When Timo Meier was traded at the deadline, it officially sent out the signal that General Manager Mike Grier was going to rebuild. After several unsuccessful attempts by former GM Doug Wilson to retool on the fly, Grier told Sharks fans that this wouldn’t be a short turnaround. The Sharks will be busy this upcoming week with several big questions entering the offseason.
The Erik Karlsson conundrum
Erik Karlsson surprised the hockey world with a career season that will likely see him capture his third Norris trophy. Karlsson turned 33 last month, and the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume is his name etched on the Stanley Cup. Spoiler, the Sharks will not be winning the Cup next season. Karlsson is still due $11.5 million annually for the next four seasons and has a full no-movement clause. He has expressed his desire to play for a contender, and Grier knows that Karlsson’s value will not be higher.
The problem with trading Karlsson is that half of the league’s teams have less than $10 million in cap space heading into the offseason. The Sharks can retain up to 50% of Karlsson’s $11.5 million over the remainder of his contract, but from recent reports, it sounds like they want to keep it around the $2 million range. The more they retain, the better the return should be.
The Erik Karlsson trade will be a fascinating insight into what is valued in the league. Karlsson is coming off a season where he was the first defenseman to notch a 100-point campaign since Brian Leetch did it for the New York Rangers in the 1991-92 season. Karlsson also had not played more than 56 games in a season for the Sharks until this season. The Swedish blueliner could be the final piece for a team trying to make a Cup run, but the risk is also that he misses vast stretches of the season. What is another general manager willing to pay? Also, with his full no-movement clause, Karlsson has complete control over his situation. If a team like the Arizona Coyotes (sorry Yotes fans) offered to take on Karlsson’s entire contract and was willing to give multiple unprotected first-round picks, it wouldn’t matter since Karlsson probably doesn’t want to go to Arizona (again, sorry Yotes fans. You deserve better).
How Mike Grier handles the Erik Karlsson trade will determine how soon the Sharks go from rebuilding to fun and frisky and eventually to contenders.
Weaponize that cap space
For the first time in forever, the Sharks actually have a bit of cap space heading into the offseason with no major contracts to take care of. They do have some holes to fill, including finding a competent to cromulent goaltender to play with Kappo Kahkonen, but are in a position where they don’t have to coupon shop for players. Fabian Zetterlund and Jacok Petterson highlight their restricted free-agent groups, but neither are projected to break the bank. While the Sharks could be a bit more aggressive in looking for immediate help, it would be more prudent to play the role of asset launderer.
With so many teams so close to the cap, there are always teams looking to shed a bad contract to try and improve their roster. Mike Grier must be like Kim Kardashian popping up from behind the bush, trying to take on a few bad contracts to get future assets. Grier needs to continue to get as many assets as possible, and letting cap space go to waste would be almost malpractice at this point of the rebuild.
While the Sharks do have some spending power and are rebuilding, they should be smart in adding some free agents. Grier was aggressive last season in adding veterans like Nico Sturm, Oskar Lindblom, and Matt Benning to try and solidify the bottom of the roster to keep from asking too much of the prospects. Grier should look to add some players to the roster who could help to fill some roles.
James Reimer will not be back with the Sharks, and Eetu Mäkiniemi isn’t ready for a full-time NHL role. Finding a veteran goalie who can help stabilize the crease while the front office determines if Kaapo Kahkonen is the answer in net must be priority number one. Reimer was almost a godsend for Sharks fans after three poor seasons of Martin Jones, but Reimer regressed last season under a more open David Quinn system. Finding a goalie who won’t be a human sieve would do wonders for the Sharks to help evaluate the up-and-coming players.
If and when Erik Karlsson is traded, they do not have any right-handed defenseman, let alone an offensive defenseman waiting to take the reigns. Finding a player who can run the power play and add some offensive pop won’t come cheap, but it’s better than having players play out of their depth (hello, PP2 specialist Matt Benning). Grier has shown that he doesn’t want to go full-fire sale, so adding a defenseman who can hold the fort as RD1 for a few seasons is a good use of salary as other players continue to develop.
Mike Grier has some work to do this offseason, but if done correctly, Grier could be setting the Sharks up for success in the long run. The Sharks are actually starting their rebuild, and these first steps are crucial in the process. Getting them right starts the process; getting them wrong continues to have the Sharks meandering the NHL’s uninteresting.