When the San Jose Sharks traded for Erik Karlsson in 2018, they were expected to struggle before rebuilding. They skipped the contending game and stalled in a mess of aging anchors. What the Sharks are going through right now is a slow rebuild, with limited flexibility and few futures to work with. It got a little better, but they certainly didn’t get past the hardest part.
Here’s what San Jose will look like this year and how the Vancouver Canucks will stack up.
Quantity, not quality at the start
The forwards the Sharks can call upon are very limited in terms of abilities. Of course, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl remain great themselves, and Logan Couture is still the glue that holds that front line together. Outside of them though, the quality drops quite sharply.
It’s not that the Sharks lack NHL-proven forwards. Rather, it is the fact that they are tried and poor. Luke Kunin, Oskar Lindblom and Alexander Barabanov are decent top-9 options, while Nick Bonino, Nico Sturm and Matt Nieto could be called second-line fringe players. But it’s not a playoff-caliber roster, in any division. All of these forwards are struggling to be very good options on the second and third lines, which is the big problem for San Jose. None of their proven options are true NHL needle movers.
The Sharks will be boosted by the return of Kevin Labanc after an injury-plagued season. But even in this case, one wonders if he can find his top 6 as before. He had two seasons of mediocre production, and last year he was retired due to season-ending shoulder surgery. If Labanc can bounce back, then San Jose can try to address other pressing issues. But if he can’t, Labanc could very well be on the move.
San Jose has some intriguing young talent who could see themselves earning a full-time role. William Eklund is probably top of the list, having played well during his short stint last season before being sent back to Sweden. The creative winger and playmaker brings some top-notch talent that the Sharks roster badly needs and should make a solid audition for them in the 2022-23 season. Thomas Bordeleau and Tristan Robins could also earn spots on the roster.
A decimated d-body
Once upon a time, the Sharks had perhaps the most feared elite body in the league in the mid-2010s. Now it’s a shadow of its former self, literally. There are two legitimate top 4 options with Erik Karlsson and Mario Ferraro on San Jose’s roster. Karlsson, though a long way from beating Norris, still has a high hockey IQ and can be counted on to deliver the right pass. What made the connection was that elite skating, but that’s long gone. Still, Karlsson would make a good top-four defenseman on any playoff team. As for Ferraro, he may not accumulate the same points as Karlsson but plays a very solid defensive game. Fearless in his own half and responsible with the puck, he too should be part of the Sharks’ best pair.
Other than those two, there’s not much to like.
Marc-Eduoard Vlasic’s steep drop was well publicized and the former 2014 Olympian became a $7 million AAV anchor for the next four seasons. Radim Simek, Matt Benning and Jaycob Megna are all NHL fringe defensemen, who should be on the bottom of the pair rather than having one of them in the top 4. There’s Nikolai Knyzhov and Markus Nutivaara, who both showed flashes of high 4 play but also spent a lot of time injured. The two will come out on IR, and naturally, question marks surround the pair.
That being said, the Sharks have two interesting young defensemen who could establish themselves as full-time NHL players. Former first-rounder Ryan Merkley has played nearly half of the 2021-22 season with San Jose and should be looking to cement himself in the roster. He brings dynamic skating and a good transition game that shines on the power play. Santeri Hatakka could also push for a spot on the roster, having featured in 6 games last season. The young Finn established himself in the AHL as a tough defender to play against, a rarity on a very poor Barracuda team.
Decent goalkeeper, but not great
The Sharks tandem will not steal any game. They’re a duo with an NHL-caliber net, but nothing screams exceptional about them. Kaapo Kahkonen should be the starter for San Jose and deserves his spot. His exit from the Wild was a bit of a headache given his age and potential, but it’s the Sharks’ win. Over the 11-game span that saw him finish with a 2-6-1 record, Kahkonen posted a respectable 2.86 average with an SV% of 0.916. It stands to reason that the 26-year-old could take another step in his development and become a good starting goalkeeper, but that remains to be seen. Kahkonen does not have a very good defense in front of him.
As for the backup, James Reimer should prove to be a more than adequate option. Reimer was never going to be the starting goaltender the Toronto media claimed he was, but he managed to carve out a solid NHL career. The 34-year-old recorded a 2.90 GAA and 0.911 SV% in 48 appearances last season, and is expected to see a slight reduction in the number of games he plays. That should help Reimer tackle some of his inconsistency issues that cropped up when the goalkeeper got tired.
So both guards are good, but they also wouldn’t be the ones to make the big save or steal a game for the Sharks. It’s unfortunate, considering San Jose could really use a goaltender who could throw the team on their backs.
How the Canucks compare
Simply put, Vancouver is a much better team than San Jose on paper. This should also hold true on the ice. If not, serious questions need to be asked. The Sharks are taking steps to get out of the mess they’re in right now, but this is a team that still needs a few more years to even think about making the playoffs.
The Canucks’ top line is on par with, if not better than, what the Sharks have to offer. The rest of the forward corps should easily outperform what San Jose currently plans to have, down to the fourth line. It’s a similar story with defense, where Vancouver should match the best the Sharks have to offer and then have the depth to surpass them. Between the pipes, it’s not even a question.
So while Vancouver is expected to push for a playoff spot, the Sharks are still expected to stay deep in the Pacific. There are promises and moves in the right direction, but for San Jose, the 2022-23 season is a season that shouldn’t be filled with expectations. Look for them in the top lottery picks this season.