What’s next for the Sharks and Timo Meier? Maybe a waiting game

SAN JOSE — The Sharks will likely not be making a splash at the start of the NHL’s unrestricted free agency period Monday morning. Their big signing came June 17 when they locked up defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year. $92 million deal.

But with the prospect of losing pending UFA forwards Joe Pavelski, Gus Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi to other teams, the Sharks may need to at least dip their toes in the free agency waters to solidify their depth.

The one caveat: Any player or players acquired may have to be relatively inexpensive, assuming the Sharks do not make another trade to free up more space under the NHL’s salary cap.

The reason? The uncertain nature of what Timo Meier’s next contract might look like.

As of Saturday, there’s been no indication the Sharks and Meier’s camp are anywhere close to a new deal, particularly when it comes to term.

The Sharks would no doubt love to ink Meier, set to become a restricted free agent Monday, to a two- or three-year bridge contract, perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million per season, with the promise of a bigger payday ahead.

That would help keep the team’s salary structure in order, as Meier would slot right underneath the average annual value of Tomas Hertl’s current deal at $5.625 million per season. Hertl signed a two-year, $6 million bridge contract in the summer of 2016 before he inked a more lucrative extension two years later.

But it would be a surprise to see the same thing happen with Meier, one of just a dozen or so pending RFAs — among the next generation of NHL superstars — who may command top dollar. Meier, 22, is coming off a 30-goal season, and will be a fixture in the Sharks’ top six forward group for years to come.

Toronto’s Mitch Marner, using Auston Matthews’ contract as a comparable, is reportedly seeking about $10 million per season, which would make him one of the 10 highest-paid players in the NHL. Marner was the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer the last two years, Matthews, the San Ramon-born center who was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016, inked a five-year, $58.1 million deal in February.

Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, selected 10th overall in 2015, one spot behind Meier, could get north of $8 million per year after he had 171 points the last two seasons, second on the Avalanche behind Nathan MacKinnon, who had a combined 196 points.

Matthew Tkachuk may wind up as the player with the highest AAV on Calgary’s roster, which right now has Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano each at $6.750 million. The same might be said for Carolina’s Sebastian Aho or Vancouver’s Brock Boeser.

The question is, who among these budding stars is going to sign first? No one wants to come out of this feeling like they are severely underpaid compared to other RFAs.

Someone, though, will have to sign eventually, which should help set price tags on most of the other players in the same position.

But when?

“If you look throughout the league, there’s so many different players who are in the same spot,” Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said Friday. “They’re all elite young players. You go through different markets, and none of them seem to be on the cusp of signing or anything like that either, right?

“I know here, a lot of the focus is put on Mitch, but this is a league-wide thing. It’s happening in different markets with different cap spaces, budgets and all sorts of things, so it’s not exclusive here. We just continue to plod along with our business.”

The Sharks also need to keep plenty of cap space free to guard against any potential offer sheet for Meier, who received a qualifying offer from San Jose on Tuesday and is not yet eligible for arbitration.

If another team that has the necessary draft picks required for compensation tenders an offer sheet to Meier, and Meier signs it, the Sharks would have seven days to match the offer. Otherwise, Meier will go to his new team, and the Sharks would receive draft picks as compensation from that team.

If, for example, an offer sheet for Meier comes in with an AAV between $6.341,152 and $8,454,871, and the Sharks do not match, San Jose would receive the other team’s first, second and third round picks in the following draft. Those picks that the other team is giving up must be their own, and not have been acquired from a third team via trade.

Having to match an offer sheet for Meier might cause some grumbling, but shouldn’t be a huge issue if indeed Pavelski, Nyquist and Donskoi move on. The Sharks have roughly $14.8 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly. But it could force them to tighten their belts elsewhere.

All in all, it likely means the Sharks will stay on a budget come Monday.