Comprehensive Analysis: Predicting the San Jose Sharks 2021 Roster

Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Oct. 5, 2020

Now that there is confirmation of the trade which will send a 2021 third-round pick to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for the 24-year-old forward, Ryan Donato, the mosaic which will constitute the San Jose Sharks franchise-transitioning 2021 roster seems a bit more clear, no matter the type of impact or size of a piece-to-the-puzzle the young, promising forward will be.

Not to mention the following news that comes to Sharks fan which deals a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Wild for veteran goalie, Devan Dubnyk, a 2022 seventh-round pick and 50% retained salary. Until further notice, the need for a revamped in-net tandem is one concern quelled amongst a bevy.

Given the circumstances of a flat salary cap this season and into the foreseeable future, many reports resonate that San Jose Sharks owner Hasso Plattner will likely allow spending to the cap to field a contender for next season’s cup. Granted, many believe this season for the Sharks will be an archetypal ‘rebuild year,’ but knowing Plattner and GM Doug Wilson, they won’t pass up a chance at a quick bounce-back, as last seen in the 2015–2016 season. I’m not saying that this team will be cup-challengers in 2021, but I believe the desire for every Sharks fan is for the franchise to just get back to Sharks hockey as we know it, even if it’s under the wings of the Erik Karlsson era, and the sooner the better.

But what other assets, in the way of trades, or 2021 free agent signings can make this even a possibility?

We know that the Sharks have the 31st pick in Tuesday’s NHL Entry Draft. We know that Wilson has said he would use his picks. But if that first-round pick happens to be… say a defenseman, does such a player then get flipped in a near future deal to take down a big fish in another team’s top 6 forward group? Preferably, following the formula of the Donato trade, a soon-to-be RFA whose rights can be retained after a trial season? A guy who is perhaps a bit more expensive, but with bigger potential upside? Some might think it’s crazy that Wilson do anything but commit to his declared rebuild and stand pat when the smoke from the draft fire settles. But remember a few things: San Jose owns the 31st pick, not the 15th, and there’s a huge gap in difference-making dependability between the two. Not that a 31st overall player can’t be great, but before the 2020 playoffs, many projected the Sharks would pick as early as 24th via final placing of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa winning the cup undoubtedly changes a lot in the ever-challenged mind of Doug Wilson from the situation a few months ago. Everything considered, Wilson’s 31st pick may just as likely be looked at as the Sharks future as a future means to secure some ready-to-go high-end talent.

All that aside, in staying with Sharks fashion of being perennial regular season competitors with high-goal output, playoff-berth-clinching seasons, a move like that could steer the ship for the time being. As such, an opening can be reserved on the Sharks top-6 circuit of forwards, going into who might fill that gap a little later…

Using CapFriendly’s fantasy GM Armchair simulator, let’s take a look at what the projected personnel looks like at the current stage:

via CapFriendly.com roster tool

First of all, I think the Sharks re-sign Kevin Labanc and Stefan Noesen to one-year deals with slight raises in salary. Labanc is a young RFA who gets another chance of proving he belongs in the core group. Last season was too much of an overall chalk-it-up to say he really got a chance to ‘gamble on himself’ and show his worth. Still, he might seem attractive to teams who are looking for young depth scoring. Who knows who might make a qualifying offer? Ultimately, I think a $1M raise is due from last year to hold on to someone who is still relatively good money for his worth at a top-6 or middle-6 forward spot. Noesen, on the other hand, plays a style which just fits, especially under Head Coach Bob Boughner. Re-signing him may not translate into point production, but last year he showed some two-way ability and grit. Noesen’s best option of making an NHL roster may very well be on the Sharks third or fourth line, so both parties should benefit here.

Long-time fans will lament the absence of pending UFAs Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in a spot. I, myself, am amongst you long-time fans. Thornton made it clear last season that he is looking for his best chance at a cup, which can land him in a number of places. Marleau, as we’ve seen in recent years, is still very marketable, though it is thought that he hopes to remain with the Sharks this season. In any case, I believe we take one or the other, and that such a deal won’t be fostered until we are much closer to opening night, and that may not be until January 2021. Furthermore, if rookie players who are competing for spots in the forward group shake out to be decently better than last year’s rotating cast, I think the ‘over-35er’ in question may be more of an unofficial mascot than a regular starter anyway.

The rookie to watch should be 22-year-old UMass Amherst stalwart John Leonard. Leonard is a decently-sized winger with a left-handed shot who plays with skill and character. In 106 games in the NCAA, he has accumulated 105 points, was plus- 30 and a Hobey Baker finalist. If last year’s rookie defenseman Mario Ferraro was any indication of what the program at UMass Amherst can produce, the 2018 sixth-round pick in Leonard this year should yield a good return. I see him on a half-checking/half-skill fourth-line alongside Noah Gregor on opening night. The make-or-break factor for him will be his size, and his ability to translate his skills at the NHL level.

One thing I will acknowledge is that everyone has one or a few pet ‘system guys’ or prospects that they think will make the jump during any given off-season or training-camp stint. Leonard may very well be my guy. One little detail is that he was signed to the slightly higher-end entry-level contract of $925K AAV as opposed to the more common sub-$800K ELC amongst Sharks minors and prospects. Other players signed to ELCs with figures higher than $800K AAV signed through 2022 are goalie Alexei Melnichuk and defensemen Brinson Pasichnuk and Ryan Merkley. It is no coincidence that these are the players who people are most excited about when thinking of the future of the franchise, but in terms of this upcoming season, Melnichuk and Merkley will still need to develop over the year, while Pasichnuk, being a left-handed shot, may be the shoe-in seventh defensemen, behind, respectively, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Radim Simek, and Mario Ferraro. Lastly, out of this group, Leonard is a forward, which is the position in which the Sharks are most in need.

I haven’t forgotten the likes of Sasha Chmelevski, Joachim Blichfeld and Antii Suomela (if he re-signs) who may find that this is their breakthrough year. I just believe that they will all be competing for the same roster spots, as opposed to the now steady role for last-man-standing Gregor and the appetizing prospect of Leonard on a bottom-6 point-producing position, and possibly power-play time.

via CapFriendly.com roster tool (no particular order)

In the top-seven hopefuls that I believe can make the jump, only Lean Bergmann and Joachim Blichfeld are ‘wingers-only’. For the Sharks, I think if Gregor plays at center, whether on the third or fourth line, that these players are competing for that 2nd bottom-six center position, the respectable ‘C3’ or ‘C4’ pilot’s seat. After that is established, the players who are left can possibly compete with each other (and maybe Leonard), and throughout the season for that third/fourth line, winger position. Having all four centers rooted in the lineup is a pro-strat, and one the Sharks should follow. The reason being that any center can be put on the wing. Choosing the two best from the list above leaves the Sharks in the best overall circumstance, given that their depth, and not a low-budget free agent signing, will play a role to this degree. That being said, if all goes well and the Sharks are in the playoff hunt, we may indeed see such a signing toward the end of the 2021 regular a la Eric Fehr in 2017–18. Moral of the story: it’s a huge plus if you can play center and take faceoffs.

For the sake of repainting the picture, let’s plug in a few of these names:

via CapFriendly.com roster tool

For the interchangeable fourth-line center, I chose Joel Kellman. This is mostly due to the notion that his performance last year was decent, and though this may not be a substantial reason, I think he’s the most logical choice, up to this point. Leonard and Marcus Sorensen (likely in a ‘prove-it’ year this season) are both yellow because though I think they both have a likely chance of making the roster, they will be competing with each other for the higher role and possibly even power-play time.

This leaves RW4 and RD3 left open. I will take this opportunity to point out that the one saving grace of this franchise’s system (ranked 28th in The Athletic’s annual list) is that they have many good options for depth defensemen. To go after someone in the free agent market would not be a wise use of salary when there are other fish to fry (though re-signing Tim Heed to low terms would be cheap and efficient). To suggest trading for veteran talent at this position would be appalling, but if the Sharks are truly putting faith in EK65, it may make sense in a post-2021 season free agency market–if the availability is there–to sign a guy who shoots left, is a bit more offense-geared than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and will compliment and enhance the play of Erik Karlsson. Say, a guy like Mark Borowiecki? More realistically, between giving guys like Pasichnuk and Merkley their NHL debuts, the Sharks should largely look to their system.

So who shows up at the final forward spot? Not just to fill a spot, but to give this team the best shot at 2021 playoff contention. With $4.5 left to spend after the changes above, there are many possible scenarios, some more exciting than others, some a little heart-breaking for SJ Sharks’ player-culture loyalists:

  1. Dipping into UFA pool for one or two middle-6 forwards– We have seen a good-sized group of guys to choose from. The reason I say one or two is that just one might not make a big enough impact for a team looking to add the firepower needed to have a successful season. But with two, there are more combinations to play with to find a supreme mix, more competition for middle-6 roles and better reliability than trying out the rookies. Some of the best names that have come up are Jesper Fast, Bobby Ryan, Craig Smith, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund. If it comes to Granlund or Ryan, I think their asking price will rule a second signing out of the question, though Ryan’s contract could be only a fraction of what it was before Ottawa’s buyout. $2–3M AAV would be alright, given his shot and ability to run on the power-play. A possible obstacle is that he’d have to be paired higher up the lineup with a playmaker to be successful. Haula is great value, if healthy and could also help the PP. Fast is a great two-way player who could sit on the PK. Any of these players could push either Labanc or Donato out of the projected top-6, and a combination of two such players could push Sorensen or Kellman out of the bottom-6, which is actually a good thing that makes the team deeper.
  2. Look to old reliable– Re-sign Thornton or Marleau, but not both, to a low-term deal now and hope for an opportunity on a better prospect on the horizon of the 2021 trade deadline. The likely, but least-effective method to finishing in the top-16 of teams this upcoming season.
  3. Deal assets for a big fish– This is the least likely, but most hopeful way of resurrecting a club whose had to–time and time again–make the big-splash off-season acquisitions to revive their playoff hopes the following year. In large eligible assets, we have a premier defensemen in Brent Burns. I know this one hurts, but off-loading his $8M AAV salary is franchise-changing stuff of dreams. And there are a few teams, specifically, who may be willing to spend the dough to bolster their defensive corps with high-end, blue-line talent such as Burnzie, in exchange for a premier scorer, as speculated and alluded to a lot earlier.
  • Trade partner: Calgary Flames — Target: Sean Monahan, 25, @ $6.375M → 2023 (selected 6th overall in 2013)
  • Trade partner: Vancouver Canucks — Target: Brock Boeser, 23, @ $5.875M → 2022 (selected 23rd overall in 2015)
  • Trade partner: Winnipeg Jets — Target: Nikolaj Ehlers, 24, @ $6M → 2025 (selected 9th overall in 2014) or Patrik Laine, 22, @ $6.75M → 2021 (selected 2nd overall in 2016)

All of these scenarios are speculative at best, and probably not even worth getting excited over, and that is mostly intentional. But only these players reflect the type of high-end, young talent that can slot into a top-6 position to bring the Sharks’ offense back from the dead. Out of these teams, the Flames have the most cap space to work with at around $16M and the Jets are at the other end with around $14M. Any of these teams would add about $2M in cap space because of the salary swap between Burns and the trade target in question. Obviously the smaller the contract, the better. But the important thing is that the Sharks move the larger $8M AAV tied in with Burns through 2025.

Some honorable mentions are The Florida Panthers, whose only eligible players (Evgenii Dadonov and Erik Haula) are UFAs anyway, and the Nashville Predators, who might have Kyle Turris on the trade-block, but only around $8M in cap space which may or may not cover the tab for Burn’s remaining salary.

In addition to Burns, a sweetener in forwards Marcus Sorensen, Joel Kellman, Noah Gregor and their salaries may be moved, as can one or a few future picks.

Let’s take a last look at a speculative, but hopeful final roster on opening night:

via CapFriendly.com roster tool

A few notes:

  • Given the suggested additions, Sharks command about $4.5M in cap space for minor adjustments throughout the year
  • I think a Sharks-Jets trade for Ehlers offers a good outcome for both teams. In the simulator, I threw in some picks to get back a 2022 fifth-rounder back to the Sharks and to shed a third-rounder in 2021, which the Sharks own two of anyway. Looking at it from the Jets’ perspective, I think Neil Pionk and Tucker Poolman are solid right-shot defensemen for them, but neither brings the offensive-upside in Burns. From their own UFAs to sign, I think they re-sign only Dmitry Kulikov, and if they have Burns, they won’t need to worry about refreshing a contract with Dylan DeMelo
  • Signing Ehlers pushes Labanc down to RW3, which is fine. It could be Ryan Donato in this position as well, but it seems like the thinking behind the trade was to give this kid more ice time to develop and become a higher-calibre player, and not less. Not that Kevin Labanc isn’t in the same position, but we know a little more about his overall capabilities with him playing big minutes last year
  • Signing Dylan DeMelo seems like a smart move, given he is cheap and can run a power-play. He’s a returner, and since the last time he’s been with the Sharks, he’s become a journeyman, playing big minutes with Ottawa and Winnipeg, respectively. I think he pairs in at RD3 with Ferraro
  • Martin Jones, who I’ve largely left alone until now, gets the opening-night nod, but the tandem with Dubnyk looks more like a 1A and 1B situation as many have pointed out, at length
  • The acquired players from this group can all help out on the power-play, which I think is towards the top of ‘to-do’ for Sharks going into this season. Any player they are looking to sign should have the prerequisite of being able to run a PP1 or PP2
  • I assign a guy Pasichnuk to a roster spot after all in a bottom-two pairing, in this case with Simek. I think something like this happens if the Sharks are indeed able to offload Burns or even Vlasic. But that’s a big ‘if.’
  • [Edit] I know the Ehlers thing is a stretch, and the Sharks, if they entertain the free agency option, may instead go with a guy like Bobby Ryan. But if Plattner, again, is spending to the cap, this is, at the very best, what he has the possibility to do!

A super-last recall of projected personnel movement:

Players retained: Kevin Labanc, Stefan Noesen, Jacob Middleton, Tim Heed

Players not retained: Joe Thornton, Aaron Dell, Melker Karlsson, Jonny Brodzinski, Anthony Greco, Dalton Prout, Brandon Davidson

Players acquired: Nikolaj Ehlers (or someone like him), Dylan DeMelo (or someone like him)

via CapFriendly.com roster tool

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eSports enthusiast, SJ Sharks fan, constant reader, spiritualist, thoughts in fearthefin.com

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C.J. Mendoza

C.J. Mendoza

eSports enthusiast, SJ Sharks fan, constant reader, spiritualist, thoughts in fearthefin.com

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