Heading into the first day of free agency the San Jose Sharks will have $8.92 MM in cap space. That cap space will be have to be used in order to acquire five forwards. Three of those five forwards will be of the fourth line variety-- in other words, there is a lot of flexibility here for the Sharks in their free agency pursuits.
As I see it, there are three relevant questions from a salary management basis:
1) Will the San Jose Sharks spend to the cap this year? The team is in win-now mode, has their core locked up for the next three seasons, and has made the Western Conference Finals two years in a row only to come up short. All indications point to them going all-in and committing their payroll accordingly. However, the vast increase in cap space this year (~ $4.0 MM) may mean the Sharks aren't in a financial position to spend to the cap as they have in years past-- SVSE has run operating deficits before with the Sharks, but we obviously don't have those numbers in front of us. I expect them to do so considering this is the best team they've had in awhile heading into free agency, but that could be wishful thinking. We just don't know.
2) Where do the San Jose Sharks allocate their cap dollars? As we've been saying all offseason, the biggest need was acquiring a top two defenseman and forwards who can play the penalty kill. Doug Wilson went out and got the first one when he acquired Brent Burns at the NHL Entry Draft. Therefore, I think it is safe to believe that the Sharks will focus their resources on the forward department during free agency. Acquiring at least two penalty killing forwards is essential in my eyes due to the fact that Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers are leaving the Sharks and Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski led the team in shorthanded TOI last year. That is the biggest need for San Jose during free agency.
3) Is Justin Braun the de facto number six defenseman in San Jose? No. In a perfect world he's an ace in the hole that you can turn to if you need some offensive pop on the backend. That being said, I am not opposed to the idea of beginning the year with Braun as your number six provided you spend money on forwards this offseason and save some breathing room under the salary cap. Effective bottom pairing defensive defenseman are a dime a dozen in this League and can be acquired for roughly $1.0 MM even if contracts for Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins may indicate otherwise. As much as I would like to see a player like Jan Hejda signed during free agency (and believe me, I would), going in with Braun as your sixth blueliner isn't a bad situation provided you have a) addressed the needs on the forward front and b) left yourself with some breathing room under the upper limit to acquire a defensive defenseman later in the summer/11-12 season. It's a priority, but one that is well behind the need for penalty killing forwards we covered above.
4) My Morning Jacket's "Circuital" and Other Lives' "Tamer Animals" are two phenomenal albums. This has nothing to do with the San Jose Sharks but does deserve noting.
If we assume that the Sharks will spend to the salary cap (see point #1), a rough breakdown of needs and wants presents itself quite naturally. We'll have more on specific players tomorrow (you can peruse this article from June if you're dying for a list of PK forwards I like), but today I'd like to outline some basic blueprints for two situations.
I think it's fair to expect Jamie McGinn and Andrew Desjardins will be back next season, competing for a fourth line role out of training camp. Those two players should cost you a combined $1.3 MM per year, and for roster flexibility, it makes sense to ink them to one year deals. Toss in another $700,000 player to play wing on that fourth line and you end up with $2.0 MM in committed salary for your bottom line. That leaves San Jose with $6.92 MM to approach free agency with two "best case scenario" mindsets:
Sign a top six winger and a third line penalty kill specialist who can score. On the free agent market, this generic top six winger costs San Jose roughly $3.5 MM and this third line PK specialist who can score costs around $2.0 MM. The Sharks are left with $1.42 MM to sign a depth defensive defenseman or further improve their forward depth with another acquisition.
Sign a 4-5 defensive defenseman who will be on the opening night starting roster and use the rest of your cap space to acquire forwards of the non top six variety. On the free agent market, this generic 4-5 defenseman costs San Jose roughly $2.5 MM. This leaves you with $4.42 MM to sign any number of forwards of varying contract sizes-- it could be a 2 MM-2 MM split, or a #3 MM - $1 MM split. With the way the team is currently constructed, I think this is the most beneficial play for San Jose even if I am not opposed to Justin Braun beginning the year in the starting lineup. I'm an advocate of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau babysitting a forward on the top line to start the year for the following reasons:
- Joe Pavelski as a third line center gives San Jose three legitimate scoring lines. If Kyle Wellwood is retained and subsequently paired with Pavelski and a third line forward via free agency, you have that in spades.
- Splurging on a top six forward in free agency isn't Doug Wilson's style.
- You have six top six forwards right now on the roster. Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, Couture, Clowe, and Pavelski have all played top six minutes throughout their career and been very effective with it. If the "babysitting" role fails during the year (which it inevitably will when the Sharks hit a losing streak), you have six forwards who can jump in and legitimately play top six minutes.
- Matt will have more on this tomorrow, but Joe Thornton makes players around him much better. If you spread out your depth, Thornton will make up the difference.
- When the inevitable injury occurs to the blueline Justin Braun as your sixth man leaves you exposed. Defensive depth is one of the hallmarks of great teams, and if Doug Wilson's track record indicates anything, he will tweak his team to fix what went wrong in the year before. Jason Demers' injury was a big factor in the loss to the Canucks, and Vancouver's depth on the blueline was one of the reasons they were so effective last season. Having a deep backend is very important.
- Players like Eric Belanger, Vernon Fiddler, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Higgins, Jeff Halpern, Brooks Laich, and Joel Ward have numerous skill sets that make this team much better from a depth standpoint than splurging on a top six winger to replace Devin Setoguchi. The majority of these players have seen top six time before as well, meaning they can jump up the lineup when injuries occur.