Erik Karlsson mega deal presents extreme 'boom or bust' window for San Jose Sharks
Despite long-term concerns, Karlsson's new deal keeps San Jose in contention for a title
Make no mistake about it, the Sharks re-signing Karlsson is a major win for the team in the short-term. The two-time Norris winner is one of the league's elite facilitators, a gamebreaker on the blue line. He's a generational talent and those pieces don't come around very often.
It's why San Jose general manager Doug Wilson jumped at the opportunity to acquire Karlsson fro the Ottawa Senators last September. Even with an expiring contract and the possibility that Karlsson could leave after just a year, the Sharks were willing to forfeit a package that included four players and three draft picks (one first-rounder and two second-rounders).
The Sharks are a hungry franchise with an aging core that is dying to win the Cup. They've had several great runs with their current group of vets (Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture), including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but they've always fallen short.
Karlsson was seen as a piece that could get them over the top and help them capture their first title. He fit in with San Jose's high-powered attack and helped the Sharks get to a 101-point season (second in the West) despite league-worst goaltending. Ultimately, the one-year plan didn't entirely work out, as the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Final before being eliminated by the eventual champion St. Louis Blues.
But San Jose still sees Karlsson as the guy who can take them to the next level, and that's why Wilson was clearly willing to do whatever it took to keep the defenseman around for an extended run. Turns out, it took making him the highest-paid defenseman (third-highest player overall) in the league and locking him in through his age 37 season.
There were rumblings that Karlsson was interested in heading back east this summer -- specifically to a team north of the border, like Montreal or Ottawa -- in order to be closer to his wife's family. It's possible those rumors were true, but we know now that he liked San Jose enough to stick around and try to finish the job. The $92 million probably doesn't hurt.
We also now know just how desperate the Sharks are in their pursuit of winning it all in the immediate future. And now the pressure to do so is at an all-time high.
Again, keeping Karlsson around is a short-term coup for the Sharks, but the massive contract could present some significant hurdles as well.
First thing's first: The Sharks are now in somewhat of a cap crunch. Karlsson's monstrous AAV will make it difficult for the team to fit all of their other expiring players -- including Pavelski, Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Timo Meier (RFA) and Gustav Nyquist -- under the cap. According to CapFriendly, San Jose has a projected $12.5 million in cap room following Karlsson's deal.
By inking Karlsson, Wilson is likely sacrificing the opportunity to bring back at least a few of those guys unless he creatively maneuvers his way into freeing up some space elsewhere. Extending Pavelski and Meier are likely the next top priorities, but Wilson may need one (or both) or them to take a significantly discounted rate if they want to stick around.
Between Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks have $26.5 million tied up on the cap until 2025. (Burns and Karlsson's combined hit of $19.5 runs until 2026.) They also have an additional $15 million in cap tied up between Logan Couture and Evander Kane, who received a big extension last summer, until 2025 as well. That is a tremendous commitment to a group of players who will all be age 28 or older when next season begins.
Secondly, Karlsson's health has been somewhat of a concern over the past few years. As he heads into his age 29 season, the defenseman hasn't played a full season since 2015-2016. That may not seem like a big deal when you consider he still played 90 percent of his games during his final few years in Ottawa, but he only played 53 games for the Sharks last season as he battled various ailments -- including a lingering groin issue that required surgery this offseason.
Karlsson clearly wasn't right physically in the latter half of the season, including during the Sharks' playoff run. He attempted to play through the pain, and did so to varying degrees of effectiveness, but eventually he was ground into submission. He had to sit out Game 6 of the Western Conference final -- the Sharks' final game of the year.
It feels like he's rarely been 100 percent over the past few years, and obviously that's a bit of a red flag when you're shelling out eight years and massive dollars to a guy who is a year away from turning 30.
But San Jose is banking on those health issues being chalked up to bad luck and not a trend for what's to come. Or they're at least banking on Karlsson's ability to be a significant difference-maker even while physically limited, which is probably a decent gamble considering he led the Senators to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final while playing on one foot in 2017.
Yes, it's still a gamble. But at this point, it's one Wilson is willing to make, and probably one he has to make if he wants to save his job. It's not just the Sharks' current core that has failed to seal the deal but that failure also falls on Wilson, who has been at the helm since 2003. The fans and his bosses are likely getting impatient.
As such, it's never been clearer that the Sharks are officially in "boom or bust" mode. The hope is that Karlsson, even in his post-20s or at 50 or 60 percent, will be able to help San Jose lift a Cup on the front end of the new contract. If so, whatever mess comes in the second half of the contract won't really matter. A Cup tends to earn a lifetime of forgiveness, especially when it's the first and it ends a drought that has lasted decades.
Wilson and the Sharks can't be bothered to worry about how crippling this deal could be down the road. It doesn't matter that Karlsson could eventually be playing 20-40 games a year, looking like the shell of his former self while still holding the team's highest cap hit.
What matters to them is that signing Karlsson allows their current closing window to stay open a little longer, and thus keeps the Sharks relevant and Wilson employed. Retaining Karlsson gives San Jose a better chance to win it all than any combination of players they may have kept or substituted in his place.
But that newly extended window also comes with the anxiety of seemingly inevitable doom. With an aging roster, a potentially messy cap situation, and the fact that the Sharks now have a total of two first and second-round draft picks in the next three years, there's significant potential for San Jose to be left in an undesirable position a handful of years from now.
Still, it's better to be miserable with a Cup than miserable without one.
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