On June 17, the San Jose Sharks made a powerful move in the hockey realm, securing one of the top free agents of 2019’s class by re-signing Erik Karlsson to a massive 8-year, $92 million deal. The agreement, which carries an annual average value of $11.5 million and was first reported on by TSN’s Bob McKenzie, is the third-highest in the league behind only Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
Karlsson has had an interesting last few years, to say the least. After being just one shot away from the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, Ottawa, the only organization he had known throughout his career, began to plummet. The culmination of a disastrous run was a reported schism between Mike Hoffman’s family and Karlsson, which involved an alleged string of online harassment toward Karlsson’s wife. Ultimately, Hoffman wound up with the Florida Panthers and Karlsson was dealt to the Bay Area in exchange for Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, Josh Norris, Dylan DeMelo, a conditional 2019 second-round pick, a conditional 2020 first-round pick, and, now that Karlsson has re-upped, a 2021 second-round pick.
In San Jose, Karlsson dealt with a string of injuries, mostly in his lower body. It was clear that he was not playing at 100% during playoffs, albeit as most players do. However, Karlsson simply did not have any power in his stride and was laboring heavy during the series against St. Louis. Perhaps due to this, the Blues dispatched the Sharks in six games for yet another disappointing playoff performance under Doug Wilson’s regime.
Despite battling through injuries, Karlsson had a successful first season in San Jose when playing. In 53 games, he had three goals and 45 points. Although the goal totals are not nearly as high as the other year he has seen, such as back-to-back 20-goal seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but San Jose had plenty of offense to make up for it. In 19 grueling playoff games, Karlsson still put up 16 points.
The dynamic Swede’s underlying numbers were solid as well. His CF%, which dictates how well a player drives play in terms of shot metrics when he was on the ice, in all situations sat at an astounding 60 percent. His offensive zone starts were about 60 percent as well, but it is still impressive to see how much Karlsson helps drive play.
Still, the question remains as to how long that can be kept up. Karlsson is already working on one-and-a-half ankles and heel issues, and now he just needed surgery to fix his groin. According to the Sharks, though, he will be ready by the start of the 2019-20 season.
One has to wonder if that is the best course of action for both Karlsson and team if each party wants this 8-year commitment to last. We have seen how stinginess on returning from injuries can go on two fronts in the NBA — Kawhi Leonard sitting out until he knew he was completely ready and Kevin Durant coming back too early and tearing his Achilles Tendon. So, maybe it is the best interest of both Karlsson and the team to take it on a step-by-step process and not rush him back for the start of the season. If Karlsson re-aggravates his groin or hurts his foot or ankle again, it could be devastating.
This is a monstrous financial investment that San Jose has made. Their top-four of Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brendan Dillon alone makes over $30 million. That seems pretty set in stone as of now, with a combination of Tim Heed, Joakim Ryan, Radom Simek, or another cheap defensive depth option to pick up the slack.
The Sharks will have to rely heavily on that latter portion of names now especially after trading Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers. Braun, making $3.9 million for one more year, was traded for a second and a third round pick the day after the Karlsson deal in the cap crunch. Braun drives the game defensively, but he is not a good puckmover necessarily. It looked to be a worthy casualty for Wilson.
San Jose is not out of the woods yet, however, for cap space. The Sharks have just over $16 million to sign Joe Pavelski, Timo Meier, Joe Thornton, Kevin Labanc, Joonas Donskoi, Dylan Gambrell, and the aforementioned Heed and Ryan.
That is not exactly ideal. Pavelski, the team’s captain, will likely command nearly half of that with a $6 or $7 million per year contract. Thornton figures to top out around $3.5 million, putting it at $5.5 to $6 million to resign the rest of the group. It is certainly going to be a tight squeeze that may need to see one more player, perhaps Thornton or maybe Donskoi, pushed out. It’s tough to see what free agency holds, especially after what we have seen in the past with Patrick Marleau leaving for Toronto.
The Sharks could also look to move Aaron Dell’s $1.6 million contract for some extra room. Dell, 30, is seen in the same light as Carter Hutton was when he hit free agency, as a current backup goaltender ready to take a 1A-1B position.
The Sharks, due to the Karlsson contract, will ultimately have to rely on depth next season to push through to a hopeful Stanley Cup Final appearance and win. Wilson is hedging his gets on Burns and Karlsson being able to drive play from the back end with a young-ish group of forwards and hoping that it can get the job done.
Only time will tell how this experiment works out. San Jose and Toronto sit on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of cap allocation to players, but both find themselves in a crunch. How Wilson and Kyle Dubas manage these issues respectively will be overtly interesting to watch.