Expansion Plan: Projecting the San Jose Sharks’ protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The Sharks watched a couple of key players depart via free agency, but much of the core remains intact, and if they play their cards correctly, San Jose could come out of the expansion draft in 2021 on the right foot.
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Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

Are the San Jose Sharks a better team now than they were in 2018-19? No, but is the window to win a Cup closed? Again, no.

The Sharks lost Joe Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist this summer, replacing them with... well, Jonny Brodzinski. That's not exactly an inspiring summer for the Sharks, who, at least midway through playoffs, looked like the team to beat. Everything was firing on all cylinders, but salary issues meant the team lost key components in free agency.

The team's off-season moves have been underwhelming, but that's because GM Doug Wilson believes in his core group. Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier are more than capable of leading the team's offense up top and Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are still playing fantastic hockey, finishing No. 1-2 in blueline scoring in San Jose last season. If Joe Thornton returns on a one-year deal and can provide extra scoring further down the lineup, that's an added bonus.

What does this mean for the expansion draft, though? The Sharks have eight players signed past 2021, and it's unlikely any will be on the move before that – including Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the only players with full NMCs. It's clear the Sharks aren't ready for a rebuild anytime soon and will have a similar looking roster post-expansion. That's a good thing.

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G)
Forwards:

  • Logan Couture
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Timo Meier
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Alex True
  • Marcus Sorensen
  • Evander Kane

Defensemen:

  • Erik Karlsson (NMC)
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic (NMC)
  • Brent Burns

Goaltender:

  • Martin Jones

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Antti Suomela, Dylan Gambrell

STRATEGY: More than most teams, the Sharks are still in win-now mode. The team is four years removed from their only Stanley Cup final appearance, but Wilson continues to keep the Sharks in the Western Conference playoff picture year after year. It all starts with Couture, San Jose's top center coming off of a career-high 70-point season. He and Timo Meier created one of the better offensive duos on the team and it's realistic to expect them both to finish with 30 goals next season.

The biggest question up front is what to do with Evander Kane. Kane's seven-year contract kicked in this season and after recording 30 goals for just the second time in his career, it looks like he's comfortable in his new situation. But the cap relief could be beneficial for the Sharks, who'll have 16 free agents to worry about in 2020. Do they risk putting him up there to keep a young forward like Antti Suomela or Dylan Gambrell? There's no star forward prospect coming up the ranks for San Jose, so keeping Kane should be a priority while he's still hot.

In terms of depth, Marcus Sorensen and Alex True will stick around as value-added scoring options. Sorensen isn't far from becoming a 20-goal scorer, notching 17 this past season. True has yet to play a game, but his 55-point sophomore season in the AHL makes him intriguing. With the expansion draft, keeping good, depth forwards is almost as important in making sure your stars remain together, so the Sharks will look to play this one smart.

THE NO BRAINER: Kevin Labanc may be one of the best late-round steals in recent memory. At 23, the 2014 sixth-round pick (171st overall) had 17 goals and 56 points, something that isn't overly surprising given his two 100-plus point campaigns in the OHL. He knows how to put up points, and despite the Sharks being in a situation where they'll have to give him a major raise next summer, he'll be worth it if he can continue eclipsing the 50-point plateau.

THE TOUGH DECISION: Typically, you don't offer up a Norris Trophy defenseman for free, but there is a case for exposing Burns. He'll be 36 when the expansion draft arrives in 2021 and if he begins to regress, the Sharks may look to move on from his $8-million cap hit. If he's showing signs of slowing, is it worth leaving him unprotected and hoping Seattle decides to move past his cap hit? Our guess is he's still a top defenseman two years from now and the Sharks elect to keep him for short-term Cup runs. If Ryan Merkley or Jeremy Roy emerge in time to play a pivotal role on the blueline, then that could change how the Sharks handle Burns' remaining years.

LESSON LEARNED: Don't break up the core. The Sharks have one of the weakest prospect bases in the NHL, but they do have a few key prospects such as Merkley, Roy and Mario Ferraro who will be exempt from the draft. While putting someone like Kane might be tempting – with an AAV of $7 million until 2024-25, he'll be 35 when his deal expires – he's still one of San Jose's best players and the Sharks signed him knowing that the expansion draft had to be an option. That makes you think the Sharks will keep him and other expensive veterans such as Burns and Couture to take another stab at a Cup run.

Up next: St. Louis Blues

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(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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