SAN JOSE - The tragic, fatal plane crash involving the Russian hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in early September shook the hockey world, but affected Sharks center Michal Handzus more than most.
Handzus and former NHL player Pavol Demitra were not just countrymen, but former teammates in St. Louis for three years and very close friends who served in each others weddings. Demitra was the most recognizable NHL name among the fallen, which also included Sharks prospect Daniil Sobchenko.
The Sharks are paying tribute to the Lokomotiv team with a special decal on their helmets.
A bunch of the guys played with a bunch of the guys on the plane, so its just to kind of commemorate that friendship and that we still think of them, said Joe Thornton.
Thornton said Handzus, who attended Demitras funeral in their native Slovakia, came up with the idea.
All of the guys said, yeah, weve got to put something on there, said Thornton. Handzus was good friends with Pavol and its good for the rest of the team to support Zeus in this time.
I think its great. Its a big tragedy and obviously there was one player here from this organization, so its really nice that everybody can recognize that, said Handzus.
The Sharks have issued qualifying offers to restricted free agent forwards Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen and Barclay Goodrow, while cutting ties with three players in the system.
Tierney, 22, posted 11 goals and 12 assists for 23 points in 80 games last season, serving primarily as the fourth line center. He has 64 points (24g, 40a) in 202 career games over three NHL seasons, all with the Sharks.
Sorensen posted one goal and three assists in 19 games with the Sharks last season, his first in the NHL. The 25-year-old played in all six playoff games against Edmonton, scoring one goal and one assist.
Goodrow, 24, skated in three games for the Sharks last season with one assist. He has 16 points (4g, 12a) in 77 games over three seasons with the Sharks, although has played in just 17 NHL games since the start of the 2015-16 season.
Forward Nikita Jevpalovs, defenseman Patrick McNally and goalie Mantas Armalis - also known for his career as a male model - were left unqualified and are now unrestricted free agents.
Earlier in the offseason, the Sharks signed pending restricted free agents Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson. Donskoi received a two-year deal at a salary cap hit of $1.9 million, while Karlsson was signed to a three-year deal at $2 million annually.
Their futures with the Sharks more uncertain than ever, pending unrestricted free agents Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are now free to take calls from other teams to gauge their potential interest.
Nothing can be signed with a new team before July 1, and there is a ban on discussing terms of any potential deal. Teams have already reached out to Marleau, per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, while Thornton is also reportedly receiving interest around the league.
While they could still return to the Sharks, it’s new territory for both, as neither Thornton nor Marleau has ever tested the unrestricted free agent waters. Most recently, they agreed to three-year contract extensions with the Sharks on the same day – Jan. 24, 2014 – in what was the final year of their current deals.
Whether they return to the Sharks could depend on the length of the deal. If other teams are willing to offer multiple-year deals to Thornton and Marleau, it makes their return to the Sharks less likely – particularly in Marleau’s case. Earlier in the offseason, NBC Sports California confirmed that Thornton was seeking a three-year deal, while Marleau preferred a deal of at least three years.
General manager Doug Wilson’s top priority this offseason is to re-sign goalie Martin Jones and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to long term extensions. Those contracts would likely cost the team a combined $12-14 million, and would begin in the 2018-19 season.
There is an added risk to any team that signs a player over the age of 35, as it would be on the hook for the entire salary cap hit regardless of whether that player is active (unless that player is on long-term injured reserve).
Thornton turns 38 on Sunday, while Marleau turns 38 on Sep. 15.