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Pacific Division Preview: San Jose Sharks early Stanley Cup favorites with Erik Karlsson in the mix

San Jose made a huge summer splash by acquiring the superstar defenseman from Ottawa.

Calgary Flames v San Jose Sharks Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As we gear up for the regular season, we’ll take a look at Vegas’ seven Pacific Division opponents to examine how they fared in 2017-18, what moves they’ve made in the offseason and what their lineups may look like to start the 2018-19 season. The Golden Knights have a full season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final under their belts, so no one will be taking them lightly in Year 2. Here’s a look at the San Jose Sharks.

Expectations are extremely high for the San Jose Sharks in 2018-19 after an incredibly productive offseason. The Sharks added one of the most dominant players in the NHL to an already-impressive roster, and the team’s blue line will be lethal. With the return of Joe Thornton, who missed all of last year’s postseason, the Sharks are poised for a big year.

Season recap

Being two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance, San Jose was eager to get back in the swing of things last season but would have to do so without long-time winger Patrick Marleau, who signed with Toronto last summer.

Brent Burns led the team in scoring with 12 goals and 67 points. Though Joe Pavelski finished second on the team with 66 points, it was a down year for the American forward. Timo Meier put together an impressive campaign as he set career highs in goals (21), assists (15) and points (36), though it was Logan Couture who led the way with 34 goals and was the team’s most valuable player at the end of the day.

Both Martin Jones and backup Aaron Dell posted comparable numbers during the regular season, making the duo a solid tandem in net. Jones finished the season 30-22-6 with a 2.55 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and four shutouts, while Dell managed a 15-5-4 record with a 2.64 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts.

An injury to Joe Thornton in late January put some strain on the team, but San Jose clinched a playoff berth with 100 points.

The Sharks made it to the second round before running into the Golden Knights, who eliminated them in six games. Though it wasn’t the end they were hoping for, it’s hard to criticize the Sharks’ performance last season.

San Jose made a big splash at the trade deadline by acquiring winger Evander Kane, who found immediate success with his new team. He scored nine goals and 14 points in 17 games, notching the first hat trick of his career with a four-goal game against Calgary in mid-March.

He added four goals and five points in nine postseason tilts, four of which came in the Sharks’ first-round series against the Ducks, which resulted in a four-game sweep. Jones was at the top of his game in that series, giving up only four goals and coming out of the first round with a 1.00 goals-against average, .970 save percentage and one shutout. However, he struggled against Vegas; he finished the playoffs 6-4 with a 2.26 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and two shutouts.

Couture led the team in postseason scoring with four goals and 12 points in 10 games.

Offseason moves

General manager Doug Wilson has had himself an exceptional offseason and has shown that he is not afraid to make big and bold moves to get his team to the next level.

First, he acquired winger Mike Hoffman from Ottawa, which allowed him to unload Mikkel Boedker and his $4 million cap hit; from there, he flipped Hoffman, who was at the center of a cyberbullying investigation involving Erik Karlsson and his wife, to Florida. In the end, Wilson got rid of Boedker’s contract and also picked up four draft picks and defenseman Cory Donaghey. This gave the team extensive cap space with which to work, and Wilson proceeded to go after the best of the best.

He met with Ilya Kovalchuk and later got one of six meetings with free agent John Tavares, though the meeting proved to be unsuccessful as the Sharks couldn’t quite compete with a childhood dream to play for the Maple Leafs. However, the fact that San Jose was seemingly all-in by seeking a meeting with Tavares despite having many high salaries in the lineup already shows that the Sharks were ready to take the next step. Though he failed to land either player, Wilson was not deterred.

In fact, he went on to make arguably the biggest move of the offseason by acquiring Karlsson from the Senators. Wilson pulled off a brilliant trade as he took advantage of Ottawa’s circumstances, and he was able to land one of the most dominant players in the NHL without parting with much at all.

Specifically, the blockbuster trade saw the Sharks ship forward Chris Tierney, defenseman Dylan DeMelo, prospects Josh Norris and Rudolfs Balcers as well as a conditional 2020 first-round pick and conditional 2019 second-round pick to Ottawa in exchange for Karlsson and prospect Francis Perron. Though Tierney was coming off a career season, giving up a bottom-six forward and a bottom-four defenseman is not exactly taking a huge risk.

This was an absolute steal. Not only did the Sharks land a massive superstar, but they did so without having to part with any of their young forwards, such as Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, Meier, etc. Regardless of what Ottawa was thinking, Wilson pulled off a landmark transaction that should be considered one of the best (or worst) trades of the decade, depending on how you look at it. Though a long-term extension was not part of the deal, Karlsson will finish out his contract with an $8.5 million cap hit on the books. The Sharks are not complaining considering they now have Burns, Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the back end.

Also, the trade seemingly came out of nowhere, especially since teams like Tampa Bay, Vegas and Dallas were believed to be frontrunners in the Karlsson sweepstakes. However, when Ottawa balked at strong offers from other teams, Wilson stepped in and robbed general manager Pierre Dorian blind.

But the Sharks also handed out multiple long-term extensions to key players.

Kane signed a seven-year, $49 million extension that will keep him in teal through the 2024-25 season. There was some concern regarding potential personal issues with Kane, who had been the center of locker room controversy throughout his career, but the gamble paid off, and Kane is there to stay.

Hertl re-upped for four years and $22.5 million. The 24-year-old scored a career-high 22 goals last season and tied his career-best in points with 46. The former first-round pick is a key member of San Jose’s top six and was rewarded for an especially strong postseason in which he scored six goals and nine points in 10 games.

Tierney and DeMelo were re-signed prior to being included in the Karlsson trade, and Thornton signed a one-year extension for $5 million. Jumbo Joe is nearing the end of his career but remains an elite playmaker and will center the Sharks’ top line once again.

Couture also signed an eight-year, $64 million extension, which kicks in next season. He’s coming off a 61-point season in which he set a career high in goals with 34; the 29-year-old is entering the final season of his current contract that carries an AAV of $6 million. He will be on the books at $8 million per year until 2026-27.

Additionally, the Sharks signed Finnish center Antti Suomela, who led Liiga (the top league in Finland) in scoring. He signed a one-year, entry-level contract after receiving interest from at least 12 NHL teams.

Notable departures include Jannik Hansen (signed in KHL), Ryan Carpenter (claimed off waivers by Vegas), Eric Fehr (not re-signed), Paul Martin (bought out) and Joel Ward (not re-signed).

Lineup preview

The Sharks are going to have two of the most talented offensive defensemen in the game on their blue line this season. The combination of Burns and Karlsson is sure to be electric, and it’s going to make San Jose’s power play mighty frightening.

Surprisingly, Kane isn’t expected to skate on the top line to start the season as Meier will line up next to Thornton and Pavelski. It looks as though Kane could actually start the season on the third line. Pete DeBoer obviously wants to spread out his offense, and having Kane and Donskoi on the third line with Suomela could give San Jose three scoring lines. Couture will center the second line between Hertl and Labanc.

On the back end, Karlsson is slated to skate with Vlasic, which could be one of the more effective defensive pairs in the entire NHL.

Here’s a look at what the Sharks’ lines could look like this season:

Meier — Thornton — Pavelski
Hertl — Couture — Labanc
Kane — Suomela — Donskoi
Marcus SorensenBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Vlasic — Karlsson
Joakim Ryan — Burns
Brenden Dillon — Justin Braun

Jones
Dell

Quick hits

2017-18 Team record: 45-27-10—100
Position in standings: Division-3, Conference-6, League-11
Pacific Division record: 21-5-3
Record against Vegas: 1-2-1
Playoff result: Eliminated in second round by Vegas (4-2)
Leading Scorers: Burns (12-55—67), Pavelski (22-44—66), Couture (34-27—61)
Top Corsi For % (min. 30 GP): Donskoi (55.06), Burns (54.28), Labanc (53.99)
Power play (NHL rank): 20.6 percent (16)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 84.8 percent (2)
Goals for (NHL rank): 247 (13)
Goals against (NHL rank): 226 (23)
Team MVP: Couture (34.27—61)
Season opener: Oct. 3 vs. Anaheim

Bottom line

The Sharks are one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the National Hockey League and will be early favorites to compete for the Pacific Division title. It may take a little time for the Burns-Karlsson madness to settle, but one thing is for sure: not taking penalties against the Sharks this season will be every team’s top priority.

Having Kane on board for a full season could do wonders for San Jose’s production, and the Sharks have plenty of depth and flexibility up front in case lines need to be shuffled. Thornton’s health could be a concern down the stretch, and Pavelski has visibly slowed in the last few years. But there is plenty of veteran talent and youth on this team, and the defense and special teams could blow other teams out of the water.

Having Karlsson or Burns on the ice for possibly 55 minutes a night should make this Sharks team quite a formidable opponent. Therefore, it will be very surprising if San Jose doesn’t finish near the top of the Western Conference, and they have as good a chance as anyone to make a very deep playoff run.

Golden Knights vs. Sharks schedule

Nov. 24 vs. San Jose
Jan. 10 vs. San Jose
Mar. 18 @ San Jose
Mar. 30 @ San Jose