Are the Sharks Mishandling Mirco Mueller?

Strange Rookie Season

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)
Sharks’ rookie Mirco Mueller (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

This past offseason 2013 first round pick Mirco Mueller was a popular candidate to crack the opening night roster for the San Jose Sharks. After reportedly putting on 30 pounds the previous year and steadily improving during the preseason, Mueller did in fact make the Sharks opening night roster. Not only that, but the rookie defenseman was in the lineup for Game 1 against the Kings back in October.

Rather surprisingly however, Mueller began the season paired with forward turned defenseman Brent Burns. This simply wasn’t an ideal fit. Going back to defense for the first time in basically two years, Burns was guilty of numerous defensive mistakes of his own the first couple months. Ideally speaking Mueller would have been paired with a veteran capable of bailing out his mistakes, not one making equally as many. That said, Mueller managed to sparkle at times during the first couple months. In early October Mueller defended New York Islanders star John Tavares one-on-one during a four-on-four overtime situation and absolutely shut him down. Even with Tavares having gained a head of steam, the terrific skating Mueller stayed with him, denied a power move to the net, and finished his check into the boards with authority. For the most part though Mueller has been up and down, just like the majority of his Shark teammates.

Put me in Coach, Somewhere…

At 19-years-old Mueller is at an age where he ought to be playing on a regular basis yet he’s been a healthy scratch throughout his rookie season. Due to his age he cannot play in the AHL except for on a conditioning assignment and according to a source within the junior ranks, he cannot play overseas. With the WHL trade deadline passed, Mueller would be eligible to rejoin his junior team the Everett Silvertips as a third European player on their roster. Now the question is would sending Mueller back to junior be ideal?

Everett's Mirco Mueller is rising up some draft boards (Photo by Christopher Mast)
Mirco Mueller with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips (Photo by Christopher Mast)

In Thursday’s 5-1 win over the the Vancouver Canucks, Mueller got back into the Sharks lineup for the first time in nearly two months. Being loaned to the Swiss junior team for the World Junior Championships and a wrist injury have kept him from appearing at the NHL level since early December. Mueller was one of six Sharks rookies in the San Jose lineup, the first time the Sharks have featured that many rookies in one game since the 2009-10 season. Mueller looked sharp on a pair with Brenden Dillon, his defensive positioning was sound, and he didn’t make any noticeable errors with the puck. At 6’3” 205 pounds with tremendous skating ability, Mueller has the physical tools to be a top notch shut down defenseman once he gets used to the NHL speed. The biggest problem for him at the NHL level has been his inability to make quick decisions with the puck on the breakout. He has frequently held onto pucks too long and been burned for it. Most notably in a game against the Oilers earlier this year Mueller second guessed his decision with the puck and gave it away to the ever dangerous Jordan Eberle. While he didn’t score, Eberle went in on a breakaway and deked Antti Niemi out of his pads only to hit the post. Turnovers from Mueller were far too common in the first half of the Sharks season.

When not paired with Burns, Mueller has been most often paired with either Scott Hannan or Matt Irwin, both fellow left-handed shooters. In reality, Mueller hasn’t been given a chance to be paired with the most logical choice on the blue-line. That would be none other than the right-handed Justin Braun. In the first two months of the season, Braun was his normal defensively stout self. Therefore Braun covering for Mueller and Marc-Edouard Vlasic covering for Burns would have made logical sense. However, the Sharks overloaded with Vlasic and Braun together and went with the aforementioned Mueller-Burns pair. Considering Vlasic and Burns have been playing together for awhile now, and the fact Braun and Dillon didn’t mesh well, it would make a lot of sense to try Mueller with Braun when the latter returns from injury. Neither Hannan nor Irwin have done enough to deserve lineup spots on a regular basis, so Burns-Vlasic, Braun-Mueller, and Dillon-Matt Tennyson would be a good way to go with the pairs. Since Braun went down, Dillon has been playing much better lately with Tennyson.

Just One Game Back But…

While it is just one game, Mueller’s solid performance vs the Canucks should lend towards him staying in the Sharks lineup. As mentioned here yesterday, the Sharks would be wise to take a look at as many of their young players as possible. If Mueller struggles after getting a shot to play with Braun then the Sharks can send him back down for the stretch run and WHL playoffs. That said, if Mueller and Braun play well together, it could be the makings of a terrific defensive-minded second pair. Neither Irwin nor Hannan are going to be the difference maker that Mueller could be given regular ice time. It may take a few years, but who knows, playing consistently game to game, Mueller could find a top-4 level of play down the stretch for the Sharks. Yes a rookie like Melker Karlsson is older and plays a different position but nobody saw his ascension up the ranks of the Sharks depth chart. Mueller is talented enough to make that kind of jump if he finds his confidence. Given a normally defensively responsible partner like Braun, Vlasic, or Dillon, there is a better chance Mueller will be able to find that critical morale boost. Confidence is a tricky thing in hockey, one could be making mistakes but getting bailed out instead of seeing the puck in the back of your own net goes a long way in not over thinking. In hockey the worst thing a player can do is think too much. Players are at their best when they aren’t thinking but rather reacting and making plays instinctively. Whether the WHL or the NHL, the Sharks need to get Mueller in games on a regular basis so he can find his game again.