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Why San Jose should try their damnedest to completely restructure their depth forwards this offseason

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Free Agency is open for business, and the Sharks absolutely can and should find a way to improve if they can.

San Jose Sharks left wing Rudolfs Balcers (92) during the first period against the Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center at San Jose. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL off-season is here and, as we all know, for most teams it is a time of great change, trepidation toward that change, and a great opportunity for an NHL team to both overspend like crazy while also changing their fortunes from the year prior!

The 2021 San Jose Sharks, a team that was uh …

... yeah, should probably try their hardest to use this free agency period to make big changes to their roster. That should start, first and foremost, with their depth — in that almost no player that ended the year on the third and fourth lines should remain there.

But why their depth specifically?

Simply put, outside of a select handful, very few players on the Sharks’ main roster bottom-six this year were in any way noticeably impactful or actively negatively affected the Sharks ability to push play; creating an offense-and defense-suck nexus that made a team with some major flaws even more flawed. In this case, they only managed to cobble standings 49 points together, with the second-worst goal differential in the division, and some of the worst team save percentage in the league.

I do not need to overstate just how rough things were. We already got to see that. It sucked.

But! That does not mean that everything is bad forever. While most of their shot metrics were kinda meh, the Sharks’ expected goals-for percentage was around league average, and expected goals-for per-60, according to Evolving-Hockey, were sixth in the entire league, while their expected goals-against per-60 was fifth.

Evolving-Hockey.com

So for all of the bad that we were subjected to, something here, even just granularly, is working, and can be fixed so that it translates into goals — and by extension, wins. But it’s going to take some work.

Going to CapFriendly as a Sharks fan is like sticking your hand into a blast furnace and not getting burned if you’re looking for a way to make magic work. The Sharks have a lot of players on prolonged no-move clauses that make sweeping, franchise altering change a bit hard to pull off until at least 2023, when a vast majority of those players submit a three-team trade list. While a couple of them are upholding that level of trust ... others are struggling, but are financially secure. For all intents and purposes, trying to move on from any one of them at the moment, outside of possibly convincing them to waive their no-movement clause, would be a near Herculean task.

The team has $12 million and change in cap space to work with, but that money will start shrinking rapidly once they start handing out contracts. It’s a nice buffer for maybe one quality middle-six forward signing or top-four defender signing, and then a series of smaller contracts for restricted free agents, and that’s not even counting possibly extending Tomas Hertl.

In order to maximize the available cap space that can be utilized by the Sharks, they should strive to try and revamp their depth before trying to chase any especially big fish, so that the team can put a more balanced lineup on the ice and when the boys show up for camp, they can feel reasonably confident in trying their hand at a playoff spot.

Who stays, who goes?

The easy thing at the moment is that pretty much any outgoing UFA is a low-priority for a re-sign, if they re-sign any of them at all. Kurtis Gabriel had fits and starts where he could maybe be considered a decent talent, but otherwise, Dylan Gambrell and Patrick Marleau — and yes it hurts to write about Patrick Marleau of all people in this way — were entirely ineffective for the kind of hockey the Sharks should strive for. I’m more than sure it would be nice to have Marleau around, but if the team cannot live without him, I would suggest either a league minimum deal, or an assurance that he will join the front office the minute he retires.

Marcus Sorenson, meanwhile …

Sheesh.
Evolving-Hockey.com

... well, it was nice knowing you, bud.

From there, we come to San Jose’s RFAs, which are a bit ... trickier. The no doubt must-sign in my opinion is Rudolfs Balcers, as his defensive metrics are absolutely incredible, especially for the kind of hard miles they were asked to play for the Sharks. Lock this man up, and Doug did. Good job, Doug! John Leonard and Khyzhov also have the makings of decent defensive forward depth for the bottom six, so Doug Wilson should also try to make sure they’re happy as well.

While Balcers is clearly the best of the three, all three have value for not making things worse, which is the best you can ask for in your depth. They deserve ribbons and penny candy for their efforts.
evolving-hockey.com

Outside of that, everything becomes infinitely harder; Ryan Donato is an otherwise ignorable player at even strength but a nightmare death machine on the power play. Do you stash him on your fourth line and then give him power play time as a sneaky option? Is it even worth the risk to have a player who is ultimately a detriment at the part of the game that it will be played at the most for a boost on the power play? The rest are ... well …

I do not care for this effort. Please send it back.
Evolving-Hockey.com

... If they’re asking for league minimum with this kind of output, then I think they’re asking for a bit too much. Players like Gambrell and Gregor have ultimately shown very little capability of keeping up with the demands of what is asked of them even at their limited minutes, so either further limiting of those minutes or outright return to the Barracuda for further seasoning.

Guys like Sasha Chmelevski and Joachim Blichfeld are also trending towards being good, but they played a grand-spanking combined total of 79 minutes this year, give or take. More data is needed, and therefore they should probably see more play in order to see if they are worth more interest. And hey! They just handed Blichfeld a contract! So we can find out for certain next year.

Who should they target to fill out the depth?

First name is very clear, in my opinion; Tomas Tatar. Tomas Tatar needs to be wearing Teal yesterday.

Tatar is the kind of player that, if put on the right team, will make both a GM and a coach look like a genius simply because he is so, so, so very good ... and that everyone up to this point has completely and utterly failed to recognize this. Montreal and Vegas have often left him out of their lineup for reasons that, if they were being practical, would have absolutely not happened. Because of that, Tatar is an extremely valuable and talented forward that many, many teams will either ignore or openly pass on and will eventually sign for far less money than he’s worth.

Having Tatar for anywhere from 2 to 4 years would be a boon on the Sharks that would pay dividends almost immediately; it allows a quality center a chance to at long last show why he is a quality talent, and creates a buffer that allows some of the kids (Leonard, Chmelevski, Wiesblatt if you’re feeling spicy late in the season) to better develop, and critically allow for a player who will almost certainly be getting a contract far below his actual market value onto the roster, allowing for yet more moves.

Such as:

  • Warren Foegele: By the sheer magic of the sport being fairly northeast US and Canada focused, one of the seemingly coldest UFAs on the market in terms of sheer impact on-ice is Carolina’s Warren Foegele. All expectation seems to indicate that Carolina is gonna re-sign the guy, but if you can lure him away, you have a really interesting piece.
  • Sam Gagner: The trick here is not to overspend on Gagner, nor to give him too much money. He’s a quality depth option however, and has historically been one of the few players on some truly trash teams to be able to shine. Definitely worth a looksee if you can get him at or under a million dollary-doos.
  • Josh Leivo: About as exciting a player as a DMV visit, but his metrics indicate a solid defensive player who can eat minutes in your bottom six, and is probably not worth all that much on the open market, which is good! Keeping it cheap is the goal.

Why would any of that matter? What’s the end game here?

To get better, duh.

In reality, one thing that struck me while doing research for this piece is that the Sharks forwards, particularly the depth forwards who played this season, were absolutely putrid at backchecking. Some of that might’ve been system, sure, but ultimately it made the job of Martin Jones infinitely harder when the team’s ability to backcheck was so ... not there. Depth players should be able to to turn the puck up ice and get it out of their end more often than not on a good team, and so it struck me just how hard-pressed the Sharks were to have even a couple of guys who could do that with moderate consistency. Were they able to do so, I think they would have been a much easier team to watch, and probably at least slightly better at helping their goaltender keep pucks out of the net.

In spite of the money problems that plague the NHL, I believe full-heartedly that the Sharks can not only get better through free agency, but that they can get through free agency a much, much better team than people expect.

Y’know, just one with some growing pains.