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At least one painful goodbye looms for Sharks this off-season

With so many players to sign and only so much money, the Sharks will have to bid farewell to one or more members of their star-studded UFA group this summer.

Some teams complete their playoff runs, lick their wounds, figure out which lessons they learned and excitedly prepare to do better the next season. The upstart Carolina Hurricanes come to mind.

Other teams go through their entire post-seasons blocking out the fact they could be facing the end of something, that the summer will bring so much change that there’s no telling if next season will be as successful. The San Jose Sharks fall squarely in the latter category. Their run to the 2019 Western Conference final made every one of GM Doug Wilson’s moves feel worthwhile in the moment, from acquiring Erik Karlsson in his UFA year to bringing back Joe Thornton at 39 to trading for Gustav Nyquist at the deadline. As soon as a team gets eliminated without a Stanley Cup, however, none of the go-for-broke decisions matter anymore. Suddenly, the Sharks face a cloudy and challenging off-season. It could break many different directions, but we can say almost for certain next year’s lineup will look noticeably different from this year’s. The salary cap will simply prevent Wilson from bringing the entire group back.

At the moment, San Jose has 15 players signed for $58.3 million, leaving $24.7 million to spend up to the new projected salary cap of $83 million. Before turning a smidgen of attention toward his UFAs, Wilson must address his RFAs. Timo Meier, 22, busted out for 30 goals and 66 points this season, adding another 15 points in the playoffs. His blend of size, strength, scoring touch and net-crashing ability makes him as crucial as any Sharks forward now, up there with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, and Meier hasn’t hit his ceiling. A 40-goal campaign is well within reach. Meier has earned a long-term extension, with a $6-million AAV likely the floor if he doesn’t sign a bridge deal. Next up is RFA Kevin Labanc, a crafty, creative player who is more of a complementary piece than a dominator but has nevertheless established himself as a viable top-six scoring forward. Labanc doesn’t have the same ceiling and pedigree as Meier and will cost a fair amount less to re-sign, perhaps even going the bridge route, but Labanc should at least triple his $925,000 AAV. There’s a decent chance he and Meier combine to eat about $10 million of cap space next season.

Dylan Gambrell and Joakim Ryan won’t break the bank by any means but do need new deals as RFAs. After that, Wilson can turn his attention to the high-profile UFA list, headlined by Karlsson, Thornton, Nyquist and captain Joe Pavelski. The math simply doesn’t add up. The Sharks will be lucky to keep two from that group at this point.

Will Karlsson stay? He missed 29 regular-season games, sat for the deciding contest in the Sharks-Blues-series and battled groin problems all year but, aside from an unlucky shooting percentage, remained as effective as any defenseman in the league when on the ice. Among the 209 defensemen who logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 in 2018-19, Karlsson ranked second in Corsi For per 60 minutes, seventh in Corsi Against per 60, fourth in Shots For per 60, 21st in Shots Against per 60, ninth in Scoring Chances For per 60, fourth in High-Danger Corsi For per 60, second in overall Corsi relative to his teammates…the list goes on and on. The eye test may have suggested he was a step slower than his prime-years self, but Karlsson’s impact on the game remains immense.

Given the dearth of good right-handed UFA defensemen this summer, or top-end defensemen at all, Karlsson shouldn’t have too much trouble commanding the Drew Doughty AAV of $11-million. Maybe, given they can offer an eighth year of term that no one else can, the Sharks can get Karlsson for an AAV closer to $10 million, but he’ll cost a fortune regardless.

And if the Sharks do retain Karlsson, where does that leave Pavelski? He turns 35 in July and sustained at least one if not two scary head injuries in the playoffs, but he also just equalled the second-highest goal total of his career at 38, can play center or the wing and is a great leader. Any contending team would be lucky to have him, and he’d have plenty of suitors on the open market. Would it be remotely surprising to see him score a multi-year pact with a raise over his current $6-million cap hit? After figuring out the Meier and Labanc contracts, it’s debatable whether the Sharks can afford Karlsson and Pavelski.

It feels like there’s no chance Nyquist fits into the salary structure next year, and re-signing him would change a 2020 third-round pick into a second-rounder going to Detroit as a condition of the trade. He’ll thus go down as a true rental. But what about ‘Jumbo’ Joe? It would feel practically sacrilegious to see him in another team’s uniform at this point, and it’s unlikely he wants to play anywhere but San Jose if he doesn’t retire. But the Sharks paid him $5 million last summer, and he was arguably better this year than last. Pricing in another year of aging, he has a case to ask for the same salary this summer.

See the trend here? Unless Wilson executes a major trade, at least one important piece will have to go. And the Sharks don’t have too many blatantly “bad” contracts in tow and available to trade. Brent Burns and Evander Kane have earned what they’re worth so far. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a down year by his standard, and his $7-million AAV could start to take on water as he gets deeper into his 30s, but he has a full no-movement clause until 2023-24. Goaltender Martin Jones had a rough regular season and playoffs and carries a $5.75-million AAV but has a no-trade clause with just a three-team trade list. He likely isn’t going anywhere.

So who stays and goes from the UFA group, then? Based on age and impact, the smart path would likely be to prioritize Karlsson over the sentimental favorites Pavelski and Thornton. The Sharks took a good, hard swing at glory in 2018-19 and missed in the end. They may have to accept a slight step backward to get younger and ensure more long-term contention.

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