2022-23 Sharks Preview: Replacing Burns by committee
There’s a wookiee-sized hole on the blue line — can the Sharks can divvy up his responsibilities?
Since Erik Karlsson was acquired by the San Jose Sharks, the blue line — when healthy, which has been exceedingly rare over the last few years — hardly had to wonder what it was like to not have a Norris-caliber defender on the ice. The pair of Karlsson and Brent Burns came with three Norris Trophies and hefty price tags, and on the wrong side of 30, that dream team simply couldn’t last forever.
If you told anyone during the 2016 Cup run that this wouldn’t be Brent Burns’ blue line in 2022, they’d probably say something like, “Who are you and why are you telling me this?” but you would sit and think about how crazy the passage of time is and probably regret not going back to tell yourself exactly when to get in and out of the Crypto business. And wouldn’t that be weird?
The whole Sharks organization is one in transition, but I’m not sure that’s more keenly felt than on the blue line, where up-and-coming defenders are starting over completely with a blank slate and emotionally-driven decisions regarding veterans are no longer so tough.
Burns’ past production can’t be denied. With Burns and Karlsson taking up a combined 40 minutes per night, they’ve shared a mix of offensive and defensive duties for the majority of games played together. That empty spot on the blue line is more than just minutes and numbers that need to be covered. It’s different situations and scenarios that can now be broken up among multiple players in order to optimize match-ups.
You don’t need one of two defenders on the ice at all times if you have several defenders with individualized strengths. It all comes down to usage.
Let’s take a glance at every defender, what they bring to the table and how they might fit into the larger picture that is the Sharks’ defense this season:
Current Age: 28
Last season: 65 GP, 0 G, 11 A (with Nashville Predators)
Contract: 4 years, $1.25 million AAV
If the Benning name is sending up red flags for a nepotism baby, yes, you are correct, Jim Benning is Matt Benning’s uncle. Coming from a family full of defenders, Benning hasn’t exactly been known for lighting the lamp all too often, but for once it’s not lying to say he makes up for it on the defensive side of the ice. The 28-year-old quietly signed a four-year deal with general manager Mike Grier in July, making the Sharks the third team he’s played for after refusing to sign with the Boston Bruins, who selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Benning is not a player who exists to score and his signing marks a shift in organizational defensive strategy. The end of the Doug Wilson era saw a defense that split the majority of its time between Burns and Karlsson blasting shots from the blue line. Benning is not a player who is going to replace that offensive output, and unless Ryan Merkley is suddenly ready to drop big rookie numbers, the backend will be adding to the offense by committee this season.
But one area where Benning will be able to deftly handle big minutes once covered by Burns is on the penalty kill. Last season, Benning played 141 shorthanded minutes, compared to Burns’ 222. A bonus: no star-fishing necessary.
A four-year contract means Grier sees Benning plugging a long-term hole. Defensive responsibility has often fallen to younger defenders in the past, such as Jacob Middleton and Mario Ferraro. The Grier era is kicking off with signing a veteran defender who will be expected to take on that role. To me, that sparks a more interesting conversation about a certain French-Canadian defender’s future on the team.
It’ll be a miracle if Benning hits double digit points this season, but as long as he can take care of the defensive side of things, it’ll be a case where not hearing about him through the season means he’s doing his job right.
Current Age: 22
Last season: 53 GP, 5 G, 20 A (with San Jose Barracuda, AHL)
Contract: 2 years, $835,000 AAV (ELC)
Following a strong first professional season on an AHL contract with the San Jose Barracuda, assistant general manager Joe Will inked Cicek to a two-year deal at the conclusion of their season in April. The undrafted defender is a former captain of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, earning a reputation for aggressive, physical play with a scoring touch.
Cicek is perhaps the last signing of his kind, fulfilling a lot of Doug Wilson-era classics. A gritty, undrafted WHL defender who takes to development in San Jose like a fish takes to water? By gawd, that’s Wilson’s music.
Proving his place in the organization is more important than ever for Cicek, one of the last pieces to come in before Grier. That said, it might not be that difficult — Grier’s era seems to be looking for a heavier blue line and Cicek’s style of play fits in that kind of system. The biggest question is how well he’ll be able to drive play from the backend at the NHL-level. He’s historically racked up a decent number of assists, but with the big club, he’ll be playing against bigger and stronger competition in fewer minutes per game.
So far, Cicek has avoided being assigned to the Barracuda’s training camp, signaling good things for his future. Still, at 22 and on an entry-level contract, Cicek is waivers exempt, something of which the Sharks are short in the defensive corps. No doubt he’ll get a call-up during the season, but for now, I imagine he’ll develop as a leader with the ‘Cuda and build on a surprisingly impactful camp.
Current Age: 24
Last season: 63 GP, 2 G, 12 A
Contract: 4 years, $3.25 million AAV
There aren’t many narratives of the modern Sharks more depressing to me personally than the seemingly sudden decline of Mario Ferraro. The 2017 draftee has yet to play an AHL game, making the jump right from his second season at UMass (where he served as the Minutemen’s captain) to the NHL. His rookie season impressed, but his sophomore season shined and the defender was often tasked with tackling the same minutes as Burns.
Now a Sharks alternate captain, Ferraro went from holding his own in the NHL to doing more harm than good, albeit with some injury troubles along the way. There is the emotional impact of Ferraro, of course — the dressing room is notably a quieter place without him and he’s been cited by other players as wearing his feelings on his sleeve. Losing him would sour team morale in a similar way that the Jason Demers trade did. The benefit of the guy who every single person in the room genuinely likes and respects is that his infectious mood can help teams bounce back through tough stretches.
That’s easier to swallow when that guy is playing with the responsibility of 2020-21 Ferraro, and last season, he didn’t just plateau, he tripped and fell off the damn cliff. It was as ugly as expected. This year, he’ll have to take a different role and step out from behind Burns’ now-departed shadow. Can Ferraro become a reliable second-pairing defender, who can start the transition and provide offense, or will he be a fan-favorite player who never finds the next level in his game?
The good/bad news is that you don’t sign a guy for four years if you don’t think he’s capable of bouncing back. Ferraro just turned 24 years old in September and had plenty of time this summer to get fully healthy and work on his game.
But if the preseason is any indication, he’ll go from being stapled to Burns to now sharing the ice with Vlasic and those are two very different situations. Optimistically, with Vlasic hanging back more, Ferraro will be able to jump into the play, hovering between holding the zone and driving the puck to the net. Best case scenario, he cracks 20 points and, god willing, 5 goals for the first time in his NHL career.
Current Age: 29
Last season: 50 GP, 3 G, 4 A (with Cleveland Monsters, AHL)
Contract: 1 year, $750,000 AAV
When I began writing this article, I intended Scott Harrington to be a bonus section, as a player I thought the team should give a chance. Naturally, on Sept. 30, Grier signed Harrington to a one-year contract following an impressive camp and preseason. The 29-year-old journeyman signed a professional tryout earlier in the month, having left the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency after six years with the club. Last year, he returned to the AHL for the first time since 2016-17.
Hitting 30 next March, Harrington was expected to sign an AHL contract with the organization during camp. An injury to Markus Nutivaara (and a strong camp from Harrington) shook up the expectations for the construction of the defense. His NHL experience is certainly appealing for a team that has been forced to cycle through young depth defenders over the last few seasons.
I initially anticipated that Harrington would sign an AHL contract and sign an NHL deal later in the year, to avoid the fact that he will have to pass through waivers to be assigned to the Barracuda. Now though, it’s looking like Harrington is going to make the opening night roster, if not get sent down in a rush of other waivers when the preseason concludes, with the hope that the gentleman’s agreement among general managers at that time of year means he’ll clear. His contract is extremely tempting and I’m not sure I’d risk it.
The defense is going to be somewhat fluid, but I do expect Harrington will still often be the odd man out — unless the defense continues the trend of racking up games lost to player injury.
Current Age: 21
Last season: 41 GP, 3 G, 9 A (with San Jose Barracuda, AHL)
Contract: 2 years, $925,000 AAV (ELC)
A sixth-round selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, Santeri Hatakka made his NHL debut just two years afterward. That alone is impressive for the Finnish defender, but even more impressive is that he had never played in North America prior to the 2021-22 season — though that was mostly due to the pandemic limiting opportunities in junior hockey after his draft year. Instead, he stayed in Finland and without a gap in his development, jumped into his first professional season last year.
Hatakka did not travel with the team to Europe for the NHL Global Series and was in the final round of training camp cuts to be assigned to the Barracuda. Between his age and waivers exemption, 2022-23 is a development year. Hatakka’s primary asset is his speed, something that requires a certain use to be effective in an NHL defense. It’s unlikely he’d have a lot of success with this season’s defense in transition.
Injuries last year held Hatakka to 41 AHL games, and his stints in the NHL were sparse and spread out. Hopefully, he’ll get closer to a full season of games with the ‘Cuda this year, working on his shot, strength and spatial awareness to round out his game. He’s not exactly first in line for a call-up, but depending on injuries and how the season is going, don’t be surprised to see Hatakka get a few games with the mother club.
Current Age: 32
Last season: 50 GP, 10 G, 25 A
Contract: 5 years, $11.5 million AAV
Love him or hate him, this is Erik Karlsson’s blue line and we have to live with that. Players like Karlsson and Burns are divisive, because their role doesn’t fit the traditional defender mold. The defensive lapses stand out, while point totals become a blanket against criticism. When the team acquired him in 2018, it was thought that there was no way a team could work a defense around two players like that. In retrospect, it’s at least true that the Sharks couldn’t make it work.
If there’s a player who needs to pump up the production to off-set the loss of Burns, that’s Karlsson. The trick of balancing offense at the blue line isn’t just a struggle on the individual player level, it’s also a question of usage of the total time on ice. With one less offensive defender on the team, that’s more of Karlsson’s minutes that can go toward offensive situations, versus splitting that time with Burns. His usage should change, as the defense is finally built around him and not just to accommodate him.
The real question of Karlsson’s career is can he stay healthy? His all-new bionic groin needs to hold together for just 57 games to hit the most in a single season since joining the Sharks. Thankfully I know better than to comment on whether or not it’s capable of that. Imagine all the points he’ll get if it does, though.
Current Age: 21
Last season: 60 GP, 7 G, 21 A (with San Jose Barracuda, AHL)
Contract: 2 years, $905,000 AAV (ELC)
Artemi Kniazev did not travel with the team to Europe for the Global Series, assigning the Russian defender to the AHL for reasons that are certainly not political at all, and definitely don’t conveniently avoid confrontation. Then again, he also has just one game of NHL experience under his belt and a crowded D-corps probably meant he was always going to get this as a development year.
Last season, it took Kniazev time to adjust to the professional game. He’d played parts of three seasons in the QMHJL in Canadian juniors, but the majority of his youth and junior hockey career was in Russia, putting up several barriers on his journey to proving himself as an NHL player. He’ll need to come into this AHL season looking like he’s been there before, with a jump in his step. Maybe he’s already on the way, as he was best defender in the Rookie Tournament and depending on Ryan Merkley’s status with the Barracuda, he should be soaking up plenty of opportunities on an improved ‘Cuda squad.
Unless the blue line is really hurting, or Kniazev takes off like a shot this year, I imagine a season of quietly building on his game, without many NHL appearances. Next season’s camp is when he’s going to really shine. He’s still got time.
Current Age: 24
Last season: 0 GP, 0 G, 0 A
Contract: 1 year, $850,000 AAV
Someone who is a little shorter on time is Nikolai Knyzhov, another Russian who just so happens to not be abroad with the team. Okay, maybe this time though it’s because he has the worst luck with his health. You’ll notice the zeroes above and that the chart below is from the 2021 season. The 24-year-old missed all of last year due to a long-term groin injury and complications stemming from surgical repairs.
In August, Knyzhov tore his Achilles tendon during an off-ice activity and later had surgery to repair the tear. He’s expected to be out for six months, though recovery from surgery — as Knyzhov will attest to — is a highly personal experience, subject to many, many factors.
If the timeline holds, updates will likely start around mid to late January, and perhaps he’ll return to the ice by late February. After more than a season and a half away, how he’ll return is truly anyone’s guess. To make any kind of NHL appearance this year would be a blessing for him.
Current Age: 29
Last season: 44 GP, 2 G, 6 A
Contract: 2 years, $762,500 AAV
Joe Will made just a couple of moves this last spring, and Jaycob Megna’s two-year contract was one of them. The Florida native has been captain of the Barracuda for the last two seasons. A seventh-round draft selection by the Anaheim Ducks, he floated between the two leagues until 2019, when he signed an AHL deal with the Chicago Wolves. He’s worked his way back up to an NHL contract, but that’s more about how San Jose’s depth has been ravaged than anything else.
The thing about Megna is that ... well, he’s fine. He’s closer to bad than good, but is a perfectly serviceable depth defender. He turns 30 years old in December, well past the point where he will suddenly become a fully-capable, positive-impact skater. He’s depth, and he’s not terrible depth, but he’s no Jacob Middleton, despite the similarities in the face.
Let’s just say I really hope the Sharks aren’t in a position where we have to see 44 games of Jaycob Megna again.
Current Age: 22
Last season: 39 GP, 1 G, 5 A
Contract: 1 year, $1,163,333 AAV (ELC)
Drafting a boom-or-bust player means sometimes you get a bust. For 22-year-old Ryan Merkley, it can feel frustrating that a player once-touted as having top-10 draft pick level talent is struggling to make an impact at the NHL level, putting up just 6 points in 39 games last season. Is that enough to call him a bust?
Merkley was assigned to the Barracuda’s training camp and because he does not require waivers this season, it makes sense that’d he’d be sent down. This is the year for Merkley to put up or shut up, because Grier will be negotiating his next contract at the end of this season and results thus far have been ... underwhelming.
Something I’ll be keeping an eye on with all of the changes in the organization is how Sharks head coach David Quinn will utilize young players, combined with how Merkley in particular will take to what feels like a career plateau as he returns to the AHL. A healthier defense in San Jose this year will hopefully mean fewer call-ups and I’m just not sure Quinn will be reaching for Merkley in his AHL bag of tricks.
If that can light a fuel under Merkley, I see an AHL All-Star nomination in his immediate future.
Current Age: 28
Last season: 1 GP, 0 G, 1 A (with Florida Panthers)
Contract: 1 year, $1.75 million AAV
There’s not much to say about Markus Nutivaara because he hasn’t played a lot of hockey over the last three seasons. Between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers, he’s appeared in 68 NHL games over the last three seasons, including last year where he played in just one game before missing the remainder of the season with a lower-body injury.
The versatile defender was signed to a cheap one-year deal this off-season, with a hope that he could return to form in a season closer to normal than the last three years have been, providing a scoring touch to the bottom-pairing. Following a preseason game, he began to have trouble related to the lower-body injury from last season and did not travel with the team to Europe.
It seems largely agreed that Harrington’s surprise contract hints at Nutivaara falling off-track in rehabbing his injury. He’s got a performance bonus on the line, but having known this was a possibility when he was signed, the team would be cruel to rush him back.
Current Age: 30
Last season: 36 GP, 1 G, 1 A
Contract: 2 years, $2.25 million AAV
Radim Simek might give Nikolai Knyzhov a run for his money when it comes to Sharks players with terrible health luck. Another player once touted as a guy who just gets Brent Burns (the ultimate kiss of death for a Sharks defender), injuries have limited his ability to complete his destiny as an undrafted player who came up through his home country of Czechia, becoming an eventual NHL regular nonetheless.
Injuries may ultimately define Simek’s career more than his time on the ice. There are two years remaining on his contract, so the Sharks are going to try to make it work, even though last season, he was reportedly frustrated that when he was healthy, the coaching staff wanted to audition younger players. With that strategy out of the way for now, Simek should be getting a fair shot.
That’s not to say that Simek’s spot is guaranteed. The bottom pairing is hardly set and with Burns gone, Simek needs to find chemistry with someone and quickly. His game has a lot of qualities that will speak to Quinn’s coaching style. He’s strong, fearless and plays a hard, heavy game. His shot, though? It’s virtually nonexistent. Simek doesn’t just need to bounce back, he needs to bounce back better, or risk being passed over.
Current Age: 35
Last season: 75 GP, 3 G, 11 A
Contract: 4 years, $7 million AAV
Well. Vlasic sure is a hockey player.
His contract is largely regarded as one of the worst in the league, saddling the Sharks with a $7 million cap hit and a full no-movement clause through the end of this season. All while putting up numbers like this:
The thought was that Vlasic might be gone after last season, but Quinn and Grier had other plans. The whole team has been given a clean slate to work with. How long Vlasic can keep this newfound rope will be one of the biggest subplots of the season. If he can fight off Father Time for another season in a new system, it could go a long way in making the last few years of his deal ... bearable, at least.
In his age-35 season, I’m not sure Vlasic will be moveable by next year, but I suppose that is a problem for future Mike Grier to deal with, when he finally is able to trade the veteran to one of three teams of his choosing or buy out the remainder of his deal, leaving the Sharks with six years of memories. Thanks for that one, Doug.
Still, I remain hopeful that Benning’s signing and younger players being on the cusp of joining the big leagues means we’ll end up with a solution to the Vlasic problem sooner than later.