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San Jose Sharks: Your number one pick for the draft lottery

Sep 24, 2023; San Jose, California, USA; San Jose Sharks goalie Kaapo Kahkonen (36) defends the goal during the first period against Vegas Golden Knights forward Mason Geertsen (4) at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The buzz around the league is that there is no buzz about the San Jose Sharks. In fact, most pundits have the team as the top contender for the draft lottery. The theme is the Sharks are going to be “a baaaaaaaad hockey team” (thanks, The Athletic) and there’s no real argument from this side of things.

While the word “rebuild” is verboten in most Sharks talk, the other R-word is perfectly acceptable, as in reset.

The reset was alive and well in August when General Manager Mike Grier continued to clean salary out of the Sharks locker room by trading Erik Karlsson. Fans will note that the Sharks didn’t actually save any money in the deal during the 2023-24 season. In fact, it took back more money in retained salary and contract players. However, the long-term implications of the deal are tremendous for San Jose, which will see much of that salary disappear over the next two years.

By 2025-26, San Jose will have saved a full $10 million in cap space by offloading Karlsson’s contract, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will still have two more years with the then-35-year-old Karlsson. The rebuild…er…reset is real.

San Jose Sharks key additions/subtractions

There were a lot of moving pieces over the summer for the Sharks. Obviously, Karlsson was the biggest name that left San Jose. Role players like Jonah Gadjovich, Noah Gregor (who is having a good PTO with the Toronto Maple Leafs) and Jeffrey Viel did not receive contract offers. Neither did James Reimer, Evgeny Svechnikov and Andreas Johnsson (a piece of the Timo Meier trade).

San Jose added roster players Mike Hoffman, Mikael Granlund and Jan Rutta in the Karlsson trade. Hoffman and Granlund will add some scoring touch to a forward group that was sorely lacking that kind of depth last season. Rutta will be a veteran defenseman on a blueline that seems to have too many of those and not enough young prospects.

To fill the hole left by Reimer’s departure, the Sharks traded a sixth-round 2023 pick to the New Jersey Devils for the rights to Mackenzie Blackwood. Blackwood signed a two-year, $2.35 million AAV contract a few days later.

He’s a bit of a lottery ticket for the Sharks. There’s hope he can return to the kind of player he was when he broke into the league. However, by signing him to a two-year deal, the Sharks have flexibility. Two years is enough time to see what Blackwood can do without anchoring the team to a goaltender for the long term. It’s a good move for a team that’s not expected to be very good this season.

Free agency was a quiet one for San Jose. Forward Givani Smith and defenseman Kyle Burroughs were added. Smith will likely be the forward that slots into the lineup when someone is hurt, or the team needs some grit, but he won’t be a starter. Burroughs is another defenseman who will play okay defense for the Sharks and not much more.

The Sharks also added former first-round pick Filip Zadina, who agreed to a mutual contract termination with the Detroit Red Wings. Zadina strongly believes he has what it takes to be a top-six forward in the NHL and he’ll have the opportunity to prove it with the Sharks.

If there was one “big” addition to the draft lottery contender, it was the trade that sent fourth-liner Steven Lorentz and a fifth-round pick to the Florida Panthers for former 30-goal scorer Anthony Duclair. Duclair is expected to play top-line minutes for the Sharks and receive a spot on the team’s first power play unit. It’s the ideal spot for him to prove he’s still a 30-goal scorer in the NHL.

What’s more, the Sharks have flexibility with him. The 28-year-old is in the last year of a contract that pays him $3 million. If the Sharks decide not to extend him, the team can always trade him at the deadline for a key prospect or a high draft pick.

San Jose Sharks strengths

The Sharks’ depth is probably the team’s biggest strength.

Last season, the Sharks iced a forward group that included Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Alexander Barabanov, Nico Sturm and Kevin Labanc, but not much else to support them. This season, San Jose adds proven scorers like Hoffman, Granlund and Duclair while still keeping those forwards in the fold.

The forwards, as a group, should be more adept at scoring this season. There is also a wildcard in Zadina and young prospects like William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau who bring a combination of speed and creativity that will likely make them impactful NHL players in the future.

There is a lot more depth within the forward group than San Jose has seen in the past few seasons.

San Jose Sharks weaknesses

What the Sharks have in forward strength, the team is sorely lacking on the defensive end of things. Karlsson’s 101-point season was due in part to the Sharks simply having no other options on the back end. It was Karlsson or a bunch of other players that were not top defensive pairing caliber.

Top names on the Sharks’ defense this season include Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Mario Ferraro. While both can play 20-25 minutes a game, neither one would be considered a top-pairing defenseman on a contending team. They are both defense first, offense if it happens kind of players.

The rest of the Sharks would play as bottom-pairing defensemen on some of the league’s best teams if they play at all. Rutta, Matt Benning, Kyle Burroughs and Jacob MacDonald round out the top six. The Sharks also have Nikolai Knyzhov and Radim Simek on one-way contracts.

If there’s a silver lining to these players, it’s that most of them are on easy to move contracts. Injuries happen midseason and teams are looking for cheap solutions. Last season, San Jose traded Jaycob Megna for a mid-round draft pick. The season before it was Jacob Middleton being swapped for a goaltender and a pick.

San Jose has capitalized on its defensive depth in the past and there’s no reason to think that it could not do that this season as well.

Waiting in the wings are young prospects like Nikolai Knyzhov, Ty Emberson who was just picked up off of waivers from the New York Rangers, Leon Gawanke and Nikita Okhotiuk. The only trouble is, none of them are NHL tested.

Biggest questions

The biggest questions for the Sharks will likely all happen at the trade deadline. Does the team sign Duclair to a new contract and make him part of the reset or does the team trade him away for an asset or a high draft pick?

That’s the same question the team should ask about Alexander Barabanov, who is expected to play on the top line alongside the Duclair. Barabanov will be an unrestricted free at the end of the season. San Jose currently has the forward signed to a contract with a $2.5 million AAV. That’s a good deal for a guy who had 47 points in 68 games last season and is expected to play on the top line and the power play this season. Come spring, San Jose will have to decide if it wants to sign Barabanov to a new contract or trade him away to a contender looking for scoring depth at an affordable price.

Speaking of the trade deadline, other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Labanc, Hoffman, and Oskar Lindblom, defensemen MacDonald and Simek and goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen.

Meanwhile, Luke Kunin, Filip Zadina and Emberson are restricted free agents.

In other words, there are a lot of pieces San Jose can flip at the deadline for potential draft picks in the later round of the 2024 draft.

Star players

For San Jose, the star players continue to be Couture and Hertl.

Couture is questionable to start the season for San Jose. He suffered a lower-body injury while working out in the summer and management is being cautious with his return. Head Coach David Quinn doesn’t plan to bring Captain Couture back until he’s completely healthy.

With Couture out, there may be even more pressure on Hertl to perform. At times last season, the center was not happy with his play. The ever-upbeat Hertl is confident he can turn things around this season and be more consistent. But he will take more on in terms of leadership and scoring responsibility without Couture there. The pressure on Hertl will be immense to start the season and it will be interesting to see how he holds up under that pressure.

Hoffman, Duclair and Granlund could all be considered stars in their own rights. All of them have reached “star levels” in their NHL careers and all have the ability to get back there under the right conditions. For Hoffman and Duclair, both are former 30-goal scorers in the league who will have every opportunity to reach those heights again. Look for them to start the season on the first power play unit with Hoffman potentially playing at the point.

As for Granlund, he’s injured but could be back in time for the start of the season. The 31-year-old is only two seasons removed from a 64-point season. He too could earn considerable time on the power play to inflate his numbers.

Under the radar player who could have an impact

There are a few players that could fall into this category. Gawanke played four seasons in the AHL and put up good numbers but could never quite break through the Winnipeg Jets’ log jam on defense.

Blackwood and Kahkonen play the volatile position of goaltender where every season someone seems to come out of nowhere to surprise the league. There’s no reason one of them couldn’t find their way into headlines with a hot start.

However, we’re going with Zadina as a player who could fly under the radar and have an impact. Zadina bet on himself when he told the Detroit Red Wings to terminate his multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. He thinks he can prove that the Red Wings were right to pick him 6th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry draft and wrong to let him go.

Zadina will have every opportunity in San Jose to make that happen. The coaching staff has not ruled out the idea of playing a five-forward, first unit power play. San Jose’s depth is not strong enough to put two defensemen on the ice during the power play, so even if it’s a four-one unit, that’s a lot of time to spread out among the forwards. Zadina will get his looks, and it will be up to him to capitalize.

Key rookie for the Sharks

If there’s one area Sharks fans are excited about it’s the player in this category. Young Eklund has dipped his toe into the NHL twice in the past two seasons, getting just enough of a look to gain experience but not enough to burn that first year of his entry-level contract. But now, the kid gloves come off. There’s no more entry-level slide for the 20-year-old and so he will be unleashed on the league this season.

Eklund is not the biggest guy on the ice, but he’s a creative forward with good hands, a quick shot and hockey smarts. He thinks the game at a high level. Like the guys mentioned before him — Duclair, Zadina and Hoffman — Eklund will receive every chance imaginable to put numbers up on the scoreboard.

While most fans outside of the Sharks don’t know his name yet, you might hear it uttered in the same breath as some of the other NHL newcomers this season including Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli. Eklund is that good.

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