For San Jose Sharks fans, Timo Meier is either a player on the verge of coming into his own or the player who never should have come to San Jose.
Meier has an enormous shadow over him and the shadow has a name: Mathew Barzal. The New York Islanders rookie is having a stunning season. Averaging a point per game and a plus-6, Barzal is not only playing outstanding hockey, he’s a joy to watch. His quickness and agility take a back seat to no one. Barzal was selected with the 16th draft pick in the 2015 draft. Meier was picked ninth. And therein lies the rub.
Meier is doing what many might normally expect of a second year player taken with ninth overall draft pick. After splitting last season between the NHL and AHL, Meier is now a full time NHL player. He is having an impact, not dominating play. Barzal, on the other hand, is dominating play.
It appears Meier wasn’t the best player available at his draft spot, nor was he the most NHL ready winger, as some thought. And given how few times the Sharks have drafted in the top ten of a draft class, missing out on the best available player is not an acceptable outcome. This opens the door for mixed feelings about Meier – what might have been had San Jose gone for Barzal – and criticism for general manager Doug Wilson.
Indeed, the grass is greener in Brooklyn (or at least someplace on Long Island). Barzal is the better player and its not particularly close. He’s had multiple streaks of 10 points in five games this season while Meier has yet to produce a streak of 10 points in 10 games.
That the Sharks are among several teams who passed on Barzal is of no comfort, nor will it quell the criticism of Wilson.
Power Versus Quickness
Fortunately for Meier and San Jose, it’s not as simple as comparing statistics less than 82 games into the NHL career of the two players.
Instead, it’s a good time to counsel patience. The early results do not answer the longer term questions about Meier or Barzal.
One reason for Sharks fans to have patience is the core athleticism of the two players. Barzal plays a quick game and, at age 20, he’s probably as quick as he’ll ever be. Quickness, agility and balance are things which tend to peak at a young age. Meier, though, is a power player. In prior leagues, he could dominate play with his strength. He can’t do this in the NHL — at least not yet. Strength is an athletic attribute which tends to peak later in an athletic career. Meier, 21, is still years away from his peak.
Further Meier is showing signs of developing nicely. In recent weeks, the Sharks have put him on the same line as Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Both of the Joes are having down seasons. But they are showing more life with the addition of Meier to their line.
Meier had a career best game in the Sharks 6-2 road win over the rival Anaheim Ducks on Sunday. He was critical to the Sharks second, third and fourth goals.
Early in the second period, Meier’s strong backcheck freed up a puck which went onto the stick of Thornton, who bumped it forward to a streaking Kevin Labanc. Labanc sniped home the Sharks second goal to put the team up 2-0.
About ten minutes later, Meier did a terrific job screening Ducks’ goalie John Gibson on the Sharks third goal, putting the team up 3-0 in the middle period (to hear Meier’s screen described by a Ducks analyst, listen at the 14 minute mark). The Ducks scored late in the period and early in the third period to close the gap to 3-2 and make it a tight game.
Just 15 seconds after the Ducks closed the gap to a single goal, Meier drew a tripping penalty against Josh Manson. The Sharks scored on the ensuing power play to push the lead to 4-2. This change in momentum created by Meier’s effort carried over for the rest of the game, turning a close game early in period three into a blowout.
Meier also proved clutch in the weekend’s other game, a Saturday tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins. With San Jose trailing 1-0, Meier took a sweet pass from Pavelski and whipped a wrist shot past Pens goalie Casey DeSmith to tie the game at 1-1. San Jose won the game 2-1.
Meier had a major role in both Sharks victories over the weekend. Yet the shadow remains, Meier’s excellent efforts don’t rival Barzal’s best games. Barzal has a pair of five point games already this season. Still, its worth noting Meier’s efforts came in playoff-style games, with tight checking, low scoring and minimal open ice.
Meier now has ten goals and six assists for 16 points. It is a modest total. January, though, has been Meier’s best month in the NHL. He has six points, five at even strength, and is a plus-two. More importantly, he is making a difference in close games.
Last season and early into this season, Meier was often questioned about his shot selection and decision making. Some thought he might simply be struggling to adjust to the NHL game. Others were less generous, wondering if Meier’s game was ever going to adapt and his upside was a middle line winger with some sandpaper in his game.
There was some optimism stemming from Meier’s postseason series against the Edmonton Oilers. On the Sharks fourth line, Meier showed progress. Still, he couldn’t find the scoresheet and his line was generally unproductive, even if it more than held its own during play. But Meier’s slow start to this season brought back the doubters. He had just four points in the first two months of the season, and since it contrasted sharply with Barzal’s superb season, critics had plenty to justify their stance.
The Draft Class
The 2015 draft class has proven a strong one. Of the first eight picks, seven have delivered results which exceed Meier’s. So has the tenth overall pick Mikko Rantanen. And further down the first round of the draft, Barzal and Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks (46 points in 52 games) are both having stronger campaigns than Meier.
Some Sharks fans may have Barzal-envy – or frustration with Sharks general manager Doug Wilson for his selection of Meier over Barzal. But Meier is at an earlier stage of his development relative to Barzal. The longer term, over the next decade or so, is still wide open. The prognosis is looking good for both players. One reason to like Meier, perhaps even over Barzal, is Meier’s style seems suited for playoff style hockey.
At this point, Sharks fans can relax a bit about Meier and perhaps temper some of their criticism towards Wilson. Those fearing Meier as a major disappointment can take comfort in his recent play. He is making the adjustments needed to become a top-line NHL power forward. Comparisons are being made to former Sharks power forward Ryane Clowe and to my eyes, these comparisons have merit. Clowe, at his best, was a beast – the sort of matchup nightmare other teams often didn’t have an answer for. Meier has this potential; hopefully he avoids the pitfalls which shortened Clowe’s career.
The combination of an evolving Meier with the more established Tomas Hertl gives the Sharks a pair of power forwards few teams can match. Potentially for a long time. Sharks fans like to use the phrase “Timo Time” when Meier scores. He’s now scoring a bit, but also contributing in a variety of meaningful ways. And he’s still got a lot of room to grow. Mathew Barzal is casting a large shadow, but there are rays of sunshine breaking through. Timo Time is looking brighter every day.
• If there is a reason for Sharks fans to be upset with Wilson’s selection of Meier over Barzal, it is this: Barzal’s success makes it more likely the Islanders keep their elite center John Tavares off of the free agent market. And the Sharks definitely want Tavares, who can step into the role filled so well for so long by Thornton. And as long as we’re heavy on connections between the Isles and Sharks, Thornton is now 16th all-time in NHL scoring. He passed Isles legend Bryan Trottier in the Sunday game in Anaheim.
• Beginning with the Sharks January 15 win over the Los Angeles Kings, Thornton has been absent from the face-off circle (just one draw in the last five games). The left-handed face-off draws have been taken by Meier. Whether this is to give Thornton a break or to provide Meier some experience is unclear. Given Thornton’s offseason knee surgery and the stresses involved in the face-off circle, we speculated his role might go down. Up until five games ago, it hadn’t. At least for now, it has. As for Meier, he’s won 55% of his draws, albeit on a small sample size.
• The budding controversy over the Sharks number one goalie spot continues to get play. Back-up Aaron Dell’s strong play is driving it. With starter Martin Jones out for the second time this season with a “minor” injury, Dell is the interim starter. He was brilliant in the back-to-back games against Pittsburgh and Anaheim, earning first star honors in each game.
For a 15 game stretch earlier this season, ending with his first minor injury, Jones was the best goalie in the game. But he hasn’t looked right since. Historically, we’ve seen Jones have slumps and work his way out of them. We’ve seen him play exceptionally well for long stretches and steal games in the playoffs. These are good long-term attributes for a goalie.
Meanwhile, Dell is winning games, winning fans and making himself a lot more money come next season when he is slated for free agency. His numbers suggest he’s among the best goalies in the game, the eye test tells a similar story. It’s also common though, for less used goalies to have excellent stats. A quick check of the goalies with the top save percentage (Dell is fourth) shows four of the top five having played fewer than half their teams games.
It isn’t out of the question for Dell to become the Sharks top goalie if Jones continues to struggle. But a healthy Jones is a top goalie, even as Dell makes a strong case for himself. This controversy may be more in the minds of Sharks fans than in the minds of Sharks leadership. But unless and until Dell has his own struggles, it isn’t going away.