This is the newest THN Hot Seat file, an ongoing series of THN.com columns where we focus on a member of each NHL organization who’ll be challenged to overcome a massive amount of pressure in the upcoming season. The person we put on the Hot Seat could be an NHL player, head coach, GM, or franchise owner.
On this day, we’re looking at the San Jose Sharks.
SHARKS HOT SEAT: ERIK KARLSSON, DEFENSEMAN
WHY: The Sharks have missed the playoffs for three straight years now, and if it weren’t for the fact they play in the NHL’s weakest division, they’d likely be even further down the league’s ladder than they are at the moment. But it’s the start of a new era in San Jose now that longtime GM Doug Wilson is no longer in that role, replaced by former blue-collar NHLer Mike Grief; and behind the bench, former New York Rangers bench boss David Quinn is now running things for the Sharks.
The Grier/Quinn regime has just begun, and they will have a fairly long leash from ownership to lay out their vision for the future. To that end, change has already begun: cornerstone veteran blueliner Brent Burns was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes this summer, and Grier has added depth in goal with the retention of former Wild netminder Kappo Kahkonen on a two-year, $5.5-million contract extension; with returning veterans James Reimer and Adin Hill, the Sharks now have goaltending insurance in a way many other teams do not, and there’s a belief out there that Grier has got three NHL goalies – even if they’re not NHL stars – to trade one or more of them during the season and maximize the value of them as on-ice assets.
Regardless, star D-man Karlsson gets the nod for the Sharks’ hot seat this season, for a few key reasons: firstly, he’s far and away San Jose’s highest-paid player, with an average annual salary of $11.5 million per season, for the next five seasons. At age 32, he’s banged-up and hasn’t been able to play more than 56 games in any of his four seasons with the Sharks; in 2021-22, Karlsson appeared in only 50 games, and his total of 35 points is not in line with a player who makes as much as he does.
Yes, Karlsson does get more ice time than anyone else on San Jose’s roster, but he makes more than $3.3 million more than the next highest-paid Shark (star forward Tomas Hertl, who re-signed a long-term deal in March, averaging $8.1 million per year). That is a huge gap, especially considering Karlsson’s inability to stay healthy.
Karlsson does have a full no-movement clause in his current deal, but it’s hard to imagine he wants to be around for the full length of San Jose’s rebuild. That said, it’s even harder to imagine a team out there that could or would want to take on his contract. Grier will almost have to retain salary to make him palatable in a trade.
There are other Sharks veterans – including 33-year-old captain Logan Couture and 35-year-old defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic – who are signed for at least four more seasons, and who have to ask themselves hard questions about where they fit into a rebuilding team. However, Karlsson will get more time under the microscope because of his salary and his health situation. He’s not washed up, but he is a talent on the downside of a fairly excellent NHL career, and Grier’s task is to rehabilitate his reputation to the point another GM is ready and willing to deal for him. But he’ll need Karlsson to do his part in that process.