The San Jose Sharks have been one of the league's model franchises during the salary-cap era, especially when it comes to their handling of payroll and contracts. That is going to serve San Jose well as it prepares for next June's expansion draft.
For starters, the Sharks don't have having any no-movement clauses tying their hands. San Jose is one of only four clubs --along with the Calgary Flames, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals -- without a single player on the list of 66 guys who must be protected in the expansion draft (unless the players agree to waive them) as per the memo that the league sent to all 31 teams in November.
The Sharks also catch a break in that winger Joonas Donskoi is exempt from the expansion draft since he is considered a second-year pro because he signed his NHL contract with the Sharks two years ago. (Similar to the Chicago Blackhawks' Artemi Panarin, who is also exempt). Third-year pros are eligible for the expansion draft.
All of this is not to say that the Sharks won't still have to make some tough decisions. Teams with many talented players can't protect them all. The first decision San Jose will have to make is whether to go with the 7-3-1 (seven forwards, three defensemen, one goalie) or 8-1 (eight skaters and one goalie) protection format. I bet that won't get decided until after the season. It's a tough call. If you go 7-3-1, it means you protect just three defensemen -- Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and probably Justin Braun -- which then leaves the likes of Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon, Mirco Mueller and David Schlemko among those exposed.
What if the Sharks decide to go the 8-1 protection format route in order to protect four defensemen? That means only four forwards could be protected: Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl and then take your pick from either Mikkel Boedker, Joel Ward, Melker Karlsson or Chris Tierney. (Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc are exempt.)
Now, you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned Joe Thornton yet. That's because he's a pending unrestricted free agent, and all pending UFAs are ineligible for the expansion draft.
It goes without saying that if I were running the Sharks, I would wait until after the expansion draft to re-sign the longtime franchise superstar in order to maximize my protective list strategy. (Vegas GM George McPhee would no doubt cite this as a perfect example of his concern that some teams will have "drawer'' deals set up in advance in order to circumvent the expansion draft).
There are risks associated with waiting, of course -- such as Vegas having the permission, as per the expansion process rules, to speak with Thornton and any other pending UFAs and restricted free agents from the 30 NHL teams during the 48-hour window ahead of the expansion draft.
While it's hard to envision Thornton leaving San Jose, I would at least mention this: his brother and agent, John Thornton, told me on Monday that his camp wants a three-year deal. Jumbo Joe is coming off three consecutive three-year deals, so he likes those.
But you can understand why the Sharks might be concerned about committing three years to Thornton, who will turn 38 on July 2, because of the 35-and-over CBA rule, which stipulates that the contract counts against the books no matter what happens. Mind you, Thornton is in unbelievable shape. He has that ageless, Jaromir Jagr-esque look to him, which suggests that he might easily play well into his 40s.
I suspect the Sharks would rather do a one-year deal. No doubt they also want to get more hard information on next year's salary cap before deciding what their flexibility will be as far as a salary for Thornton, who is making $6.75 million this season.
Another 37-year-old Sharks forward is a pending UFA: Patrick Marleau, who has only played for the Sharks his entire NHL career. I'm not sure what the future holds for Marleau, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's not re-signed by San Jose.
All 30 teams must expose four veteran players who meet the exposure criteria, and at this point the Sharks will have no problem coming up with the one goalie, one defenseman and two forwards for those purposes. San Jose is in pretty good shape for the expansion draft. But it's the Thornton situation that certainly carries the most interest.