The Sharks positioned themselves to make a big splash this offseason, and wow did they ever make one.
After missing out on the John Tavares sweepstakes (certainly not for a lack of effort), San Jose made the biggest blockbuster trade of the year by acquiring superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Senators just before the start of training camp. It is an incredible score for general manager Doug Wilson because it not only brought his team one of the NHL’s best players, but they were able to do it without giving up any of their top prospects, any of their best young players, or really any asset that will factor into their NHL roster this season. It was a classic quantity over quality trade, and it could not have been scripted any better for the Sharks.
GRADES: Sharks enrich Stanley Cup odds with Erik Karlsson heist
With Karlsson now in the mix, the Sharks possess an embarrassment of riches on defense with their newest All-Star joining Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the top of the roster. Other than maybe the Predators, there isn’t another defense in the league that can match that trio, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not the Predators have that much top-line talent.
How impressive is that unit? Well, let’s start with Karlsson and Burns. The duo has combined to win three of the past seven Norris Trophies and were finalists for the award three other times. Not enough? Well, how about the fact they are also the two highest-scoring defenders in the league during that stretch, with Karlsson leading the NHL with 447 points and Burns coming in a distant second with 383. No other defenseman has more than 337 points during that stretch, while only 10 have topped 300.
After those two, you get to Vlasic, one of the league’s best shutdown defenders who also brings some scoring punch to the table.
Any of the three would be considered a legitimate No. 1 defenseman on the majority of other teams around the league.
Let’s examine what all of this means for the Sharks, both now and in the future.
They are all in on this season
Make no mistake, the Sharks are now a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season, even in what is setting up to be a meat grinder of a Western Conference playoff field. This was already a team that finished with 100 points a season ago and made it to Game 6 of the second round. And that was before the addition of Karlsson and without a full season from winger Evander Kane.
The options that coach Pete DeBoer now has at his disposal on defense are fascinating. They will almost certainly pair up two of their big three to form a super-defense pairing, the likes of which the NHL probably has not seen since Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer were skating side by side with the Ducks, leading them to a Stanley Cup.
Or, if he wanted, DeBoer could spread all three out over separate pairings and literally have a No. 1 defender on the ice for 60 minutes game in, game out.
With the way the Sharks went all in on adding an impact talent this summer, it almost feels like there is a “win one for Joe” element to all of this as well. The Sharks were able to bring back center Joe Thornton on a one-year contract to take another run at the championship that has eluded him his entire career. At 38 and coming off of an injury-shortened season that limited him to just 47 games, there probably isn’t much left in the tank for him and the Sharks have seemed to do everything in their power to build a championship caliber team around him.
They are preseason favorites in the Pacific
For as difficult as the Western Conference looks, the Sharks’ biggest competition might come from whichever team comes out of the Central Division.
Just look around at their competition within the division: They were tied with the Ducks across the board a season ago, and while the Sharks have added Kane and Karlsson over the past seven months, Anaheim largely stood pat after being swept in the first round.
The Kings, even after signing Ilya Kovalchuk, still have some critical flaws when it comes to goal scoring, speed and youth.
Vegas was the obvious surprise team at the top of the division, and while the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny are going to keep them in contention, there is reason to believe they could still take a step backward this season, if only because it seems impossible to think that William Karlsson, Erik Haula and Marc-Andre Fleury can duplicate what they did in the Golden Knights’ debut season. They are also lacking some quality depth in their bottom six and will be without one of their top defenseman for the first 20 games of the season.
Edmonton has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but little else around them, while the Flames are an afterthought at this point. Vancouver and Arizona are still rebuilding and while the Coyotes have a chance to be greatly improved this season, probably are not a threat for the top of the division.
Can they keep Karlsson beyond this season?
That is going to be the big question.
While the Sharks seem to have every intent of trying to extend the superstar defenseman long term, he is not going to come cheap. After spending the past six years playing on a below-market contract, he is almost certainly going to want to be one of the league’s highest-paid defenders, if not the highest-paid defender. After the massive contract extension that Drew Doughty signed over the summer in Los Angeles, that could mean as much as $11 million per season.
The Sharks already have some significant contracts on their roster.
Burns and Vlasic are each signed through at 2025 at a combined cost of $15 million per season.
They also have Kane, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and starting goalie Martin Jones all signed to long-term deals.
For next season alone, San Jose already has more than $53 million committed to just 10 players, which will be one of the tightest salary cap situations in the league. Karlsson is also not the only core player who will be in need of a new contract. Along with an assortment of restricted free agents, Joe Pavelski, one of the team’s leading scorers every year as well as its captain, will also be eligible for unrestricted free agency. Even though he will be 35 next season, you have to think that the Sharks would like to try and bring him back.
TOP 25 UNDER 25: SN ranks the NHL’s best young stars
That is going to create a lot of work for Wilson to keep this team together, and it’s not only possible, but it’s certainly worth trying.
Given where their cap situation is now, if Karlsson and Pavelski combined for an additional $19 million in salary, that would probably leave the Sharks with somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million or $12 million in cap room (assuming an $82 or $83 million salary cap number — which admittedly may be generous) to fill out the remainder of the roster. It is certainly possible if they are willing to spend to the cap ceiling, especially if they trade Brenden Dillon or Justin Braun to make room for the expected rise of 2018 first-round pick Ryan Merkley.
But let’s just pretend for a second the Sharks decide they can only keep one of their two big upcoming UFAs (Pavelski or Karlsson). As important as Pavelski has been for the organization over the years, it would probably be best for the Sharks to make Karlsson the top priority for no reason other than the age difference and what the two players might be able to do for them in the future.
Karlsson, as long as he has been around, is still only just now entering his age 28 season and is actually one of the youngest defenders on the Sharks’ blue line. Burns is 33. Vlasic and Braun are 31. Dillon and Tim Heed are only a year younger than Karlsson at 27. He can still be a foundational player for the next six or seven years, as Burns or Vlasic start to age and go through their inevitable declines.
It creates some potential decisions, and it will certainly take a lot of work to keep everyone they want beyond this season, but they clearly identified this season as chance to go all in for a Stanley Cup this season.
That is all you can ask from your favorite team, and it is exactly what the Sharks have given their fans.