Are the San Jose Sharks on the Brink of Salary Cap Oblivion?
By Ryan Kiray (@RyanK_THG)
With the long-term extension recently afforded to center Joe Pavelski, the San Jose Sharks have placed themselves on the brink of salary cap oblivion.
Current estimates place the Sharks at roughly $400,000 over the cap, but their real problems begin to arise after this season. With extensions for both Pavelski and star youngster Logan Couture set to begin in the 2014-2015 season, and deals for old guard Sharks Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle set to expire, the Sharks are approaching a period of transition.
As of right now, the Sharks have roughly $44.2 million committed to next season, with only 14 current NHL players under contract for the 2014-2015 season. Goaltender Antti Niemi looks to receive a big pay increase from his current $3.8 million for the 2015-2016 season. Assuming that Brent Burns remains a forward next season, as Sharks GM Doug Wilson has suggested, the Sharks will need to resign or replace both Thornton and Marleau in their top six, and, if they do not retain Boyle, will have no headlining defenseman on a weak blueline.
The time is coming for the Sharks to cut ties with one or more of their previous generation. The current roster is too top heavy, and the defensive corps needs retooling. Oft-injured winger Martin Havlat is essentially untradeable, and Pavelski and Couture are untouchable. Thornton and Marleau are the obvious candidates to see the door, especially with both approaching age 35; Thornton will be an over-35 contract for the remainder of his career after this season, and Marleau will turn 34 this preseason. While both can still be expected to flirt with a point per game pace, their roughly $7 million a piece salaries are weights around Doug Wilson’s neck. Signing those two players at or near their current salaries will place San Jose at around $58 million, with three roster spots and press box players still to be signed.
Boyle continues to produce at a respectable rate, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a short-handed stalwart. Beyond these two and veteran defenseman Brad Stuart, the Sharks blueline is paved with mediocrity. While youngster Jason Demers has promise, age will soon claim the skills of Boyle and Stuart, and a four-defenseman corps is not enough to win a Cup. Another offensive presence, one that can man the powerplay and claim the anchor position when Boyle’s skills inevitably erode, is necessary, as are stronger shutdown presences for the bottom defensive pairing.
Cutting ties with Marleau, for example, will free up an additional $6.9 million, which, in combination with expected salary cap increases, would create enough space for Wilson to secure the services of a defenseman capable of generating offense and more stable stay-at-home defensemen for his bottom pairing and penalty kill. These are greater areas of need than another point-per-game top six forward, and the constraints of San Jose’s current salary cap total mandate the change.
Moving on from Marleau alone is probably a smarter move for Wilson. The Sharks’ offense has revolved around Thornton for so long that the transition between his leadership and Couture’s would be much more difficult than a transition between Marleau and Couture as the Robin to Thornton’s Batman. While it is true that the over-35 provisions would attach more risk to Thornton’s contract, his decrease in productivity over the last few seasons has been minimal. A three to four year front-loaded contract at a reasonable cap number would minimize risk and ease Pavelski and Couture into running the San Jose offense, and relieve some pressure from an offensive corps that, if it remains status quo, will have at least $5 million committed to every player on its top two lines.
It is not always easy to cut ties with players that have come to symbolize your franchise. Teams can handcuff themselves by holding on to the past for too long; ask Jay Feaster how well keeping Jarome Iginla for an extra couple of years worked out. As it stands now, keeping both Thornton and Marleau would prove to be a major mistake, one that would rob Wilson of needed cap flexibility and add to an area of existing strength at the expense of one of major weakness. The Sharks have their future under contract. With the contracts of the past set to expire, it is time for San Jose to say goodbye.