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What will it take to sign San Jose’s free agents? A first look at Sharks under 2019-20 salary cap

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Dec 1, 2018; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) salutes the crowd during a welcoming ceremony held at the Canadian Tire Centre in his first game back in Ottawa against his former Ottawa Senators team. Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Bettman delivered some good news to the San Jose Sharks yesterday: Bettman projected an $83 million salary cap for 2019-20. That’s a $3.5 million increase from this season’s $79.5 million.

For Doug Wilson and cap-strapped San Jose, every dollar helps.

It’s just December, but it’s not too early to tremble at the potential Sharks’ bloodletting this summer.

At the moment, San Jose has just five forwards signed for 2019-20:

At least they have a defensive core and netminding pretty much locked up:

That’s $55.36 million tied up and $27.63 million left to sign, at minimum, seven forwards and a defenseman.

Not just any average skaters either: Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton are unrestricted free agents. Timo Meier is a restricted free agent.

This is the current list of NHL-relevant Sharks free agents this summer:

UFA: Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Marcus Sorensen, Lukas Radil, Tim Heed
RFA: Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Antti Suomela, Joakim Ryan, Dylan Gambrell, Rourke Chartier

Will another Mr. Shark get away? Will Melker be the only Karlsson left standing in San Jose? Will Timo Time take on a whole new meaning when he’s sitting out September for higher pay?

From this point, there are, of course, many possibilities.

But before we dive into a couple of them, let’s think about what the Sharks’ most significant free agents might sign for in San Jose, then apply these figures to the 2019-20 salary structure.

Erik Karlsson

It doesn’t appear to be as much of a slam dunk that Karlsson will become the highest-paid defenseman in the NHL as it was during the summer. That’s said, right now, Karlsson’s body of work is much too impressive to assume anything different.

Obviously, Drew Doughty’s eight-year, $88 million contract ($11 million AAV), signed in July 2018, is the benchmark. Let’s say the Sharks crown Karlsson with eight years, $92 million dollars ($11.5 million AAV).

Joe Pavelski

The 34-year-old is on pace for his first-ever 50-goal campaign. What do you offer a Sharks’ lifer on a shooting percentage bender?

To some degree, teams seem to be limiting terms or reining in spending on 30+ UFA forwards — 30-year-old James Neal (five years, $25 million) and 32-year-old Paul Stastny (three years, $19.5 million) are 2018 “silly season” examples. On the other hand, Neal and Stastny weren’t coming off career years, unlike 32-year-old Blake Wheeler, who inked a five-year, $41.25 million dollar extension ($8.25 million) in September 2018. Like Pavelski, he’s also the captain of his squad. Given Pavelski’s age, let’s go with four years, $30 million dollars ($7.5 million AAV).

Timo Meier

The 22-year-old winger, coming out of an entry-level contract, is on pace for 40 goals. These negotiations might get William Nylander-ugly.

Nylander set some precedent with his recent six-year, $45 million dollar pact ($6.962 million AAV), arrived upon after a 61-point season.

Last year, in similar circumstances, wingers Nikolaj Ehlers and David Pastrnak agreed to long-term contracts. Ehlers signed a seven-year, $42 million deal ($6 million AAV) in October 2017 after a 64-point campaign. A month earlier, winger David Pastrnak, in what’s now considered a bargain rate, inked a six-year, $40 million deal ($6.66 million AAV) after a 34-goal season.

Even if Meier “stalls” at 30+ goals, he’ll have an argument to command more than Nylander, Ehlers and Pastrnak. Hopefully, six years, $45 million ($7.5 million AAV) cuts it.

The other alternative for Meier is a bridge deal.

These days, most significant RFAs coming off an entry-level contract sign longer-term pacts. But there are a couple cases to draw from. This past September, Sam Reinhart agreed to a two-year, $7.3 million contract, coming off a 25-goal campaign; Reinhart’s $3.65 million AAV represented 4.59 percent of this year’s salary cap. In October 2016, Nikita Kucherov inked a three-year, $14.3 million deal after a 30-goal season; Kucherov’s $4.766 million AAV represented 6.53 percent of that year’s salary cap.

It’s worth noting that Kucherov had dropped 29 goals the year before, so he was a surer commodity than Meier. Between Reinhart and Kucherov’s cap hit percentage, let’s go with 6.0 percent (out of $83 million) for the Swiss star’s bridge contract. That comes out to $5 million per, let’s say two years.

Joe Thornton

The 39-year-old Thornton, of course, might choose to hang ‘em up.

But if he doesn’t — and during the summer, Thornton was reportedly willing to take a massive pay cut to play with John Tavares — it should be easy to bring back Jumbo, assuming he’d make another sacrifice to skate with Karlsson, Pavelski or both.

Kevin Labanc

San Jose’s other expiring entry-level contract dilemma, the 22-year-old playmaker is on pace to surpass 40 assists this season.

23-year-old winger Oliver Bjorkstand, signed in July 2018 to a three-year, $7.5 million pact ($2.5 million AAV) after a 29-assist season, provides a solid post-ELC RFA comp. Like Labanc, Bjorkstrand is a pass-first winger who doesn’t kill penalties. Three years, $9 million ($3 million AAV) should be a reasonable projection.

Joonas Donskoi

Donskoi is enjoying another solid season as a secondary scoring winger. As we saw in the 2016 playoffs, Donskoi is a reliable middle-six forward in crunch time.

Affordable and indispensable, supporting players like Donskoi always have a market. July 2018 signees Riley Nash and Matt Calvert provide imperfect comps for the UFA Finn. Coming off a breakout 40-point campaign, Nash inked a three-year, $8.25 million ($2.75 million AAV) contract. A defensive-first winger, Calvert took three years, $8.55 million ($2.85 million AAV). For what it’s worth, Calvert (14:22) and Donskoi (14:23) share nearly-identical playing times. Another three year, $9 million pact ($3 million AAV) might work.

Everybody Else

As for Sorensen, Radil, Heed, Suomela, Ryan, Gambrell and Chartier, none, save Sorensen or Ryan, should be in line for sizable raises, if San Jose chooses to bring any of them back. By sizable, Sorensen or Ryan could both eclipse $1.5 million AAV each.

First, let’s try to bring everybody significant back:

Yeah, that’s not going to work. But we already knew that. The presumption seems to be that either Pavelski or Erik Karlsson has to leave town this summer.

But is it possible to keep both?

Just maybe:

It’s tight, but doable. Start the season with 12 forwards, six defensemen, two goalies and pray.

Meier gets the aforementioned bridge deal.

Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon should be coveted, especially Braun. Melker Karlsson, not so much, but his $2 million cap hit won’t be prohibitive to pawn off, especially if it comes with a sweetener. Donskoi moves on.

Anyway, it’ll probably take Erik Karlsson heating up, Pavelski continuing to light the lamp and a deep Sharks playoff run for Doug Wilson to consider keeping the band together. That would be a good problem to have! More than likely, however, there will be some upset Sharks fans come this summer.