Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team throughout the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 San Jose Sharks.
2023-24 San Jose Sharks
The 2023-24 San Jose Sharks are a team with a plan. Or rather the continuation of the same plan from the previous season, put into motion by General Manager Mike Grier. The focus for this season is changing to team construction from last year’s pure demolition. This should, in theory, be the final year of “planned failure” in San Jose.
Some would argue that going into full rebuild mode should have happened after the 2019-20 total collapse. But it is hard to convince yourself after four years of an extremely high success rate that the one year isn’t a blip rather than a fall. Now that they have embraced the radical change in long-term strategy, they need their fans to remain supportive. Soon, Sharks fans, soon.
The 2022-23 season really started on July 5 when the Sharks named Mike Grier as their new general manager. He was clearly on the same page as his employers, as his first trade was a big one. If he hadn’t had their support, his decision to move out their first-round pick two days after being hired would have made for a very short tenure.
By the end of that Summer, Grier had moved out UFA – and now Stanley Cup winner – Adin Hill and Sharks legend Brent Burns for picks and prospects. Their free agent signings were, to be charitable, depth for a better, better team. Nico Sturm and Matt Benning are decent enough depth pieces for an improving group, for instance. A long-term deal for Mario Ferraro may be harder to justify, but you can see the plan.
And the season was, well, what was expected. Erik Karlsson had his jaw-dropping comeback season. Logan Couture and Tomáš Hertl refused to quit in any game. And they managed to keep most of their prospects in the AHL and away from the disaster scene.
Even better, they worked those trade phones leading up to the deadline. San Jose was one of the busiest teams in the league, moving depth and skill for future prospects and picks. Not all the trades will work out, but that’s why you make lots of them, right?
Oh, yeah! And they moved out a 101-point defenceman.
It was a bit surprising when the Sharks decided to keep Erik Karlsson beyond the trade deadline, it wasn’t an easy deal to make. His contract has four more years to go with an average $11.5 million yearly salary and $12 million in bonus money to pay out. He also has a full no-move clause and turned 33 years old in May. Hard to find a dance partner with those limitations.
On the other hand, he looks fully recovered from his injury troubles. Karlsson played 82 games for the first time since the Ottawa Senators, and that’s 19 points more than his career best. Normally, you’d bet that he won’t hit triple digits again, but the team he went to was the Pittsburgh Penguins, so maybe?
As an end result, the Sharks got a top-ten protected first-round pick and a few generally useful players. They took on some more salary but for less time, which is a recurring theme in long-term contract trades. For San Jose, the player is irreplaceable, so the resulting cap space needs to be considered as part of the return. But it does make it harder to sell tickets to the 2023-24 San Jose Sharks.
Projected Forward Line Combinations
Top Six Forwards
Given who the players are and what the purpose of the season is, it’s a little tough to predict who’s in the top six. Couture and Hertl, obviously, but beyond that it’s guesswork. Duclair and Hoffman should be given plenty of time to increase their value by trade deadline day, for instance. The same is true for 29-year-old Barabanov, though he does have a limited no-trade clause.
But there’s little doubt that the Sharks would love Zadina to find the form that made him such a high draft pick. While he cost the team nothing but a contract slot, investing in him now can pay off soon. Not every part of the team’s future can be protected, and if Zadina manages to get his career back on track they’ll want him to stay.
Prospect William Eklund is almost certainly getting a shot with the big club, but maybe not until after others are moved out. Will it be straight to the top six? If the team projects him as a scorer, they could absolutely move him onto the wing. If they want him as a centre on the other hand, then he may stay the year with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda .
Bottom Six Forward Group
Like with the top six, the bottom six have certainty at centre and question marks everywhere else. Will Lebanc get some “showcase” time with Hertl and/or Couture? Maybe! Will Eklund be eased into the league early in a sheltered role? He might! Will the Sharks be listening to every phone call that comes their way this season? You better believe it!
In theory, no team can actually trade a dozen players of their players away in a single deadline. In practice, San Jose may well try. On the other hand, Lindblom does have some offensive upside he can tap into with minimal ice time. And Zetterlund is just 24 and entering his second full season, so if he emerges this year as a decent all-around player he may be part of the rebuild.
The Top Four and Bottom Pair Defencemen
That is to say, there’s a lot of try in this set. But outside of Rutta, there just isn’t a player who should be off the third pair. This may be a defence that doesn’t produce a single five-goal skater this year. Maybe Ferraro by default because screens happen and someone should put the puck on the net?
Vlasic hasn’t shown that he’s got anything left, and there’s no reason to think a rebirth is on the way. On the plus side, there is room for prospects to force their way in, here. Nikolai Knyzhov had his shot a couple years ago and could be due for a return.
The best hope for the club this season is the gem of the Timo Meier trade is ready to play. If Shakir Mukhamadulin kicks down the door, he will be up if they want him to get NHL experience now. But before we get too hopeful, remember that winning isn’t necessarily part of the plan for the 2023-24 San Jose Sharks.
It’s going to be a long, difficult trial for anyone who bets the under on goals against is what we’re saying.
Speaking of long, difficult trials.
To be clear, the only reason we have Blackwood listed ahead of Kähkönen is because he has a two-year contract. Otherwise, there is little to choose between them. Both have had solid seasons in the past, they will be 27 years old by season’s end, and were better prospects than players. Still, if either can make an argument as a full-time netminder, expect the Sharks to make some calls. This may be a nightmare defence to work behind, but do it well enough and that could be their ticket out.
Players to Watch
A reclamation project is always interesting to watch. That’s especially true when he’s a sixth-overall pick with some really good choices left on the board. Quinn Hughes, Evan Bouchard, and Adam Boqvist were all in the five picks after Zadina, and don’t think he hasn’t heard about it.
A fresh start with a team that has no expectations of success, or for Zadina to lead them there, is the best possible option. It’s difficult for a team so obviously in the tank to draw talent, so it’s a very low-risk, high-reward gamble for San Jose.
The only question about Logan Couture is pretty obvious. Does he want to hit the road for a chance at a Stanley Cup or remain in San Jose as a mentor to the eventual prospects that replace him? For San Jose, this shouldn’t even be a consideration, accepting whatever Couture wants to do. Really, he should have to check a box at the start of each month reading “Do you want to stay? Y/N”.
Couture could bring something back for the Sharks, but it would be hard to find an equal value. He is a 34-year-old with four years remaining on an $8 million/year contract. Yes, he can play both special teams and would be an excellent add for a Stanley Cup contender. But few Stanley Cup contenders are interested in bringing on $32 million worth of veteran contract.
So there is a slightly morbid curiosity seeing just how long the remarkably consistent Couture can maintain his level of play. How long can fans expect between 60 and 70 points – aggregate, if necessary – from him? Is his exit going to be a graceful one?
Prediction for 2023-24 San Jose Sharks
Yeah, no. There is little hope here for the 2023-24 San Jose Sharks beyond a lottery win to bring Macklin Celebrini “home”. Celebrini played for the Junior Sharks AAA squad while his father worked for the Golden State Warriors as their Director of Sports Medicine. So maybe there will be a win for the team when it matters most. Their long-suffering fans will need one after this season.
Main photo: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports