The downfall of the San Jose Sharks

Zach Remelius , Courier Staff

The San Jose Sharks have been a staple of the NHL playoffs since the late 1990s. Since the year 1998, they have made the playoffs 19 times and have consistently been a team that has been viewed as a contender for the Stanley Cup. In that span, they have won President’s Trophies and been to five Western Conference Finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. They have had some future Hall of Famers suit up for them like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton to go along with perennial All-Stars like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. Ron Wilson, their GM, has always been able to add the pieces he feels like they needed, getting top six forwards like Gustav Nyquist and Evander Kane whenever need be. The young guns in Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl appeared to be ready to take over the mantle after Joe Pavelski left this past season to sign in Dallas. It has not worked out at all however and they currently sit 12 points out of a playoff spot and in the bottom five of the NHL in points and quite frankly unless some massive changes are brought about they are going to go through some rough years.

Last season they acquired superstar defensemen Erik Karlsson and made it all the way to the Conference Final. They got some breaks along the way. A horrible call in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights led to four power play goals in five minutes bringing them back from a 3-0 deficit. They won in overtime, and then beat the Colorado Avalanche in another hard fought seven game series. Then in game three against the St. Louis Blues in overtime they got away with a clear hand pass in overtime to take a 2-1 series lead. After losing a hard fought game four, they were outscored 10-1 in games five and six and lost the series to the eventual cup champions. All in all, it wasn’t a bad year from an outside perspective, but some cracks were starting to show. Mostly in net, Martin Jones had been a solid NHL starter for a couple of years in San Jose but things started to just fall apart. In the 2018-19 season he posted a .896 save percentage in 62 starts and backup Aaron Dell was actually worse, posting a .886 in 20 starts and 25 appearances.

Now skip forward to this past off-season. They had a lot of free agent questions to answer. Erik Karlsson was a free agent, as was Joe Thornton Nyquist Joonas Donskoi and Joe Pavelsk. Hertl and Meier and Kevin Lebanc were also due to new contracts but they were RFA’s and their options were limited. The Sharks decided to bring back Erik Karlsson and who could blame them. Eight years at an $11.5 million cap hit was steep but this was for someone who had won two Norris trophies and could have easily brought home two others. In doing that though they lost their first round pick in the 2020 draft to the Ottawa Senators as were the conditions of that trade. They brought back the two RFA’s on good contracts and resigned Thornton. They were even able to get Lebanc to take a one-year, $1 million contract so they could fit everyone under the cap. Lebanc agreed to that contract even after putting up 56 points in a career year. They had to let go of Donskoi and Pavelski but most had them tabbed to a contender in the Western Conference and a real shot to finally bring a Cup to the fans in San Jose.

So what happened? Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost. They do have plenty of injuries. That doesn’t excuse everything because they were playing pretty terribly before the injuries to key players. However, when Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are out for the year after getting injured in January it helps explain why they are a super awful team instead of just merely bad. Goaltending has still been abysmal. Martin Jones sits with a .889 save percentage and while Aaron Dell has a .909; without the scoring of last year’s squad a .909 isn’t good enough. They are 27th in the league in goals for and 26th in goals against. For the players that are healthy, they just haven’t been the same. Karlsson has been his normal offensive self with 40 points in 56 games, which for him isn’t spectacular but still solid. However, his defensive game has been awful and after several injuries, over the last couple of years, it appears he has trouble turning at points. Brent Burns is usually money in the bank 75 points but this year is the only pace for about 55. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has fallen off the map as a shutdown defender and that’s just the defense. They haven’t been able to replace Pavelski’s 30 goals a year and while Meier and Hertl have been good along with Evander Kane the depth just isn’t there like it has been for so long, leading to a very disappointing season.

It gets worse, though. Not only is this season disappointing for San Jose fans, but the future also doesn’t appear to be very bright either. Yes, they are bottom five in the league with a decent chance at getting the first overall pick. However, their first round pick belongs to the Ottawa Senators so that doesn’t fix anything. Their farm system isn’t stocked with talent either and sits towards the bottom in farm system rankings. Free Agency? Well here are some of the contracts both good and bad that prevent them from making any big splashes. On the good side, they have Couture (who’s already 30) locked up for seven more years after this one at eight million a year against the cap. Kane has five more years at seven million per year. Meier has three years at six million and Hertl has two at 5.625 million per year. The bad contracts are on defense. Karlsson still has seven years at 11.5 and is approaching 30 years old. Brent Burns seems to have to start to slow down and has five years left at eight million. Then there are two disasters. Vlasic is already in a bit of decline at 32 years old and six years at 7.25 million and Jones the sub .900 save percentage goalie has four years left with a cap hit of 5.75 million. All of these contracts are untradable or ones you wouldn’t want to trade like Hertl and Meier. Next off-season they have a little over 17 million in cap space unless the cap goes up. Even then it will be around 20 million in cap space maximum. With that cap space, they need to sign or bring up seven forwards from the minors and three defensemen. Lebanc after taking that one million contract isn’t going to take a discount this time around either. Seeing their cap situation on Cap Friendly is astonishing and it is hard to believe this franchise could fall so quickly. It appears they are going to give Ron Wilson the opportunity to fix this mess but it is going to take a lot of work. After two decades of glory in the Bay Area, it may be time to wander the darkness.