The San Jose Sharks have finally found their man in Mike Grier, appointing him GM of the team he spent three seasons playing for during his 14-year NHL career.
And now, the real work begins.
Grier takes over a Sharks franchise in a state of disarray -- both on and off the ice.
Behind the scenes, the Sharks just fired their entire coaching staff in a move coming quizzically after practically every other NHL team had done the same, therein forcing Bob Boughner and his staff to enter a job market in which most of the positions have already been filled. With practically all of the big names off the board, as well, Grier must now sift through the bargain bin for the Sharks' next bench boss mere days before the draft.
Then there's the Evander Kane saga that continues to unfold, with the Sharks still in the process of awaiting a mediator's ruling to determine if their termination of Kane's contract in early 2022 had grounds, leaving the decision to potentially make a sizable financial impact on their cap moving forward.
And to top it all off, Grier must now find some possible way to use the roughly $6 million in cap space he'e been given to re-sign the Sharks' eight pending restricted free agents AND improve a roster that finished sixth in their division and missed the playoffs for a third straight year.
Even if he wanted to kick off a full-scale rebuild, Grier simply couldn't. Not with the way things sit right now. His hands are tied.
The Sharks just signed Tomas Hertl to an eight-year deal worth over $8 million per season, seeming to hint at an internal belief that the team can right the ship in the near future. The odds of that are unlikely, however, and that's not even taking into account the whopping $34.5 million in combined AAV owed to Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- each of whom is 32 or older -- until, at the very earliest, 2025.
Barring a miracle, a very long road awaits Grier before he can turn the Sharks into a contender. But he must start somewhere. And there's no better time than the present.
The first order of business should be initiating a buyout of Vlasic. The 35-year-old is the coldest of the Sharks' elderly dead weight, set to make $7 million per year for the next four seasons despite being fresh off a campaign during which he averaged just 15 minutes of ice time.
It wasn't always like this, of course. Vlasic earned that deal by spending close to a decade as one of the NHL's top shutdown defenders. But for players of that ilk, the aging curve can be a rough one. And once Vlasic lost a step in a league that gets faster by the day, his primary source of value vanished, hitting him like a truck and rendering him a below-replacement-level player making top-four money.
Buying out Vlasic won't be without its consequences, of course. Vlasic's dead money would remain on the Sharks' books until 2030 in this case and top out as a $5.187 million cap anchor in 2025-26. But the savings in the short-term make it a viable option, with the Sharks set to gain an extra $3.312 million in cap space this season, $5.562 million in 2023-24, and $2.182 million in 2024-25.
Suddenly, that paltry $6 million in available funds that Grier has this summer jumps to over $9 million, possibly even representing the difference between losing and keeping a valued RFA.
Despite the Hertl deal suggesting a far rosier internal outlook, Grier should probably steer the organization as close to a rebuild as he possibly can. And the best way to make that happen is shopping Timo Meier to any interested bidder.
Meier is a phenomenal player, hitting career highs last season as the Sharks' leading scorer with 25 goals and 76 points in 77 games. He's also only 25 years old, is under contract for this season at just $6 million, and will still retain his RFA status when that final year is up, ensuring that his rights stay with whichever team happens to employ him at that time.
For a Sharks club holding very little cap space with which to pay Meier in 2023, and, even in the event they do come to an agreement, likely won't contend until Meier is approaching his 30s anyway, the best course of action seems to be selling high on a premium asset under team control and reaping the rewards.
Just look at what the Lightning paid for Brandon Hagel at this year's deadline -- largely due to his years of continued RFA eligibility. Meier is a point-per-game player with 40-goal potential who has just entered his prime. The package of assets the Sharks could recoup for an asset that will, frankly, do more to hurt their lottery odds than Stanley Cup aspirations over the next few years could one day become the bedrock upon which their next contention window is built.
Hertl might not like it, and that's fine. Grier didn't sign that contract and has no allegiance to the talented center. His job is to oversee the long-term success of the Sharks. And by sacrificing immediate mediocrity for a shot at future contention, that's precisely what Grier would be doing.
And if he can find a taker for one of the Sharks' bloated veteran deals, even better.
Karlsson is the least likely of the bunch to be moved, given his astronomical $11.5 million price tag and laundry list of health issues. But Burns might still be salvageable enough to fetch a taker, even if shipping him out requires Grier to retain salary.
Set to make $8 million per year until 2025, Burns' current standing as an offense-only defender who just put up 54 points in 2021-22 could be an attractive add to teams in need of some blueline pop. The term is what serves as a roadblock for any potential deal, of course, with Burns' contract set to expire just before his 40th birthday. But perhaps at a $4 million AAV, there are certainly a few GMs out there who could talk themselves into stomaching it.
Grier's to-do list won't be as cut-and-dry as this one, obviously. It never is in the NHL. But with a few tweaks, the mess he inherits becomes a little less daunting in the years ahead.
We'll find out which path he takes in the coming days.