The San Jose Sharks have a Jumbo decision to make this summer. Both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the faces of the Sharks’ franchise over the past decade, are set to hit unrestricted free agency in July. They’re still productive players at 37 years of age, as Thornton and Marleau finished fourth and fifth respectively in team scoring last season, but after a first round playoff exit at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s time to wonder if the Sharks should move into the future.
The Sharks finished 2016-17 with a 46-29-7 record, almost identical to their 46-30-6 record from 2015-16. Despite the records, these two Sharks teams were quite different. The main difference, of course, was the playoffs. After going all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, the Sharks were dispatched in the first round by a younger, faster, and more energetic Oilers squad.
The numbers also suggest last year’s rendition of the Sharks weren’t the same as the runners ups from the year before. In 2015-16, San Jose had a dominant offence, finishing fourth in the league with 241 goals scored thanks largely to a ridiculously good power play that converted on 22.55 per cent of its opportunities. In 2016-17, the Sharks scored 221 goals, good for only 19th in the league, and their power play converted on just 16.67 per cent of its opportunities.
The decline in offensive production was seen pretty much across the board. Joe Thornton led the Sharks in 2015-16 with 19 goals and 63 assists, but declined to seven goals and 43 assists, Joe Pavelski’s production dipped from 38 goals to 29 goals, and Joel Ward potted only 10 goals last season after scoring 21 the previous year. Mikkel Boedker was a major disappointment for the Sharks last season. After inking a four-year, $16 million deal in free agency, Boedker only managed 10 goals. Another key to the Sharks’ offensive decline was Tomas Hertl, who scored 21 goals in 2015-16, missing half of last season with injury.
One of the only players who didn’t see a regression in 2016-17 was Patrick Marleau, who’s 27 goals was his most since 2013-14. Also, there was Brent Burns, who really evolved into the team’s dominant play driver. I mean, Burns has been one of the NHL’s elite offensive producers for years now, but last season, he led the Sharks in points with 76 and shots with 320.
A big reason why Burns, who thrives playing alongside the steady veteran Paul Martin, is able to produce so much offensively is Marc Edouard-Vlasic. While Burns has evolved into an elite offensive D-man, Vlasic has done something similar at the other end of the ice, earning a reputation as one of hockey’s best shut down blueliners.
That said, Vlasic, who has generally been very effective playing alongside Justin Braun in that shutdown role, had somewhat of a down year. After finishing with the fourth-fewest unblocked shot attempts against per hour in 2015-16, Vlasic was surprisingly average in terms of suppressing shot against last season, dropping down to 27th in Fenwick against.
Martin Jones was strong in net again for the Sharks, posting a .912 save percentage in 65 games. Aaron Dell, Jones’ backup, was surprisingly fantastic, putting up a .931 save percentage in his first season in the NHL.
It wasn’t a bad season in San Jose, but it certainly wasn’t a great one either. It’s pretty clear that age is catching up to this team, and going on a deep playoff run could be a reason why so many older players took a step back in 2016-17.
The Sharks have roughly $60 million committed to their team next season. They don’t have any major restricted free agents to deal with immediately, but this summer and next they’re going to be swamped with important decisions on unrestricted free agents.
One very important free agent has already been dealt with. Brent Burns was going to be this summer’s biggest prize, but the Sharks locked him up to a massive eight-year, $64 million contract extension back in November.
As we know, both Thornton and Marleau are set to hit the open market in July. They’re both going to be 38 years old at the start of the 2017-18 season, but they’re still very effective players. Next summer, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones will both be UFAs, and Tomas Hertl will be due for a raise on a new RFA contract.
Good start for the Sharks to what will be a busy off-season. Thornton/Marleau situations plus getting Jones/Vlasic signed long term...— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 12, 2017
Offseason Game Plan
First we have the expansion draft, in which the Sharks are a difficult team to project. The obvious choices for protection are Burns, Vlasic, Pavelski, Couture, Hertl, and Jones. After that, though, it’s really anybody’s guess.
It probably makes the most sense for the Sharks to protect eight skaters and one goalie because the brunt of their valuable players are on the blueline. The aforementioned players would fill five spots, and the next three could be used on three of Jannik Hansen, Chris Tierney, Melker Karlsson, Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon, David Schlemko, or Justin Braun. I imagine Joel Ward and Mikkel Boedker will be left exposed.
It’s honestly a pretty difficult to decide who gets left out. Martin is solid, but old and only has one more year left on his deal. Schlemko probably isn’t as good as Dillon or Braun, but is on a very good contract. Tierney and Karlsson are both young and effective forwards. Then there’s Mirco Mueller, a 2013 first round pick who hasn’t found his footing in the NHL.
Ideally Vegas snags Boedker, because then the Sharks are out of a mediocre contract, but San Jose will offer better options, so that’s unlikely.
So, like pretty much everyone else, San Jose will lose a good player to Vegas. Ho hum. Now back to the major issue, which is what to do with the team’s relics. It doesn’t seem realistic that the Sharks sign both Thornton and Marleau, unless it’s on either one-year deals or team friendly cap hits. If that isn’t an option, the plan should then be signing Thornton and letting Marleau walk. Marleau has been a good scorer for many years, and likely will be for another couple of seasons, but the Sharks’ offence is build largely around Thornton and his ability to control the puck down low and make incredible passes.
Even in a down season, Thornton boasted a 53.9 Corsi For percentage (+3.7 rel) and has been one of not only San Jose’s best play drivers, but one of the league’s best over the past five years. When looking at the Sharks’ underlying numbers from last season, it’s clear that Thornton positively impacted just about everyone’s offensive production. Marleau, while a good scorer, simply doesn’t have that kind of play driving value.
Beyond that, the Sharks don’t have much financial flexibility, so it’s difficult to imagine them being active in the free agent market. Another low-key grab like Schlemko could be a possibility, but the Sharks won’t be in on this summer’s major free agents, so it’ll likely be a pretty quiet summer in San Jose.
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