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Joe Pavelski’s goal-scoring resurgence could put Sharks in a salary cap bind

The Sharks captain is having one of the best offensive seasons of his career right as he's headed towards unrestricted free agency. San Jose will want to keep him, but they'll need to find the salary cap room, which could be especially tricky if Erik Karlsson sticks around.

It was as Joe Pavelski as Joe Pavelski goals get. Skating across the ice and passing by the net, Pavelski reached out with his lumber and picked a Brenden Dillon point shot out of mid-air. The puck changed direction by feet, not inches. Pavelski, who has mastered the deflection like few players in the league, had completely stunned Michael DiPietro.

Considering the state of the game, Pavelski’s marker was largely inconsequential. It was the seventh Sharks tally in a game San Jose won by a 7-2 score. But it’s what the goal meant on a broader scale — it was his 30th of the season, the first time he’s reached the plateau since the 2015-16 campaign, and puts Pavelski on pace for a career-best 43 goals — that might stand to make important, though, particularly as he inches ever-closer to unrestricted free agency with no extension in sight.

Pavelski’s contract situation with the Sharks hasn’t quite been an elephant in the room this season. In fact, it hasn’t really come up all that often. There’s a reason for that, too. The belief in San Jose, and around the league, is that the two sides will work something out. And why wouldn’t they? Pavelski has been a fixture of the Sharks lineup since he broke into the league in 2006-07, captain for the past four seasons and a beloved fan favorite. There’s also no reason to doubt for a second that San Jose wants to give Pavelski what he desires. The organization, from the top down, no doubt feels he deserves and will play his heart out to earn every penny of an extension. This season is proof, too, that he can still be a top contributor.

But the issues facing the Sharks when it comes to retaining Pavelski, especially as he plays his way towards the one of the very best offensive campaigns of his career, are twofold. First, they need to find out what that dollar number is, what they’ll need to shell out to retain their leader. And then they need to find a way to fit that into their ever-tightening budget.

When it comes to the former, the comparators are out there, and the most obvious, based on age and offensive impact, might be Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler. Signed in the summer to a five-year, $41.25-million extension, under which he’ll play his first game as a 33-year-old, Wheeler landed a significant raise from the $5.6-million cap hit he carried on his last deal. And given he’s making $6-million per season on his current deal, chances are a similar raise would be the target for Pavelski, particularly given his goal-scoring resurgence this season.

Of course, some will scoff at the suggestion, particularly with Wheeler on pace to flirt with the 100-point plateau this season and Pavelski only in line to hit 70 points should he maintain his current scoring rate. If you look beyond the base production, however, the two are similar in output.

Consider that despite Wheeler’s 17-point lead on Pavelski in the Art Ross Trophy race, the Sharks captain has only eight fewer primary points than his Jets counterpart. And when measured in per-60-minute scoring rates, the difference between the two isn’t all that vast. When it comes to primary production, one-fifth of a point separates the two players per hour of ice time, with Wheeler producing 2.5 points (27th in the NHL) and Pavelski slightly behind at 2.3 points (40th). What bridges the gap in primary output is Pavelski’s goal total. His aforementioned 30 goals give him the 14th-highest goals per 60 minutes output and laps Wheeler’s 12-goal output and 0.6 goals-per-60 rate, which ranks 263rd. Suddenly, the perceived chasm between the two has closed somewhat.

So, if Wheeler is used as a statistical comparison, even a slightly more productive one, it gives a potential baseline for a Pavelski extension that would likely fall somewhere in the four- to five-year range at a comparable cap hit. However, it may be more important to measure by cap hit percentage — Wheeler’s deal, when signed, was worth 10.38 percent of the upper limit — rather than dollar value. A similar cap hit percentage against an $83-million cap, which has been a rumored spending limit for next season, would see a Pavelski extension carry an $8.62-million average annual value. Let’s factor in a potential hometown discount, though, and call it $8.5 million.

Even if that number is fair, however, it doesn’t preclude the Sharks from running into any cap difficulties. With roughly $21.9 million in projected cap space, plus an additional $3.5 million that could come with a cap increase, San Jose is primed to have roughly $25.4 million and change with which to work this coming off-season. And though that may seem like more than enough for the Sharks to take care of outstanding business, it’s much tighter than one might expect.

Erik Karlsson’s contract is likely going to match, if not surpass, that of Drew Doughty’s with the Los Angeles Kings. If the Sharks retain Karlsson, that’s in the neighborhood of $11-million per season, which limits their cap space to $14.4 million. San Jose then needs to take care of a deal for restricted free agent Timo Meier, who is on pace to score 29 goals and 71 points this season. Given the deal inked by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander, Meier could be looking in the $6-million range on a new pact. Even if it’s $5.5-million or even $5-million per season, though, that still drops the Sharks’ cap space to $9.4 million. At that point, the Sharks have still yet to re-sign RFAs Kevin Labanc, who is having a career year, Dylan Gambrell and Joakim Ryan. And once those are done, San Jose can turn its attention to its UFAs, which, in order of importance, include Tim Heed, Joonas Donskoi, Joe Thornton and Pavelski.

That means the Sharks are in for tough decisions. Even if Heed, Donskoi and Thornton walk — or retire, in the case of the latter — there’s likely not enough money left over for Pavelski once the RFAs are re-upped. The likelihood then is a decision on the back end, which will likely be moving one of Dillon or Justin Braun, who will carry respective $3.27-million and $3.8-million cap hits next season. Dillon is the more likely of the two to be on the move, though Braun, who can and has routinely skated upwards of 20 minutes per night, is the more attractive trade option and would free up extra breathing room.

It’s in moving at least one player — and maybe multiple players — out that the Sharks have the best chance at having the financial flexibility to re-sign Pavelski and potentially tweak and tune the rest of the roster or bring Thornton back into the fold. These are decisions San Jose can back burner for now, but Pavelski’s 40-goal, 70-point pace likely means the Sharks will have to make some difficult choices down the line.


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