Free agency is now less than six weeks away and many teams are already looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in mid-July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. Next up is a look at the Sharks.
Key Restricted Free Agents
- G Kaapo Kahkonen – Kahkonen was acquired from the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline as part of the Jacob Middleton trade, and Kahkonen performed reasonably well as he began to take on a more prominent role late in the Sharks’ season. Kahkonen finished with ten starts in San Jose and posted a .916 save percentage. When combined with his 23 starts as a member of the Minnesota Wild, Kahkonen’s overall 2021-22 save percentage is .912, an encouraging mark for a goalie not set to turn 26 until the middle of August. The Sharks will have to make a decision this offseason, as once Kahkonen is re-signed they will have three NHL-caliber goalies under contract (Kahkonen, Adin Hill, and James Reimer), and are unlikely to spend a full season with a three-goalie group.
As for Kahkonen’s next contract, he does have arbitration rights as an RFA meaning he has at least some negotiation power in deciding his future. A bridge deal at around $2MM-3MM could make sense, although there is an interesting contract comparable that could prove troublesome if the Sharks want to retain Kahkonen on the cheap. Los Angeles Kings goalie Calvin Petersen, in a similar RFA situation to Kahkonen, at a similar age, inked a three-year deal with the Kings at a $5MM AAV. Petersen’s numbers compared to Kahkonen’s are similar: when he signed his contract, Petersen was coming off of a season where he had a .911 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average in 32 starts, while Kahkonen enters his time as an RFA with a .912/2.87 in 33 starts. They’re basically identical numbers, the only major difference being that Petersen started 32 games in the shortened 2020-21 season, so his marks represented a larger share of the available games for a goalie to play. Given the similarity in his numbers, Kahkonen could reasonably demand a similar contract to Petersen and therefore likely make negotiations more difficult for the Sharks.
- F Noah Gregor – Gregor has been a solid find for the Sharks as a 2016 fourth-round pick, developing from his time as a star in the WHL into the reliable two-way forward he was this past season. Gregor played sound two-way hockey and became a more and more trusted weapon of coach Bob Boughner, finishing the season with just under 15 minutes of average time on ice. Gregor didn’t overwhelm with his production, but his eight goals and 23 points in 63 games is decent enough, and his strong scoring at the AHL level indicates he may have some more offense to come as he gets more comfortable against NHL competition. While long-term deals for players with limited NHL experience are becoming more commonplace (Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud, as an example, got a long-term $2.75MM AAV deal and had less than a full season of NHL experience) a short-term bridge deal is the likeliest outcome for Gregor. Gregor worked on a $750k cap hit this year, so expect a raise but nothing major as Gregor doesn’t yet have arbitration rights, and the Sharks will be hard-pressed for cap space.
- D Mario Ferraro – Ferraro has become an increasingly important defenseman in San Jose and just finished a season where he averaged 23 minutes of time on ice per game. His offense isn’t anything to write home about – just 14 points in 63 games – but it’s his leadership, physicality, and overall defensive game that makes him such a valued part of the Sharks lineup. There is some debate over Ferraro’s true overall skill level, and if his time-on-ice is truly reflective of his value, but it’s clear the Sharks rate him highly and that’s ultimately all that matters in contract negotiations. The Sharks could opt for a long-term deal with Ferraro, but since they figure to have some cap troubles and are intent on competing in the near future, a bridge deal seems more likely.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents
The Sharks’ only unrestricted free agents of any consequence are Anthony Bitetto, Ryan Dzingel, and Alex Stalock, three players who combined to play seven total games for the Sharks this past season. While Bitetto, Dzingel, and Stalock are all NHL veterans, they do not figure to play a major role in San Jose moving forward even if re-signed.
Projected Cap Space
This is where things get dicey for San Jose. The Sharks are currently projected to have just $5.67MM in cap room to start this offseason, and since they have NHL-caliber RFA’s to re-sign in Ferraro, Dahlen, Kahkonen, and Gregor, as well as an intention of improving their roster significantly, that’s just not enough space to make the moves their next GM will likely want to make. Big contracts for players such as Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic mean that finding the necessary wiggle room will take immense creativity, and their precarious cap position is further complicated by the uncertainty of the Evander Kane situation, as the deliberations over the grievance he filed have not yet been concluded. A buyout for Vlasic, a trade of one of the highly-paid players, or even dealing one of the players on a moderate deal such as Reimer would go a long way to creating room for San Jose to operate. Whatever path they choose, it’s clear they will have to do something in order to create the necessary breathing room under the salary cap they need to return to contention.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.