After a strong start, the 2021-22 San Jose Sharks are starting to look like the 2020-21 team. Regardless of if they make the playoffs or not, it’s probably not a team contending for the Stanley Cup. With this in mind, we’ll look to the future, and what better way to do that than to check in on the prospects in the Sharks’ system. I won’t be doing a full update; that will be during the summer when the prospect pyramid is revised. Instead, I’ll be highlighting some of the biggest prospects and how they’ve fared this season.
Dahlen has done so well that he has already graduated prospect status as he has played more than 25 NHL games. He came out of the gate hot, scoring eight points in his first 11 games, and was one of the early Calder Trophy candidates. He has cooled off significantly after missing three games in November with an upper-body injury. Dahlen now has just 14 points in 31 games.
Even though he has fallen out of the Calder conversation for the moment, if he can get his game back to where it was at the beginning of the season, he will be in the thick of it. Dahlen with Logan Couture and Timo Meier has been one of the best lines in hockey according to expected goals models like the one at Money Puck. He hasn’t had his usual linemate with Couture missing time due to COVID. If they are reunited and continue to be a dominant line in the NHL, Dahlen’s points certainly could return to early season form.
Sharks fans were lucky to see Eklund at all in the NHL, though most wish the fun could have extended past the nine-game maximum before burning a year off of his entry-level contract. Eklund played his way onto the team as he kept getting better and better, from development camp to the Rookie Faceoff Tournament in Arizona to the main Sharks’ camp.
After missing the 2021 World Junior Championship due to COVID, Eklund was primed to lead Sweden to a medal in 2022 before the tournament was canceled. There is a chance the tournament is made up later in the year, which would be great for him as he has not had the opportunity to dominate against his peers in quite some time. Eklund is the clear crown jewel of the Sharks’ prospect system, and his play this season has done nothing but reinforce that notion. The only question is just how good he can be.
The Sharks have been clear that they are interested in Eklund playing center for them in the future. He hadn’t played much center in the Swedish Hockey League, but he was playing down the middle for team Sweden at the World Junior Championships. In abbreviated action, he looked comfortable and put up three points in just two games. If he can continue to progress along these lines, he could be the next top-line center for the team, something that every organization covets.
Coe may be one of the fastest rising stars in the Sharks’ system. After being selected in the fourth round in 2020, he was in the awkward predicament of not continuing playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) due to its shutdown in 2020-21. He was forced as a 19-year-old to play in the American Hockey League (AHL), which is a huge jump for a developing player. Being a big player, Coe hadn’t quite grown into his frame and struggled with the San Jose Barracuda putting up just five points in 17 games. His Fenwick-for percent was only 41 in his time in the AHL, not a good play-driving number.
Coe is back playing at the correct level for his development with the OHL back up and running, and he is dominating. That Fenwick for that was poor in the AHL is up to 51 now. The points have following too, as of this writing, 56 points in just 32 games including 21 goals. He’s getting over four minutes of power-play time and shooting nearly four times a game. Large framed players tend to take a bit longer to develop, and at 6-foot-4, his development might not have completely caught up to his body yet. The young power forward looks like a one-of-a-kind player in the Sharks’ system, and I can’t wait to see how he progresses.
Ever since being drafted 21st overall in 2018, Sharks fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the dynamic rearguard. Merkley made his NHL debut this season due to the COVID issues the Sharks, like many other teams, have suffered. With such a limited sample size, it’s important not to draw sweeping conclusions. The fact that he has finally played NHL games does certainly bring excitement to fans of what might be to come. Not the least of which is, of course, his first NHL goal, which came in his second game against the Buffalo Sabres on the eve of Halloween.
Though his offensive prowess has never been questioned, scouts and pundits have always been critical of Merkley’s ability to defend. His Corsi-against per-60 minutes is better than both Sharks’ Norris Trophy winners Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson in his limited NHL time. The quality of competition for Merkley as opposed to Burns and Karlsson is definitely much different, but it’s just to say that it could be worse for the young defender.
Unless either Burns or Karlsson get moved in the next few years, it might be a while until Merkley gets the opportunity to run the top power play in San Jose. He should at least lock up third pairing duties as early as next season. According to Hockey Prospecting, Merkley’s offensive upside could be even higher than Karlsson’s, which has all Sharks fans absolutely drooling about the potential. It’s going to be fun to watch him develop with the Sharks.
One of the primary pieces in the return for Barclay Goodrow, Wiesblatt was the Sharks’ first round pick from 2020. He followed up a strong draft season, with a pretty good draft plus-1 season where he scored 28 points in 23 Western Hockey League (WHL) games and averaged a half-point per game in just six AHL games. He has struggled this season, scoring just 28 points in 29 games. It doesn’t help that his team, the Prince Albert Raiders, are the worst in the East Division of the Eastern Conference in the WHL.
Despite the depressed point totals, Wiesblatt is still driving play extremely effectively. His Fenwick-for per-60 minutes is 53%, the same as the 2020-21 season when the team was much better. Considering the team context, that can be viewed as an improvement. Next season, he should be in the AHL and have better players to work with. I think the hope of him being a strong offensive forward is pretty much gone, though he should be an effective middle-six, play-driving player for the Sharks when he arrives.
Tristen Robins and Daniil Gushchin
Robins could have been in the AHL this season due to his age, but he was sent back to his junior team, the Saskatoon Blades. His 40 points in 31 games this season are a positive sign of improvement. Due to injury, he had 23 points in 16 games in an abbreviated 2020-21 season. Robins probably has more offensive upside than Wiesblatt, but it remains to be seen if he can reach it. His play-driving numbers have dropped significantly this season with the Blades, as have his shots per game and expected goal numbers.
Gushchin should have been in the OHL in 2020-21, but with the OHL shut down, he was in the United States Hockey League for a third season. The league was not much of a challenge for him as he tallied 64 points in 46 games for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. So far, with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, he continued to show offensive prowess with 33 points in 24 games. When drafted, the biggest concern was about his size, Gushchin is now 5-foot-10, having grown a few inches since draft day. Still slightly undersized but not as small as he was when he was drafted.
Both Robins and Gushchin should be in the AHL in 2021-22, along with several other players in this article, which should be good for everyone, particularly the Barracuda. It’s interesting to compare them via Hockey Prospecting as they have identical star potentials and NHLer probabilities even though they were drafted 20 spots apart. Both likely slid farther down the draft than they should have, and the Sharks may have gotten two useful depth scorers from that 2020 draft.
Sharks fans have a lot to be excited about in the future. Several prospects will be joining the NHL team within the next year or two and should have a significant impact. None will likely have a bigger impact than Eklund, but it’s possible that some of the ones not mentioned here have a significant uptick the rest of the season. There is also the possibility of a reasonably high pick in the 2022 draft, which figures to be a draft with high-end talent.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife. Follow me @VictorNuno12