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After playoff exit, Sharks head into off-season facing three major decisions

The Sharks’ aging roster, thin prospect pool and key free agents leave them with a few major decisions as they head towards the off-season, particularly after they were bounced in six games by the Golden Knights.

The San Jose Sharks may have entered into their second round series against the now-rival Vegas Golden Knights as the underdog, but few would have expected the battle to be over in six games with such a lopsided result.

All told, the Sharks scored 14 goals to the Golden Knights’ 22, and that only tells one small part of the story. At 5-on-5, when adjusted for score and venue, the series was fairly one-sided. Vegas controlled the possession game to the tune of a 52.5 percent shots for percentage, 53.1 percent shot attempts for percentage and 52.9 percent scoring chances for percentage, all of which added up to 65 percent of the 5-on-5 goals scored in the series. Marc-Andre Fleury also thoroughly out-duelled counterpart Martin Jones despite the two keepers coming into the series as the first- and second-best netminders during the first round. The Golden Knights keeper posted two shutouts, including a Game 6, series-deciding blanking, and Fleury’s .935 save percentage across six games was decidedly better than Jones’ .895 mark.

In the coming days, the Sharks will dissect what went wrong, how to improve and what their future may look like. And throughout that process, San Jose’s front office will have to ask some tough questions about the next steps for an organization that appears as though it may be in need of a refresh in the near future. The Sharks iced the fifth-oldest roster in the NHL heading into the post-season, and the answer for getting younger doesn’t appear to be coming from within. San Jose’s prospect pool was ranked 30th by a panel of scouts in THN’s 2018 Future Watch. (Only Josh Norris, ranked 57th, cracked the top 100 prospects.)

Of course, rumors have swirled that the Sharks have planned to dive headfirst into the John Tavares sweepstakes this coming summer, and landing one of the game’s true superstars would go a long way in putting San Jose right back on track to return to the Stanley Cup final. But that’s not so much a question as it is wishful thinking — at least at this point — because there are another dozen teams who will have serious interest and 31 who will be kicking those tires as July 1 approaches. 

Given their current roster construction, though, here are three major decisions facing the Sharks in the coming weeks:

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JOE THORNTON?
Thornton’s mid-season knee injury, one that required arthroscopic surgery, was seen as a massive blow to the Sharks. At the time of the injury in late-January, Thornton was three points off of San Jose’s scoring lead, was second in ice time among forwards and was still working his magic as an effective puck distributor at even strength and on the power play. When he fell injured, however, it seemed all was lost for the Sharks.

But some stepping up by the players around Thornton made it so that the blow was lessened. Over the back half of the campaign, captain Joe Pavelski was a near point per game player, while Brent Burns, Logan Couture and even Mikkel Boedker, who has been much-maligned since his arrival in San Jose, notched 20-plus points in the 35 games Thornton missed. The arrival of Evander Kane also provided the offense with a boost. Life without Thornton wasn’t grand, but it also wasn’t as disastrous as some believed it may have been.

So, the question now is where the Sharks see Thornton — and where Thornton sees the Sharks — in their plans. It’s evident that Thornton still has the ability to be an impact player, even if just as a middle-six center, but one wonders if it’s still cost-effective for San Jose to keep him. Thornton carried an $8 million cap hit this past season, and even if the cap rises another $5 million ahead of the off-season, re-signing Thornton at the same rate would leave the Sharks with $11 million with a few other deals that will need careful consideration.

Eventually, the organization is going to have to move on from Thornton and get younger. We already saw one Sharks fixture, Patrick Marleau, jet last summer. It might be time for the same to happen with Thornton, particularly if the Sharks are going to start to refresh an aging roster by giving opportunities to its younger players.

WILL EVANDER KANE MAKE IT TO THE OPEN MARKET?
Kane, 26, has long been expected to be one of the top free agents heading into the off-season, but after his acquisition by the Sharks, there are questions as to whether or not he’s even going to make it to market. San Jose landed Kane from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a conditional first-round pick, conditional fourth-round pick and Daniel O’Regan, and the power forward was an immediate fit. From the deadline onward, Kane was the third-highest scorer on the Sharks, chipping in a team-best nine goals and 14 points in 17 games. He then went on to pick up four goals and five points in nine playoff games. Those are the positives.

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The negatives, however, are that Kane allowed a tough Game 1 loss to get to him in the second round, landing himself a one-game suspension at a crucial point in the Sharks’ season. He also dealt with injury during his brief stint in the regular season, and Kane is reportedly battling a separated shoulder after fighting through an MCL injury. Props to him for playing through the ailments, no doubt, but Kane’s injury history has to be a tad worrisome if the Sharks are considering putting up the cash to keep him. He has never played a full 82-game NHL campaign and has missed more than a dozen games in five of his nine big league campaigns. That’s not to mention four seasons with 66 or fewer games played.

That said, GM Doug Wilson did acknowledge post-deadline that the Sharks weren’t trying to bring players in ahead of the trade freeze unless there was a fit “for now and the future.” That would seem to indicate interest in re-signing Kane. The price will have to be right for both sides to make this work, though. Kane is undoubtedly going to want a raise on the $5.25 million AAV he’s had over the past six seasons, but how high does he want to go and where will the Sharks be willing to meet him? It seems hard to fathom San Jose going above $6 million per season, which is the cap hit Couture and Pavelski carry, but the Sharks may need to consider it if they see Kane as a fixture going forward.

HOW MUCH IS TOMAS HERTL’S EXTENSION WORTH?
A quick glance at the Sharks’ cap situation indicates that, barring new pacts, there are some big contracts coming off the books, including Thornton, Kane, Joel Ward and Jannik Hansen. Those four players carried a collective $18.525 million cap hit over the past season. But one contract on the to-do list — an extension for pending restricted free agent Tomas Hertl — could eat up a sizeable portion of the Sharks’ available cap space heading into the summer.

Already earning $3 million per season over the past two campaigns on a short-term, bridge deal, Hertl has been the Sharks’ fifth-highest scoring player over the past two seasons and he’s done so despite missing nearly half of the 2016-17 campaign due to injury. The 24-year-old had arguably his best offensive season yet in 2017-18, too, scoring a career-high 22 goals and matching his previous career-best of 46 points in 79 games. What should boost Hertl’s earnings on his next deal, too, is that he really came to play over the back half of this past campaign. From the beginning of March onward, Hertl scored 13 goals and 22 points in 28 games across the regular season and playoffs, including an excellent six goals and nine points in 10 post-season outings. Only Couture had more points in the playoffs.

It’s not as though solid comparables aren’t out there, either. Look no further than New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad. Signed to a two-year, $2.625 million bridge deal coming out of his entry-level contract, Zibanejad went on to score 35 goals and 88 points across his next 137 games. That’s slightly more than Hertl’s 32 goals and 68 points across 128 games, but it’s in the same wheelhouse. So, what did Zibanejad earn on his first long-term deal? $5.35 million across five years. That sounds about right for Hertl, too, doesn’t it?

If that’s the number for Hertl — or if it’s close and he earns in the $5 million range — chances are re-signing him, as well as re-upping other RFAs Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, eats up close to, if not more than, one-third of what the Sharks have available in cap space.

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