Welcome to What Went Wrong where we’ll look at each team that failed to make the playoffs. We’ll also end each article by highlighting some players of particular interest on the squad. Those are players who either left something to be desired during the 2021-22 campaign, have significant untapped upside, or have some big underlining questions surrounding them going into the offseason.
We’ve already covered the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and Anaheim Ducks. Today we’re looking at the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks have been one of the more awkward teams in the league for a bit now. They missed the playoffs in 2019-20 and 2020-21, but because of all the legacy contracts they have from when they were good, pivoting to a full rebuild hasn’t been viable. It didn’t help matters that their 2020 first-round pick was sent to Ottawa as part of the Erik Karlsson trade, and that surrendered pick proved to be the third overall. Ottawa got Tim Stützle with that selection, who could have been a breath of fresh are for the Sharks.
Still, they made some efforts to at least retool their goaltending over the summer of 2021. They bought out Martin Jones, who had been a big part of the Sharks’ problems over the previous two seasons, and signed James Reimer and Adin Hill to two-year contracts.
That did help as Reimer posted a respectable 2.90 GAA and .911 save percentage in 48 games while Hill had a 2.66 GAA and .906 save percentage in 25 contests. San Jose allowed 3.18 goals per game in 2021-22, which put them in the bottom half of the league, but at least it wasn’t as bad as 2020-21 when they surrendered 3.50 goals per game.
Unfortunately that didn’t move the needle nearly enough, in large part because the Sharks offense wasn’t anything to write home about. In 2020-21 the Sharks’ top forward was Evander Kane, but the team wanted to move on from him for off-ice reasons. San Jose eventually terminated Kane’s contract and he didn’t play a single game for them this season. He did find new life with the Edmonton Oilers, but that’s a story for another day.
Meanwhile in San Jose, the story wasn’t all bad. Timo Meier led the team with 35 goals and 76 points in 77 games. Tomas Hertl wasn’t far behind with 30 goals and 64 points in 82 contests. Meier and Hertl are 25 and 28 respectively, making them two of the younger players on the team, at least among those with noteworthy roles. On the one hand, that highlights how little youth there is on the team and how awkward them continually missing the playoffs is. At the same time though, Meier and Hertl are still young enough to be part of the Sharks’ long-term solution, so to see them perform at a high level is encouraging.
Meier’s success in particular is huge given that his career has been up-and-down to this point. The hope is that he’s finally found his way and will be a consistent offensive leader on this team going forward. As for Hertl, the Sharks signed him to an eight-year, $65.1 million contract back in March. Given his age and track record, that’s not a bad contract.
Even with those two though, the Sharks had the third worst offense in the league in terms of goals per game. Logan Couture was the only other San Jose player to score at least 20 goals (23). No one else came particularly close. Contrast that with Toronto or Florida, which each had six 20-goal scorers, or St. Louis, which had nine 20-goal scorers, and you can easily see the depth gap.
San Jose also had just four players (Brent Burns being the fourth) reach the 40-point milestone. Toronto had seven players reach that milestone, Florida had 10, and St. Louis had 11.
With that lack of offensive depth, the Sharks missed the playoffs for a third straight season. To be fair, they had some modest success early in the campaign and were a respectable 20-16-1 through Jan. 11, but ultimately they finished with a 32-37-13 record, putting them well outside of a playoff spot. So what do we do now?
Any discussion of that has to acknowledge those legacy contracts, hanging over from when the Sharks were supposed to be Stanley Cup contenders. Burns is still an effective defenseman, but he is 37-years-old now and comes with a $8 million cap hit through 2024-25. That’s actually one of the Sharks’ better legacy contracts though. Karlsson’s $11.5 million cap hit through 2026-27 isn’t looking so good these days. It’s not Karlsson’s fault, but injuries have taken their toll and he continues to struggle to stay in the lineup. Then there’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who comes with a $7 million cap hit through 2025-26 and has fallen to the point where he’s arguably not even one of the Sharks’ top six defensemen anymore. There’s even been some speculation about Vlasic being bought out, but that would give the Sharks dead cap space through 2029-30 on top of the burden left by the Jones buyout.
On the forward side, things are in a bit of flux. Couture’s contract could count as one of those legacy contracts. He comes with an $8 million cap hit through 2026-27, which is less than ideal given that he’s 33-years-old. The big X-Factor though is Kane. Remember how they terminated his contract? Well the NHLPA filed a grievance over that and it hasn’t been resolved. So we’ll have to see what, if any, cap burden the Sharks will be strapped with once everything is said and done.
Not counting Kane’s cap hit, the Sharks current projected cap is at $76.8 million and that’s with a number of RFAs still unsigned. Among the RFAs is Mario Ferraro, a defensive defenseman who averaged 23:00 minutes in 2021-22. Buying out Vlasic would give them some much needed cap flexibility, though again it comes at a long-term cost.
The Sharks have difficult waters to navigate and no clear path forward in the short-term. We could be in for years of San Jose being a middling team that isn’t the worst but is far from being good.
Players to Watch:
Timo Meier – When Timo Meier scored 30 goals and 66 points in 78 games in 2018-19, it looked like he had emerged as the Sharks’ next big offensive star. He took a step back in 2019-20 and 2020-21 though, recording 49 points in 70 games and 31 points in 53 contests respectively. As noted above, he was the Sharks’ top offensive player this season, but it’s still hard to peg him given how much variation we’ve seen over the last four campaigns. That makes the 2022-23 campaign so vital both to him and San Jose. He needs to show the Sharks that he can sustain the high-level of play he demonstrated and if he does, he’ll be rewarded handsomely. He’s set to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2023, so he’ll have plenty of pressure and motivation going into the next campaign.
Erik Karlsson – It’s hard not to wonder what could have been if only Erik Karlsson didn’t run into injury issues because when the Sharks initially got him it looked like he might be able to put them over the top and finally deliver San Jose the championship they had been fighting so hard for. The Sharks sent Chris Tierney, Rudolf Balcers, Josh Norris, Dylan DeMelo, a conditional first-round pick (that became Tim Stützle), a second-round pick (Jamieson Rees), and another conditional pick (Zack Ostapchuk) for Karlsson and AHLer Francis Perron. That might look for a steal for the Senators now, but at the time Ottawa was the one getting a lot of the heat for the Karlsson trade. He was that good at the time. Karlsson won the Norris Trophy in 2012 and 2015 and finished second in Norris Trophy voting in 2016 and 2017. Combining him and Burns seemed like a dream. Karlsson’s injuries haven’t quite made it a nightmare, but this certainly wasn’t the Sharks vision. Still, he’s 32-years-old, so he’s perhaps a comeback is possible? Stranger things have happened.
Brent Burns – Speaking of Brent Burns, he’s aged fairly well. He had 10 goals and 54 points in 82 games while averaging 26:09 minutes last season. That’s the best he’s ever done, but it’s better than the vast majority of defensemen can do, and he accomplished that in his mid-30s. Still, he’s 37 at this point and you have to wonder how many good years he has left in him. He still has three seasons left at an $8 million cap hit, so the Sharks have to hope that he continues to age well.
William Eklund – William Eklund didn’t stick with the Sharks in 2021-22 beyond his nine-game trial, but he came close after registering four assists during that stretch. Taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 draft, Eklund is probably the Sharks’ top prospect and he’s one of the better prospects in the hockey world right now. It wouldn’t be surprising if he needs more time to develop before he lands a regular role with the Sharks, but he’ll be worth keeping a close eye on during San Jose’s training camp, especially given that his offensive upside means that he should be in a factor in fantasy leagues in the future.