The first two articles of this series detail reasons why the San Jose Sharks' chances of winning the Stanley Cup reach a peak in 2011-12 and the outlook is still good for 2012-13. Now we can examine what this team looks like beyond the next two seasons.
In the two articles linked above, the potential was shown for the Sharks to find the talent they need with their own prospects to fill out their bottom two lines for those seasons. While it is not likely they will be able to keep all those players beyond 2013, it is reasonable to think enough of them can be kept; the remainder can be filled out by low-priced veterans.
Likewise, any projections below may actually be filled with equivalent players—i.e., if I were to project Benn Ferriero to be re-signed for $1 million as the team's ninth forward, someone else may fill that role for that money.
Barring trades, seven Sharks will be under contract in 2013-14 (listed with their age at the beginning of the season and how much they will make): Joe Thornton (34, $7 million), Patrick Marleau (34, $6.9 million) Dan Boyle (37, $6.67 million), Brent Burns (28, $5.76 million ), Martin Havlat (32, $5 million), Joe Pavelski (29, $4 million) and Antti Niemi (30, $3.8 million).
While four of those players will be on the downside of their careers, none will be unproductive. It is reasonable to assume they will collectively give the Sharks four top six forwards, two top three defencemen and a starting goaltender.
Which Stanley Cup are the Sharks most likely to win?
Only Burns, Havlat and Niemi will not be in the final years of their contracts, so a decision will need to be made on the long-term future of the others. However, for now we can look exclusively at 2013-14.
Based on all years (except for last year), the salary cap should be close to $70 million. That leaves the Sharks with over $30 million for the remaining nine forwards, five defencemen and one goalie (one extra forward and defenceman than are dressed every night).
I am projecting that Logan Couture (24, estimated $5.25 million) and Justin Braun (26, estimated $1.25 million) will also be under contract and filling top 10 skater roles, and that Taylor Doherty (22, $840K) will be able to step up into an every-day role. This leaves under $23 million for a backup goalie, a top four and two bottom-pair defencemen and a top-six and all seven role-playing forwards.
To be a Stanley Cup contender, you must have at least one of your third-line forwards be of top-six calibre and one of your bottom pair on the blue line to be top-four. The Sharks have both right now, and will need to maintain that level in order to avoid their window being shut.
Thus, the first free agent the Sharks should re-sign would be Ryane Clowe. He is a team leader who provides physicality and skill, and he would be just 30. As an unrestricted free agent with a salary cap about 10 percent higher than it is right now, he would command at least as much as restricted free agent Logan Couture will next year.
After his signing, the Sharks have over $17 million left. The next priority is a top four defenceman. Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be just 26 years old, but an experienced veteran who can eat up minutes and play nearly mistake-free hockey. As an unrestricted free agent with that resume (and again, a cap figure 10 percent higher), he will easily command the modest increase to $4 million on the open market.
That gives the Sharks over $13 million to sign one more top six forward to be equal to this season, and the least they are likely to get another top six forward and top four defenceman for is $3 million each. That leaves them with $7 million for six forwards, one goalie and one player on the blue line.
That can be done. The players the Sharks have in those eight roles this year project to make about $8.5 million.
But this means the Sharks will have players who aren't worth as much at the bottom of their roster as those who they have this year. Because the Sharks have traded away almost every first-round pick since 2007 to upgrade the team, their prospect pool is not as strong as in years past; it is from this group that teams often get players whose performance exceeds their contract.
Moreover, those players will be the equivalent of about $6.3 million in 2011-12 value because of the increased cap.
If the Sharks do not win the Cup by 2013, what would you do with the 33-plus-year-olds in the last year of their contract?
This leaves the Sharks with role-playing talent likely to be about 75 percent what it is this season. While Couture, Pavelski, Clowe, Vlasic, Burns and Niemi should be better than they were in those roles in 2010-11, Thornton, Marleau, Havlat and Boyle will not be as good.
That slight net gain comes nowhere near accounting for the drop off in the role-playing talent. Thus, I estimate that the Sharks' chances are over 40 percent to win the Western Conference in 2012, but maybe one-in-three in 2013 and no better than one-in-four by 2014.
And that is if the Sharks do not use some of the potential $4 million they have to upgrade with this season. With a move for a top six forward to add to the third line, San Jose would be the favourite to win the West.
In other words, they will never have as good a chance to win again with this team as they have right now. That is why this has to be the year.