparable physical elements to Burns including an effective presence on the forecheck.
Wingels would essentially be playing the role Dustin Brown does when slotted alongside Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik on Los Angeles' first line or Bryan Bickell when he's combined with Jonathan Toews and either Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa on Chicago's top unit; he would be tasked with creating space for his two more talented linemates while also possessing the skill to pot a few goals of his own. Thornton's history of turning out career years for his right-shooting linemates is well-documented; a 20-goal season for Wingels in this situation wouldn't be out of the question.
The real advantage to slotting Wingels on the top line is that it allows the coaching staff to deploy Pavelski as their third-line center, creating a rather formidable depth scoring line of Pavelski, Raffi Torres and (assuming he isn't traded) Tyler Kennedy. The drop-off from Pavelski to Wingels on the top line is certainly steep but I'm not sure it's quite as dramatic as the drop-off from Pavelski to Sheppard at third-line center; I'm also not convinced the role of riding shotgun with Thornton and Hertl is as difficult or important to the team's success as the role of holding together a line the Sharks will need to be effective against deep opponents.
If the Sharks don't add any forwards from outside the organization this summer, I'd like to see Wingels at least given a shot at sticking on the top line out of camp. Wilson mentioned shortly after the Sharks' elimination that young players will be given the opportunity to seize as large a role on the team as they can heading into next season and while Wingels isn't all that young at 26, it's worth keeping in mind 2013-14 was his first full NHL season. He deserves the opportunity to parlay his production from last season into a chance to establish himself as a top-six forward.
Option 3: Sign a forward in free agency
When asked earlier in the offseason, Doug Wilson indicated that he would "probably not" be pursuing unrestricted free agents this summer. Whether that thinking has changed in the month since, particularly now that it appears unlikely Thornton or Marleau will agree to be traded, is anyone's guess. But wading into the UFA pool, despite it being awfully shallow this year, is certainly an option for filling Burns' spot in the top nine.
There are two directions the Sharks can go here, either opting to keep Pavelski on the top line and looking for a legitimate third-line center to fill his previous role or signing a winger to play with Thornton and Hertl while Pavelski stays put on line three. In terms of viable centers, Paul Stastny will almost certainly be too rich for the Sharks' blood which likely leaves Mikhail Grabovski as the best available option. There's little not to like about Grabovski. He scores at even-strength, he drives play at a high rate, he likely has a few good years left in him at 30 and he's bizarrely undervalued by much of the NHL (he's still collecting buyout money from the Maple Leafs and wasn't signed until late August last year) to the point where he probably wouldn't break the bank. Other passable third-line centers include Marcel Goc and perhaps David Legwand, although the latter certainly wouldn't square with Wilson's goal of icing a younger squad.
Landing a winger to play with Hertl and Thornton might be a better course of action for the Sharks, especially seeing as this year's free agent class is loaded with scoring wingers so it's plausible a team could get a bargain on one of the lower-end ones. Radim Vrbata is a player the Sharks were reportedly interested in the last time he hit the free agent market; will that interest resurface now that he's 33? It seems doubtful but it's worth noting Vrbata has been a shot-generating machine in Phoenix despite generally being centered by the solid-but-unspectacular Martin Hanzal; only 22 forwards have registered more 5-on-5 shot attempts per minute than the Czech winger since 2009, and this past season was Vrbata's best ever by that measure. He could very well hit 30 goals next year were he to stay healthy, play on Thornton's wing and get some power play time. Steve Downie is coming off an awful, injury-riddled season in which he scored just one even-strength goal but at 27 with a history of far better production and an ability to influence possession, he's worth inquiring about.
Ultimately, the Sharks will probably end up trying to replace Brent-Burns-the-forward internally and that's certainly defensible given a lackluster free agent crop (although Vrbata, despite his age, does look like an intriguing fit) and a supposed organizational shift towards building for the future. But it's worth keeping in mind the Sharks couldn't buy an even-strength goal for nearly two and a half seasons before Burns was converted to forward. Burns' shift up front isn't the only reason the Sharks finished 7th in 5-on-5 scoring rate this past year, as the team made several changes—both roster-wise and systemically—around the time they switched Burns, but it was certainly a significant factor. If San Jose reverts to being a goal-starved team at even-strength with Burns back on the blueline, it'll be awfully tough to find an upgrade during the season. For that reason alone, it might be worth taking a look at some options outside the organization this summer.