What comes next for Sharks after locking up Hertl to four-year deal?

Missing out on John Tavares had to sting the San Jose Sharks. There they were, a finalist in arguably the biggest free-agent sweepstakes in NHL history, and despite his decision to leave the New York Islanders, the only franchise he’s ever known, the Sharks seem to have come up just a hair short of being able to bring the superstar center to San Jose. They were so close, in fact, that Sharks GM Doug Wilson released a statement about Tavares’ decision not to sign with the team.

But Wilson, not to be knocked off kilter by the Sharks failure to land ‘JT,’ brushed himself off rather quickly. The afternoon following Tavares’ decision to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose was right back making headlines. First, they re-signed 39-year-old center Joe Thornton to a one-year, $5-million pact that keeps one of the franchise’s all-time greats — and a player still capable of putting up 50-plus points with seemingly relative ease — and the Sharks followed that up by taking care of arguably their most important piece of in-house business: inking restricted free agent Tomas Hertl to a new contract.

Hertl got himself quite the deal, too. Following his 22-goal, 46-point season which saw him set a new career best in scoring and tie his previous career-high point total, the 24-year-old put pen to paper on a four-year, $22.5-million pact. The deal, which is set to pay him an average of $5.625 million annually, makes him San Jose’s fourth-highest paid forward, and it’s a contract that carries with it a certain incentive. In a somewhat non-traditional sense, Hertl signed a bridge contract, a short-term deal that comes with the opportunity for him to boost his worth the next time around. And while the hope in San Jose is that they won’t end up regretting not signing Hertl to a longer-term pact, they certainly wouldn’t be upset if he played his way into bigger money next time around.

As it stands, Hertl has steadily remained in that 20-goal, 45-point range throughout the past three seasons of his career, but all indications are that the Sharks are pegging the soon-to-be 25-year-old for a breakout in the near future. The money he’s set to earn is one sign of that, of course. But his post-season performance, a six-goal, 10-point outpouring, was one surefire sign that he’s ready for a bigger role. Another indication is that he saw consistent minutes as a top-six center last season, and the offensive weapons around Hertl give reason to believe he’s on the cusp of flirting with the 30-goal plateau.

But as important as the Hertl re-signing is and as much as it checks one sizeable box on San Jose’s summer to-do list, it doesn’t erase all questions about the off-season for the Sharks. Matter of fact, that Hertl’s signing eats up “only” $5.625 million creates another question entirely — where does San Jose go from here?

What we know for certain is this: the Sharks were prepared to have one of the NHL’s most aggressive off-seasons. That’s why they were all-in on Tavares and went so far as to re-sign Logan Couture to an eight-year, $64-million deal before they were even sure as to Tavares’ decision. Being passed over by Tavares changed their plans, to be sure, and the re-signings of (and money spent on) Thornton and Hertl are results of that. But the fact remains that Wilson has proven time and again that he’s not one to sit back if he sees an opportunity to improve his team.

Take the past trade deadline, for instance. The Sharks, knowing they could use an offensive boost, became frontrunners for 25-goal scorer Evander Kane and shipped off two picks and prospect Daniel O’Regan to the Buffalo Sabres in order to land the power forward. Wilson also used a late-round draft pick to pull Eric Fehr into the mix, who became a nice fit as a fourth-liner with the Sharks. But Wilson’s boldness goes beyond this past summer. He’s made a move of at least some note at each of the past three deadlines, and when it looked like San Jose was ripe for a rebuild ahead of the 2015-16 season, Wilson went out and bolstered his roster by acquiring Martin Jones and inked the now-departed Paul Martin and Joel Ward. The Sharks went to the Stanley Cup final that season.

This is to say that it’s hard to fathom re-upping Hertl and Thornton, while significant moves in that they keep San Jose’s core group together, will be the last moves of the summer for the Sharks. The sheer amount of cap space available to the Sharks — $8.2 million with one RFA, Chris Tierney, yet to be signed — makes it feel as though it’s a near certainty Wilson makes another move. And it really does feel like if Tavares was a potential addition, there could be another scorer the Sharks have their eye on.

Here’s the part where we should note this is baseless speculation, but wouldn’t current Carolina Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner look good in teal next season? Yes, he’ll be a free agent next summer, but even with Tierney signed, Skinner’s $5.725 million would fit nicely under the cap this season. He’d slot right into the top-six and boost the Sharks’ offense with 30-goal potential. Or what about moving around some money one way or another to bring in Artemi Panarin? He’s another high-scoring winger who’s on the cusp of free agency and he faces an uncertain future in Columbus. A cheaper option on the wing could be acquiring Mats Zuccarello from the New York Rangers. And, hey, there were rumblings at the draft that Max Pacioretty could be bound for San Jose. Maybe there’s something there for the Sharks and Montreal Canadiens to revisit.

And what about the possibility, as outlandish as it may seem, for San Jose to chase the other big name out there this summer, Erik Karlsson?

By all indications, Karlsson’s time as an Ottawa Senator is as good as over. And while there are sure to be plenty of suitors for Karlsson, the Senators could fetch arguably their biggest return from a team such as the Sharks, who would be likely to up their offer in order to acquire Karlsson alone and leave Bobby Ryan out of the mix. That’s not to mention San Jose could up the ante further, too, in an attempt to block a potential Karlsson move to the Vegas Golden Knights, who have been long rumored as a top contender to land the two-time Norris Trophy-winning rearguard. The long-term financial outlook might be a bit tricky, what with the Sharks having about $26 million in projected spending room and the potential for Karlsson’s next deal to eat up $11 million annually, but it’s not all that different from signing Tavares. Speculation is the offer from San Jose exceeded $11 million, actually, so Karlsson might somehow be cheaper long term, which is mind-bending.

No matter what the move, though, you can rest assured that we haven’t heard the last out of San Jose this summer. Wilson’s track record paired with the Sharks’ obvious interest in Tavares suggests San Jose is prepared to go all-in on winning with their current core, and they might do whatever they believe necessary to make that happen.

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