Erik Karlsson contract puts Sharks in weird (but not bad) spot

Yahoo Canada Sports
Erik Karlsson stays in San Jose. (Getty)
Erik Karlsson stays in San Jose. (Getty)

Let’s just get it out of the way right now: The Sharks had to re-sign Erik Karlsson.

Not just because of what they gave up to acquire him via trade or the fact that he’s the best defenseman in the league. But also because when you’re trying to be Cup-competitive with an aging core and have a player that good, to let him walk would be a dereliction of duty.

Doug Wilson couldn’t reasonably turn out his pockets with the chance to sign the best defenseman of a generation just because he has other guys worth signing. With that having been said, the Sharks are suddenly in a very strange position and, in fact, locked into it for the next six years.

Karlsson, who just turned 29 a few weeks ago, is signed through his age-35 season at an $11.5-million cap hit. Brent Burns, who recently turned 34, is signed until his age-39 season (and in fact will turn 40 in March of that final season), at an $8-million AAV. And 32-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic is signed through his age-38 season at a cap hit of $7 million. Karlsson also has a full no-move, Burns a three-team trade list, and Vlasic a no-move through 2023, after which point it becomes a three-team trade list.

So that’s a total of $26.5 million in cap commitments for three defensemen of, shall we say, varying utility. Until they’re all going to be old enough to be considered “well past it.” None of them can be moved easily, meaning the Sharks will simply have to bite the bullet on whatever becomes of them.

Burns and Karlsson both had unbelievable seasons (the latter putting up 18.5 goals above replacement in just 53 games; John Carlson led the league with 20.4 in 80) and we can probably expect that to continue. And even if we’re acknowledging that Karlsson’s groin issue was a huge problem, the Sharks have been reasonably assured that it won’t be an issue after the surgery. They likely don’t sign him long-term if that’s a concern.

The less said about Vlasic’s aging curve (he was below replacement level this year after being 20-plus goals above it as recently as 2015-16) the better, and that’s a contract that doesn’t appear to be setting up for its back half all that well. But you live with it because you have to.

The problem, then, is that the Sharks are committing almost a third of next year’s cap number to three defensemen, but also have some hard decisions to make about a lot of pending free agents. With the Karlsson deal locked in, Wilson’s crew is sitting at about $70.5 million in cap commitments for just 16 players, with RFA Timo Meier and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Labanc likely commanding a big chunk of the remaining $12.5 million.

Meier had 30-36-66 this past season, while Labanc chipped in 17-39-56. They’re both going to be about 23 when the season starts. You gotta pay guys like that. But that probably means you can’t pay Joes Pavelski and Thornton, both hugely important to all the Sharks’ success (such as it has been) in the last decade.

Thornton might retire anyway, but the idea of Pavelski playing elsewhere is disorienting. He was supposed to be a Shark for life, but such is the reality of this business. Seems he’s headed elsewhere barring a miracle.

And if that happens, you could how much success this team will have going forward. Pavelski led the team with 38 goals this past season. Thornton, at 39 years old, still chipped in 51 points and was crucial on the power play. Take out that production, and a lot of the Sharks’ quality in the regular season gets thinned out.

Then take out Joonas Donskoi, a useful two-way forward who draws plenty of penalties and forget about re-signing Gus Nyquist, who was solid for San Jose after coming over near the deadline.

In re-signing Labanc and Meier, the Sharks will still have enough top-six forwards on the team to move the needle — Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and maybe Joe Thornton on a discount for one last ride — but would also need some help from the prospect pool.

I would hazard, then, that the big bet in San Jose is that much-maligned Martin Jones will not be “worst goalie in the league”-level bad. It’s been said plenty of times before, but he and Aaron Dell combined to cost the Sharks about 24.7 goals above expected. Given that every 5.8 or so goals was worth a win this past season, that’s almost nine points these guys cost the Sharks.

But both were league-average or better in their previous seasons, and with Jones in particular we had a three-year track record of him being a good starter before this past season, which was a disaster. Wilson kind of has his hand forced insofar as he cannot get rid of Jones (and trading Dell would be a tough sell that doesn’t free up a ton of cap space anyway), but there’s plenty of reason to believe next year won’t be the unmitigated catastrophe last year was. If that happens, they might not need the lost offense as much.

And with that said: This team still made the Western Conference Final with near-historically bad goaltending.

So yeah, barring a creative trade to free up cap space — “Can we interest you in this slightly used Evander Kane or Justin Braun?” — or some deep hometown discounts, this probably ends what we think of as being the Sharks one way or the other: With the possibility of neither Joe returning, this becomes the Logan Couture/Brent Burns/Erik Karlsson Sharks.

Which is a weird thing to think about, but we’re also not too far removed from the concept of a Marleau-less Sharks team becoming a bizarre reality. Time marches on, I guess.

And this Karlsson deal ensures the Sharks’ ability to keep up in the West, even if it’s not quite so robust as it once was, does as well.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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