When the San Jose Sharks lost their Western Conference semifinals series to the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings Tuesday, May 28, they lost more than a chance to capture the 2013 Stanley Cup.
Taking a great team to the brink and falling one score short is something many teams could be proud of accomplishing. However, it is not good enough for a team that may see a member of its core leave to get under the salary cap.
Rest assured, general manager Doug Wilson has already begun what he calls the autopsy—the analysis of why this team failed and what might have prevented it. In all likelihood, he already knew what moves he would make in the event of a loss.
The Sharks had their best-ever Stanley Cup playoff winning percentage (.636), with only three teams ever advancing further. But the legacy of this core—Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dan Boyle were there for all five years, and Logan Couture for four of those playoff runs—will be a 27-28 record in five years under coach Todd McLellan, with only one win after the second round.
The six players listed above except Vlasic carried the offense in the Western Conference quarterfinals, scoring more than a point a piece. But none of them scored more than four points against Jonathan Quick, and that is too much talent to be shut down for most of the series every season.
Of course, there is always the possibility that injuries played a role in one or more drop-offs in production. Even without what would be a legitimate excuse in other sports, those players accounted for 21 of 25 goals and 49 of 71 points. They are the only group to score more than one goal or four points.
Finally, that paltry 2.27 goals-scored average was enough because Antti Niemi had just one routine save he did not make in an otherwise incredible Stanley Cup playoffs. The performances of those six players are the reason the Sharks should keep them together.
They need to improve the offensive production of the supporting cast. Thirteen players that spent time in the NHL during 2013 will become free agents. The new collective bargaining agreement includes a drop of about $6 million in the salary cap for 2013-14.
Cap Geek lists San Jose with 15 players under contract making a collective $55.9 million—$8.4 million below the cap. They would need to add five forwards to have enough for one in the press box, one defenseman for emergencies and a backup goalie.
With an average of just $1.2 million left for other players, the Sharks would have to rely on as yet unproven talent or role-playing veterans for a lot of those roles. The good thing is the lower cap will drive down the free agent market, making such players come cheaper than their expiring deals.
The most important position to fill is in net. Unrestricted free agent Thomas Greiss is likely to go somewhere he has a better chance of starting.
If the Sharks also cannot re-sign Alex Stalock or Harri Sateri, they could get a veteran in the twilight of his career for not much more than the salaries they were paid this last season. There are plenty of examples of low-cost solid backups.
Thus, San Jose can be among the best teams in the NHL in net and still have about $7.5 million left to spend on the rest of the team.
Matt Tennyson looked good enough in his brief appearance to get a shot at that final blue line spot. But it is doubtful anyone in the system will be ready to be the emergency player. Most likely the team would want to sign a veteran able to play sporadically and still be counted on.
If they are really sold on the chemistry of this team, they could re-sign Scott Hannan. Jason Demers, who will be a restricted free agent and thus likely cost less, could adequately fill that role.
If they want new blood, there are plenty of these guys around the league that could easily be had for less than $1 million in the buyer’s market created by the new cap. Such a player could sit or be part of a seven-man blue line if there is an injury so a youngster could be called up to play when there is an injury.
What may determine whether they seek new blood or stay with the current tight-knit team is how well the Kings fare throughout the remainder of the Stanley Cup playoffs. If they repeat as champions, the Sharks are close to the top because they took them to the brink. If they lose to the Chicago Blackhawks, the goal will be to match the speed of the new Western Conference champions.
Either way, the blue line moves would leave about $6.5 million for the five forwards. If they were able to re-sign Raffi Torres, T.J. Galiardi, James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins, Scott Gomez and Tim Kennedy for the same aggregate salaries, they would have less than $200,000 remaining.
The list shows the roster put together with Cap Geek’s cap calculator that actually had over $1.25 million left with essentially the same team that played quite well down the stretch—19-9-1 since the beginning of the trades that reshaped the Sharks in late March.
Again, they might not want to keep the same players. At the very least, they will seek to dump the unreliable and perhaps uncommitted Martin Havlat and his $5 million contract.
They can do this by trading him, but teams will not want him for the same reason the Sharks do not want him: His production does not match his cap number and his approach is not great for the dressing room.
The Sharks have never had a problem paying players that do not play. They can waive him and hope someone claims him (someone may if they are not giving up something in a trade) and otherwise send him to the minors.
But this year they can also use their amnesty exception on a contract buyout. San Jose ownership has the money to pay him almost $6.7 million to go away so long as they do not take a cap hit for it. They can use that $5 million to get a better replacement for him.
That being said, no one knows what changes can be made. The known quantity is current players, many of whom can be re-signed or replaced with comparable talent. The Sharks could also sign any minor league players they wanted without it affecting their cap figure.
That might still be a good enough team to give one more season to. It is one that could compete for a Pacific Division title and a Stanley Cup. With a few good moves or a few better breaks they might even be able to improve a bit.
Top line and pair
Joe Thornton could be reunited with Patrick Marleau and keep Brent Burns at the right wing. This line would have speed and scoring ability to balance with the captain’s tendency to slow the game down a look to pass. He has worked well with both, so this is a top-tier top line.
The first pair should be veterans Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle. They provide a balance of physicality and skating, scoring and defending, and right- and left-handed shots that would make this an elite pair.
Second line and pair
If the San Jose Sharks are forced to keep Martin Havlat, putting him on a line with the high-energy Raffi Torres might help hold him accountable and get the most out of the skilled Czech. Having probably the best player on the team, Logan Couture, centering the line will make it potent.
The second pair would be one of the best in the NHL. Matt Irwin is inexperienced and not a very good skater, leaving him vulnerable in his own end. Marc-Edouard Vlasic balances him as a very experienced, great skater and defender that can contribute offensively, but lacks the potent shot of his partner.
Third line and pair
Having Joe Pavelski centering the third line of the San Jose Sharks is likely the single biggest reason for their late-season turnaround. He is strong defensively and in the circle and is thus able to fulfill the duties of the checking line. He can also find capable role-players T.J. Galiardi and Tommy Wingels, making the third line a scoring threat.
The third pair would be solid with Justin Braun anchoring the unit in the defensive end. Matt Tennyson is a skilled player that is capable of handling everyday duties, or at least be ready if called upon due to injury.
Fourth line and goalies
The fourth line of the San Jose Sharks would be centered by Scott Gomez, offering the team four options that can win draws. He would also be a good play-maker for Adam Burish and Andrew Desjardins, possibly giving a good defensive line some scoring ability.
Antti Niemi is one of the five best goalies in the world. Alex Stalock is the most likely young current Sharks goalie capable of handling an upgrade assuming Thomas Greiss leaves, but there is no shortage of affordable alternative backups. Anyone that can play 12-15 games adequately would be enough to make this team strong in net.
Scott Hannan would make a great reserve defenseman. He could also start if there is either a problem with Matt Tennyson’s play, an injury or an illness. Brent Burns could also move back to the blue line if there are injuries to top-tier defenders or multiple losses in the unit.
James Sheppard and Tim Sullivan would be affordable reserve forwards. Both showed they could contribute, holding their own in the Stanley Cup playoffs when Martin Havlat was a no-show. There are plenty of other competent reserves the team could sign from even its own pool and keep in the minor leagues until they need to be called up in an emergency.