General manager Doug Wilson has built the San Jose Sharks as a perennial contender. During his 17-year tenure, they have only missed the playoffs twice. The last time in 2014-15, they went to the Stanley Cup Final the very next year. Despite not making the expanded 24 team playoff in 2020, Wilson still believes his team will be a contender next season. Being a contender from year-to-year generally means you don’t have draft picks that are very high and this is true for the Sharks.
Since 2011, the Sharks have only picked in the first round six times. Three of them are no longer with the organization in Joshua Norris, Nikolay Goldobin, and Mirco Mueller. The other three, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Ryan Merkley turned out to be pretty good, well, the last is to be determined. Despite the lack of high picks, there is still reason for some optimism as there are some prospects that have a pretty bright future in this pyramid.
What is a Prospect Pyramid?
Sportsnet correspondent Steve Dangle first created the idea of a prospect pyramid for the Toronto Maple Leafs and has since become the new standard of sorting prospects in an organization. Dangle says that rather than trying to sort prospects in a numbered list, ranking them into tiers makes more sense than trying to decide who’s 15th and who’s 16th. The tiers look at their potential and group them accordingly rather than ranking them subjectively.
To explain the six tiers, here’s a written out breakdown, courtesy of THW’s own Brandon Share-Cohen:
Tier 1 – Elite talent (Rasmus Dahlin, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid-level talent)
Tier 2 – Very, very good prospects with a real chance of being top-six forwards, top-two defenders or good starting goalies
Tier 3 – Good players who fall just short of tier 2, perhaps due to lower ceilings, but who are distinctly better than tier’s below them
Tier 4 – Distinct shot at making an NHL roster and being a contributor (top-nine forward, bottom-four defender, fringe starter or backup goaltenders
Tier 5 – Players who likely don’t project to be anything more than a role player in the NHL as their ceiling – these players chances of making the NHL aren’t very high compared to their comrades (sometimes due to being relatively unknown at this point)
Tier 6 – Players who have an uphill battle to make the NHL, or there isn’t enough information to make an informed decision
Also, there’s always talk about who classifies as a prospect. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman uses a good definition in his work, which I will apply here:
“A skater no longer qualifies as an NHL prospect if he has played 25 games in the NHL in any campaign, regular season and playoffs combined, or 50 games total; or reaches age 27 by Sept. 15.
“A goalie no longer qualifies as an NHL prospect if he has played 10 games in the NHL in any campaign, regular season and playoffs combined, or 25 games total; or reaches age 27 by Sept. 15.” (From: “Pronman: 2019-20 NHL Farm System Rankings”).
Additions, Subtractions, and Graduates
Although this is the inaugural Sharks Prospect Pyramid, there were some included in the farm system rankings previously updated in January of 2020. Since then, there have made some key signings without any significant losses. Even though the Sharks’ have one of the lower-ranked prospect pools, they remain a destination where players want to sign, especially those from Europe and Russia.
There are two main reasons, for one the San Francisco Bay is an attractive area of the world in which to reside, and for the other, the salary cap troubles of the Sharks means they have to give opportunities to players who are willing to sign entry-level deals.
Trades: Anthony Greco
Free Agents: Fredrik Handemark, Alexei Melnichuk, Brinson Pasichnuk
Free Agency: Lukas Radil
Played more than 25 games: Mario Ferraro, Noah Gregor, Joel Kellman Played more than 50 games, overall: Lukas Radil
Tier 1: Empty
Most teams don’t have a top tier prospect and considering the Sharks have not selected higher than 9th overall (Meier) in the last 10 years, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Most players in this tier are drafted first overall, something the Sharks have never done. The only player the Sharks have had in his prime that might have qualified for this tier is Joe Thornton, whom they acquired in a trade with the Boston Bruins. This is an incredibly hard tier to join and the way the Sharks seem to like to trade away their 1st round picks, I’m not sure they will ever have a prospect in it.
Tier 2: Merkley, Blichfeld, Chmelevski, Leonard, Kniazev, & Melnichuk
Even though the Sharks have no one in tier one, this tier is full of potential. Everyone in this tier could be a top-end contributor to the Sharks in relatively short order. What is especially exciting is that there are forwards, defensemen, and one goalie in this tier. That kind of balance is what you need to continue to field a playoff contender year after year. Especially since none of these players other than Merkley were first-round picks. Let’s dig into the outlook of Merkley, Joachim Blichfeld, Sasha Chmelevski, John Leonard, Artemi Kniazev, and Alexei Melnichuk.
Merkley is considered by many to be the lone true gem of a prospect in the Sharks’ system. Though he clearly has a bit of a checkered past and murky future, there is no denying he is an elite talent. Drafted 21st overall in 2018 by the Sharks, the right-handed shot rearguard will be behind Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on the depth chart, but will also get to learn from two Norris Trophy winners. Kevin Kurz of The Athletic has speculated that Burns might either get moved in a trade or be exposed to the Seattle expansion draft. (from “A 9-step plan for making the Sharks a playoff team again next season,” The Athletic 05/07/2020)
Either way, Merkley will have to prove he can excel at professional hockey in the AHL before he can prove himself in the NHL. One thing is for certain, the Sharks will be extra patient and give him every opportunity. He has elite offensive potential, but the defensive aspect of his game might never be better than average. He has seemed to put past transgressions behind him as the move to the London Knights of the OHL has proved he can focus on hockey without being a distraction to the team.
According to Hockey Prospecting, Merkley had equal to Quinn Hughes in terms of star potential. That number has faded since but still sits at sixth-best amongst a crop of budding NHL stars like Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, and Evan Bouchard. This type of hype and projected star power will give Merkley about the longest leash you can imagine to be an impactful NHL regular.
Blichfeld, more than anyone has shot up the depth chart of the prospect pyramid for the Sharks. The 2016 seventh-round pick (210th overall) just completed his first year of professional hockey in the AHL posting 32 points in 44 games and earning a selection as an All-Star. He was one of the lone bright spots for a Barracuda team that struggled. The large frame Dane broke out in his 3rd year of the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks improving his point per game (PPG) pace in 2017-18 to much closer to two PPG (1.68) in 2018-19.
Blichfeld is blazing fast and his mind can process the game nearly as quickly. In his three-game stint with the Sharks this season, he did not look out of place. Obviously a three-game sample size is incredibly small, but per Evolving Hockey, Blichfeld generated 3.13 turnovers per 60 minutes, which would place him in the top 20 of the league in 2019-20.
Being able to play either wing should help Blichfeld make an impact with the Sharks earlier than later. He certainly has the tools to be a top-six player, but might settle in as a third-line energy player too. His game reminds me of Nikolaj Ehlers, and not just because they are both Danish.
Chmelevski’s development is a path you might imagine most prospects would take, slow and steady. While he has never been an elite scorer at the junior level, he made steady progress in the OHL over four seasons. His last season playing for the Ottawa 67’s was great, scoring 75 points in 56 games and 31 points in 18 playoff games as the team fell just short of an OHL championship. 2019-20 was his first full year with the Barracuda and he was good for 27 points in 42 games.
Chmelevski’s biggest weakness is his skating, which has steadily improved, even though he will never be considered fast. His best asset is his mind, he is able to position himself well and make efficient movements with his skating and usually negates the need for quick, agile movement of which he’s not so capable.
In my prospect profile of him, I compare him to Anthony Cirelli of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Sharks would be elated if he could become a player of similar ilk. I doubt he will ever be a big scorer in the NHL, but he does project to be a top-six forward, probably a center and that is something the Sharks need in a hurry, perhaps rushing his development a bit.
The Sharks may have hit on a true gem in the latter part of the 2018 draft taking Leonard in the sixth round (182nd overall), something they’ve made a habit of under Doug Wilson. He has a unique skill set in that he is a goal-scorer, purer than anyone else in the system. Named as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in collegiate hockey, Leonard amassed an impressive 27 goals and 37 points in just 33 games for UMass (Amherst).
This was after a 40 point in 40 game sophomore campaign for the native of Amherst, Massachusetts. He signed his two-year entry-level contract with the Sharks on March 31st, 2020. He will begin his professional career with the Sharks in 2020-21 and depending on how that goes, he may get an earlier opportunity with the Sharks who are starving for cheap secondary scoring. I think Leonard’s skills will translate well to professional hockey, he surely has the competitive fire to continue to improve if it doesn’t.
Kniazev (sometimes spelled Knyazev) is a recent draft pick, 2019 second round (48th overall). The Russian left-handed defenseman, who is slightly undersized at 5-foot-11 did everything he could to justify that early selection by the Sharks this past season. He improved his point totals for Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL from 34 points in 55 games in 2018-19 to 43 points in 51 games in 2019-20. Kniazev excelled at the summer U20 tournament in Sochi in 2020, named the top defenseman amongst his peers.
He is an excellent skater and can create offense from the back end. The depth chart on the left side is pretty open for the Sharks currently being held by underachieving Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Radim Simek, and Mario Ferraro. Ferraro certainly has long term upside, but Kniazev might be battling him for top-pairing minutes in a couple of years. This next year in the AHL will be an important one for his development.
Melnichuk is the player who is the newest to the organization to find himself in this tier. He is a 22-year-old undrafted Russian player who has been developing in the SKA St. Petersburg system that has produced young phenom Igor Shestyorkin (sometimes spelled Shesterkin) and projected 2020 1st rounder Yaroslav Askarov. He only has 16 games of KHL experience, but after going 8-5-1 with 1.68 goals-against average (GAA) and a .930 save percentage (SV%) the Sharks were the lucky winners of the Melnichuk sweepstakes.
Despite being so young, he has the upside of being a star NHL starter. Of course, he has a lot to prove, especially since he has yet to play a minute of hockey on North American soil. He is so good technically, especially down low, yet he can be very athletic when needed. Despite his youth, I have him at the top of the Sharks pyramid for goalies. He will compete for minutes in the AHL this season and if all goes right, should be in the NHL within one to two years.
Tier 3: Chekhovich, Dahlen, Spiridonov, Pasichnuk, Korenar, & Emond
Like the tier above, tier three has players with a fair amount of potential. If it weren’t for some unfortunate circumstances or slight regression this past season, they could have very easily been in the tier above. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one or more of the players in this tier surpassed one or two of the players in tier two. The tier three players are Ivan Chekhovich, Jonathan Dahlen, Yegor Spiridonov, Brinson Pasichnuk, Josef Korenar, and Zachary Emond.
Chekhovich was taken in the seventh round in 2017 (212th overall), the same year the Sharks took Chmelevski. The fact that he’s even this high in the pyramid is a testament to the scouting, drafting, and development of the Sharks.
It’s understandable why he slipped so far as he put up just under a point per game for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL in his draft year. He followed that up with a disappointing 60 points in 65 games the following season, though his stellar nine points in six games for the Barracuda were eye-popping. In 2018-19, he popped 105 points in 66 games and another seven points in nine games for the Barracuda, including the playoffs.
His transition to a full-time AHL player was a little rough as he only managed 12 points in 42 games. As an undersized player measuring 5-foot-10, he will need to work much harder against bigger and stronger competition. The 2020-21 season will be very telling for the seesaw nature of his progression. Will he rebound and regain his trajectory toward a top-six player or continue down the path toward a bottom sixer? It will be fun to watch and find out. I have my reservations.
Dahlen is the son of former Shark Ulf Dahlen, who had a very successful NHL career. The younger Dahlen has had a bit of a rollercoaster of development after being drafted 42nd overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2016. The Senators traded him to the Vancouver Canucks for Alexandre Burrows. After a couple of years frustrated that he wasn’t being called up and playing pretty well for the Utica Comets of the AHL, Dahlen was traded to the Sharks for Linus Karlsson, a player with a higher floor, but lower ceiling.
While the Sharks own the rights to Dahlen, he is committed to playing the second tier of the Swedish hockey system, the HockeyAllsvenskan, and Timra IK for 2020-21. Dahlen played for Timra during his early development and it seems he is regaining his poise and confidence after a rough stretch with the Comets. While there is still plenty of upside in Dahlen’s game, there are just as many questions, such as will he return to North America? Will he accept a role in the middle six? Will he re-sign with the Sharks after his commitment to Timra? We shall see.
The Sharks drafted Spiridonov in 2019, fourth round (108th overall). He split the 2019-20 season between the MHL (analogous to junior) and the VHL (analogous to the AHL). The Sharks saw him slipping in the draft as many outlets saw him as a second-rounder, they gave the Montreal Canadiens their 2020 fourth-rounder in order to snag him. He is a strong two-way player that excels at puck possession.
He has several aspects of his game to work on like his skating and his shot. According to Hockey Prospecting, Spiridonov is comparable to former Colorado Avalanche star Milan Hejduk. He will have to continue to show he can produce at both the VHL and KHL level before Sharks fans can start to get too excited, but that is obviously a very exciting comparison.
After serving as captain at Arizona State University for two seasons, the highly coveted, undrafted, 22-year-old Pasichnuk signed a two-year entry-level deal with the Sharks. He finished his final collegiate season with 47 points in 36 games. He’s a good skater with above-average hockey IQ and hopes to follow the path of Torey Krug as an undrafted college star to make an impact in the NHL.
No doubt the allure of playing alongside either Burns or Karlsson, as well as the relative paucity of talent on the left attracted him to sign with the Sharks instead of elsewhere. I doubt he has high points upside, but he has a fairly high floor to be a serviceable NHL defenseman.
The undrafted Korenar appeared prime to compete for an NHL roster spot in 2020-21 after an excellent 2018-19 campaign that saw him go 23-8-3 for the Barracuda along with a .911 (SV%) and 2.54 GAA. Unfortunately, he regressed in 2019-20, his record fell to 12-16-7, .891 SV%, and 3.11 GAA.
Perhaps returning to HC Ocelari Trinec of the Tipsport Extraliga, in the Czech Republic, will help him return to his form of two years ago. He is probably the goalie closest to being NHL ready that the Sharks have and could serve as the back up if Aaron Dell leaves in free agency and a veteran backup isn’t signed. Despite his readiness, I’m not sure his upside is all that high, perhaps a split starter or 1A at best.
The goalie with perhaps the greatest upside for the Sharks is also the one who is furthest from being NHL ready. Emond was taken in the sixth round in 2018 (176th overall) and the 6-foot-3, 20-year-old just finished his third full season in the QMJHL. After a rocky 2017-18, where he posted a .897 SV% with a 2.36 GAA for Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 24 games, he had a dazzling 1.73 GAA with a .932 SV% in 2018-19. His numbers in 2019-20 were slightly worse as the team around him graduated several key players from the program. He will be looking to challenge for ice time on the Barracuda and look to further his development at the professional level.
Tier 4: True, Roy, Letunov, Meloche & Hamaliuk
The Sharks currently have four players who could make the NHL roster but in more of a role-player position. These players include Alexander True, Jeremy Roy, Nicolas Meloche, and Nick DeSimone.
Nikolaj Ehlers’ cousin, True, is an undrafted center who was never a big point producer in the WHL when the Sharks signed him in the summer of 2018. He was a bit of a disappointment in 2019-20 for the Barracuda after an impressive 2018-19 campaign that saw him garner 55 points in 68 games. The great Dane standing at 6-foot-5 and 200-pounds has the tools to become an NHL regular and his 12 games for the Sharks in 2019-20 enforce this assertion.
Though 12 NHL games is an extremely small sample size, True definitely held his own in player shot rates, a combination of Corsi for per 60 minutes and Corsi against per 60 minutes. Many other young players on this list did not fare so well, including Noah Gregor, Antti Suomela, and Lean Bergmann. This makes me think True would make a good third-line center, though the second line upside is still there.
Roy was drafted way back in 2015 by the Sharks in the second round (31st overall). There was a lot of hope that with his two-way game, good skating, and processing of the game he could be a top-pairing defenseman. The problem is he has suffered major injuries that just about wiped out two years of development suiting up for just 30 games between the QMJHL and AHL in 2016-17 and 2017-18. The 2018-19 season saw him play in 58 games for the Barracuda as things got back on track to some extent.
In his draft year, he posted the highest NHL equivalency (NHLe) of his career and drew comparisons to Duncan Keith, but more recently the Sharks would just be happy if he could round into form as a third-pairing defender. He could compete for a roster spot as early as 2020-21 with the Sharks. As a right-handed defenseman, he will be competing with Merkley and be behind Burns and Karlsson.
Letunov is a 24-year-old Russian prospect that the Sharks coveted back in 2014, but was originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues 52nd overall. They eventually acquired him through the Arizona Coyotes from the Blues. After three seasons at the University of Connecticut, he finished with 95 points in 105 games, though his freshman season was his best leading to some disappointment as he endured the dreaded downward trend of NHLe.
His transition to the AHL was okay in 2018-19, but 2019-20 showed him lead the Barracuda with 40 points in 50 games. As a large framed (6-foot-4) two-way center, Letunov could certainly make an impact for the Sharks as a middle-six pivot, but the points upside seems a bit limited.
Meloche was originally drafted in 2015 by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round (40th overall). The Sharks acquired him for Antoine Bibeau in September of 2019. A puck-moving, right-handed defenseman, Meloche had high expectations when he was drafted, but has been trending downward, both in his final seasons in the QMJHL and recently in the AHL. There is still hope, about a 28% chance according to Hockey Prospecting, of him becoming an NHL player, but the upside seems to be bottom pairing at this point.
Hamaliuk is a 2019 second-round pick by the Sharks (55th overall). His draft year was shortened to 31 games by injury, but he still put up 26 points for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. The following season, he played for the Kelowna Rockets and saw a regression of only 31 points in 56 games. You never want to see regression like that from your prospects, but hopefully, he can turn the tide and compete for a roster spot on the Barracuda in 2020-21.
He still has a lot of upside as a left winger with a good combination of size and skill. The Sharks certainly hope he can become a power forward utilizing his strength to win battles in the corner and beat goalies with his above-average shot.
Tier 5: Halbgewachs, Viel, Yurtaikin, Middleton, Knyzhov, DeSimone, Kotkov, Carrick, & Ibragimov
Jayden Halbgewachs, Jeffrey Viel, Danil Yurtaikin, Jacob Middleton, Nikolai Knyzhov, Nick DeSimone, Trevor Carrick, and Timur Ibragimov fill out the fifth tier, all players who could make the NHL, but at this point, it looks like a long-shot for them to become regulars with the Sharks.
Halbgewach’s is an undersized (5-foot-8) undrafted left winger who the Sharks signed in December of 2017. At that time, he was in the midst of his fourth and best season for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL that concluded with 129 points in 64 games. The 23-year-old has now played two seasons for the Barracuda going from .55 to .64 points per game (PPG) in those campaigns.
He is currently a restricted free agent (RFA) so it remains to be seen what the Sharks will do with him, his size remains a key limitation to his NHL success. The Sharks certainly hope the player nicknamed the “magic man” can end up being more like Johnny Gaudreau or Marin St. Louis, though the time to pull this rabbit out of his hat is running out.
Viel (or Truchon-Viel) is a 23-year-old undrafted winger that the Sharks signed after an impressive QMJHL career for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. He was captain of the team his final two seasons and in his final year, they won both the QMJHL title and the Memorial Cup. He also took home CHL Memorial Cup All-Star honors and QMJHL Playoffs MVP along the way.
Though never a big point producer, topping out at 62 points in 59 games, he clearly has some intangible leadership and championship qualities that the Sharks covet. In two seasons with the Barracuda, he has increased his PPG pace from .32 to .56. He was also assigned the assistant captain “A” in 2019-20 hinting that he has both the trust of the coaching staff and a voice they want to amplify. He definitely seems like he might be able to carve out a bottom-six role with the Sharks in the future.
Yurtaikin (or Yurtaykin) is a slightly undersized (5-foot-11) Russian player who was not drafted by any NHL team. After putting up 19 points in 40 KHL games as a 22-year-old, the Sharks signed him to a two-year entry-level deal in April of 2019. Surprisingly, and almost entirely due to the Sharks’ lack of forward depth, Yurtaikin made the team out of training camp.
He did not look great in his four-game audition with the Sharks and was sent to the Barracuda where he posted 17 points in 37 games. A creative player with the ability to hold on to the puck and draw players to him, he will need to make quicker and better decisions if he wants to stick in the NHL.
Middleton was originally drafted by the Los Angeles Kings back in 2014 in the seventh round (210th overall). After three years with the Ottawa 67’s, the final one in which he was named captain, he was not offered a contract by the Kings so the Sharks signed him. He was never a big point producer, not even reaching .5 PPG in junior, but he was an assistant captain for the Barracuda for two years and this year got a 10-game stint for the Sharks after their defensive core was depleted.
Those 10 games showed he can have a positive shot rate against NHL competition, which is why he is in tier five and not six. Even if he does stick in the NHL, which I’m not at all confident he will, it will be in a depth role, perhaps even a 7th or 8th defenseman. Middleton is an RFA currently so the Sharks have to make a decision now what they plan to do with him.
Knyzhov, not to be confused with Artemi Knyazev, is a 22-year-old left-handed, undrafted defenseman that the Sharks signed out of the SKA St. Petersburg system. In 2018-19, he rose through the ranks from the MHL to the VHL to the KHL. In 33 Barracuda games, he has scored just five points, deployed more in a shut-down role he did earn a three-game call-up to the Sharks. I don’t see a high upside here, but the recent call-up saved him from falling to the sixth tier.
DeSimone is an undrafted defenseman signed by the Sharks out of Union College of the NCAA. The 25-year-old put up 46 points in 65 games during his second season with the Barracuda, in 2018-19, but took a bit of a step back in 2019-20. With good size and skill, the Sharks have him signed for one more season until they have to make a decision on his future with the organization.
Kotkov is a 20-year-old Russian who was undrafted out of the CSKA Moskva system. The 6-foot-4 winger came to the QMJHL in his draft year and posted 49 points in 61 games for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. After the draft, the Sharks signed him to a three-year entry-level contract only to see his production dip in year two to 46 points in 51 games.
He was recently traded to the Saint John Sea Dogs and this year will be really important for him to see if he can climb the pyramid out of tier five. He certainly has the physical tools to do so. Another disappointing year in the QMJHL might lead to a departure for Russia.
Carrick is a 26-year-old left-handed defenseman who has played the majority of his career in the AHL. Hockey Prospecting has listed him as a “bust” so I don’t expect much from him at this point. He is a classic quad “A” player who may just be too good for the AHL, but not quite good enough for the NHL. As an “older” prospect, he will likely be off this list one way or another in a year.
Ibragimov is a slightly undersized Russian prospect who the Sharks selected in the sixth round in 2019 (164th overall) from the SKA-St. Petersburg system. He is a creative offensive player that has work to do in his own zone. In his draft year, he seemed like a bit of a longshot to make the NHL and he took a bit of a step back the following season, with his NHLe going down from 19 to 15 as he transitioned from the MHL to the VHL. At 19, he has an uphill battle to climb to even make the KHL and from there he’d have to cross the Atlantic and prove himself again. A whole lot of questions and not a lot of answers.
Tier 6: Gallant, Weatherby, Reedy, Wiederer, McGrew, Sund, Greco, Shortridge, Robinson
The sixth tier is for those who either really won’t have a shot at the NHL, or there isn’t enough information to make an informed decision.
This includes Zach Gallant, Jasper Weatherby, Scott Reedy, Manuel Wiederer, Jake McGrew, Tony Sund, Anthony Greco, Andrew Shortridge, and Mike Robinson.
The Prospect Pyramid is Constantly Changing
As prospects continue their career, they can rise and fall through the tiers on this list. Blichfeld is a prime example of this, as he may have been in tier three or four had it not been for his exceptional last year of junior in the WHL and his first professional season in the AHL.
Many of these prospects could slide up or down the tiers depending on what happens next. The point is, these groupings are not a fixed evaluation of these prospects, but a fluid guide that is constantly changing as moves are made in the organization, drafts occur and the general progression or regression of their play.