Preseason Power Rankings: On with the show

This sure seemed like a short off-season.

Welcome back to Fear the Fin’s increasingly verbose and arbitrary rankings of Sharks players and affiliate personalities. For this week, we’ll be expanding our scope back through the off-season, to see which Sharks can skate into the coming campaign with their heads held the highest, and heading into the season, this space may be interspersed with some even arbitrarier ideas. Consider yourselves warned.

Just a few years ago, signing restricted free agents (RFA) coming out of their entry level contracts was pretty close to a foregone conclusion, and waiting until July 1 to do it was pretty rare. With 2019’s RFA class having come and gone, though, hindsight seems to imply that Timo Meier’s contract with the San Jose Sharks not only wasn’t late, but was early enough to set the market.

Meier’s four-year, $24 million deal is structured in a particular way. While the contract’s average annual value (AAV) — the number used to determine the amount of the salary cap it consumes — is a very reasonable $6 million for a player who may very well be the team’s best forward for its duration, the contract jumps up to a $10 million base salary with no bonuses for its last year. This is significant because Meier’s status as an RFA at the end of the deal means that the Sharks will still hold his negotiating rights, as long as they issue a qualifying offer before the deal expires in 2023. For an offer to qualify as qualifying (that’s fun), it must equal the amount the player made in his most recent year, as long as that amount is over $1 million.

See what happened here? If the Sharks want to keep Meier after this deal expires, they need to offer him a deal that is at least one year, and is worth at least $10 million annually. While the contract is technically on the books as a four-year, $24 million deal with an AAV of $6 million, it is, for most practical intents and purposes, a five-year, $34 million deal with an AAV of $6.8 million. It keeps Meier’s cap hit low for the next four seasons, and wink-nod-nudge is worth $10 million dollars more than it says on paper.

Of course you, our savvy reader, already know all of this, but it’s relevant to how the league’s salary structure seems to have changed so rapidly this off-season, with RFAs commanding larger contracts, eschewing the absurd and often calculated principles of team loyalty, and signing back-loaded deals as a way to keep cap hits down in the immediate future. William Nylander’s hold out from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season can probably be credited for making this possible, as it made ownership acknowledge the only real negotiating power RFAs have: not playing. With everyone acutely aware of the cost of high profile young stars sitting at home for months, Doug Wilson and Timo Meier found a compromise that at least five other big names emulated in the following weeks and months.

Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point and Matthew Tkachuk all signed three-year “bridge” deals since then, and all six of these contracts have a final year jump in actual salary with no bonuses. While the biggest difference between AAV and final season salary among this batch is Meier, all of these contracts follow the same basic pattern, meaning that their expiration will come with six teams wringing their hands about qualifying offers (unless, as is entirely probable, all six players just kick ass the whole time).

The next step, then, will come in the 2022 off-season, when the Seattle Sasquatch are sleeping off their Stanley Cup hangover, and all five of these deals expire and we see how many of their clubs qualify their suddenly, but not surprisingly, expensive stars. Meier and Wilson will have an extra year to watch the dust settle before the ten million dollar trendsetter puts pen to paper and sets the entire market all over again.

Okay, time for lists. Everybody loves lists.

1. Logan Couture

“That’s one.”

Logan Couture’s shout after scoring the first of San Jose’s four power play goals en route to a Game 7 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the 2019 playoffs had to have been the exclamation point on the team’s decision to anoint him the tenth captain in franchise history after the tragic but understandable egress of Joe Pavelski (the off-season one, not the Vegas one). While the new letter stitched onto Couture’s jersey seemed inevitable, credit is due to Couture repeatedly stepping up on the ice when the team is in its direst straits. Whether he can lead loud enough to drown out Joe Thornton and Brent Burns in the room remains to be seen.

2. Erik Karlsson

Anyone who had a better summer than Erik Karlsson, raise your hand. It’s hard to compete with the guy who signed a $92 million contract and set up permanent residence in California (after leaving friggin’ Ottawa). Additionally, Karlsson looked like himself again in the two preseason contests he played, and his 71 percent shot attempt share led all Sharks with more than one exhibition appearance. It’s looking like it’s going to be a wonderful eight years in San Jose.

3. Jonny Brodzinski

After signing a one-year deal with the Sharks on July 2, Jonny Brodzinski has impressed these last few weeks, enough to be elevated to the second line with Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane (for two periods, at least) last night in Las Vegas. While I’m skeptical that a 26-year-old winger with 11 points in 54 NHL games has some secret sauce to be discovered, the Sharks’ coaching staff seem pretty enamored with his game, and we’ll probably have plenty of time to see why, as the new kid would have to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL.

4. Lean Bergmann

If you had never heard of Lean Bergmann before two weeks ago, I wouldn’t blame you (and it’s pronounced Leon, like The Professional, by the way), but the 20-year-old German national has consistently impressed the Sharks’ coaching staff in his four preseason contests. Bergmann’s 60 percent shot attempt share at 5-on-5 was second among all Sharks skaters with more than three appearances this silly season, and was a name on more than a few lips in postgame pressers. Bergmann played 11:01 last night, mostly with centerman Barclay Goodrow and either Brodzinski or Melker Karlsson. The Sharks’ wing situation will probably be in flux for the first few weeks of the season, so if Bergmann can make an impact in the bottom six, an opening higher in the lineup is almost definitely available.

5. Mario Ferraro

Could Mario Ferraro be the answer to the gaping holes on the Sharks’ blue line left by Justin Braun, Joakim Ryan and, temporarily, Radim Simek? The answer, for now, seems to be yes. A subject of constant praise by coaches and players alike, the 2017 second-round pick seems ready to make the jump from UMass-Amherst directly to the NHL. If Ferraro can keep Dalton Prout from murdering anyone in San Jose’s first ten games, he may be here to stay.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Timo Meier: While Meier’s paycheck pales in comparison to Karlsson’s, there’s something to be said for a contract so reasonable, no less than five other free agents (and as many as eleven, depending on how generously you compare their structures) emulate it on their way to the bank.

Doug Wilson: While the losses of Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi sting, Wilson locked up Meier for four (five?) years, Karlsson for eight, got Kevin Labanc and Joe Thornton onto the roster for a cool three million bucks combined (Kevin, if you’re in the market for an agent, my rates are reasonable) and conned a second and a third round pick out of the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Justin Braun. The failure to address the Sharks’ greatest area of weakness (goaltending) meant we couldn’t make room for him in the rankings proper, but some credit is due.

Us: Hockey is back and, if last night’s fireworks are any indication, the Sharks’ first two games cannot be missed. The Sharks went 1-5 in the preseason, but we covered that already, so don’t worry.

Every team is tied for zero now.

Buckle up.