The San Jose Sharks had a horrific 2019-20 season, and the offseason has lacked a large move to respond to this. The team will have a few different goals throughout this next season, so let’s look at what I believe to be the Sharks’ plans for the new year.
Commit to a Plan for the Season
The Sharks, unfortunately, dealt their first-round pick, and could not select third overall. San Jose rarely misses the playoffs, nor finishes worst in their conference. The organization did make some additions to curb this tank for next season, but that could be the worst option.
In my opinion, the worst thing the Sharks could do is finish between 8-10th worst in the league. As indicated by this value chart, it is significantly better to select in the top 3-4 picks, in comparison to later in the first round. Especially when San Jose currently does not possess a true top tier prospect, the team must select highly to obtain one.
The issue for San Jose is they appear destined for mediocrity. Quality forwards such as Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, and Timo Meier and two former Norris Trophy-winning defensemen Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns still reside on the roster. There is a clear lack of depth at center and defense, which aided by lackluster goaltending, could prevent the team from contending.
The Sharks must receive rebound seasons from veterans and steps forward by young players in order to contend for the playoffs in a strong West Division. Similar to what the Minnesota Wild have endured for some time now, the Sharks appear to be cap-strapped to where they cannot add quality talent to contend but have enough talent that prevents the team from tanking for a high draft selection.
General manager Doug Wilson’s roster must contend for a playoff spot or tank for a high draft position that could allow a top prospect. A mediocre season where the team commits to neither scenario could be the worst possible season for the Sharks.
Strides by the Young NHL Players
Despite a lack of high draft position, the Sharks obtain some young quality talent, that will be poised to take strides in the NHL. The best is by far Meier. Selected ninth overall in 2015, he has three 20-goal seasons already under his belt. The Swiss winger is coming off a pretty inconsistent season, however, he still had 20 goals and led the Sharks in points. A year more similar to his huge 2018-19 season with 30 goals and 66 points will hopefully happen
Kevin Labanc is in a weird situation. He signed a one-year, $1 million extension after a huge 56 point season on the third line in 2018-19. With 14 goals and 33 points in 70 games last season, he did not build on prior success. Wilson still has a lot of faith in the 25-year-old, locking him down in a four-year deal worth almost $19 million. He will remain in the top six of the forwards, and on the powerplay, needing to improve.
Traded from the Wild, Ryan Donato joins the Sharks looking to gain much more ice time. He was tied for the team lead in even-strength goals last season, despite averaging about five minutes less of ice time per game. 14 even-strength goals would have ranked third on the Sharks last season. He will likely take on a second line winger role, or possibly the third line center, but definitely, more ice time and production are in store.
Sophomore Mario Ferraro will look to build on a rookie season where he saw over 60 games of NHL action. He will likely be given bottom pairing minutes again, and progress into taking top-four defenseman minutes. With increasing minutes, surely his two goals and 11 points will increase as well.
Prospects Develop in AHL
The last resolution for San Jose is to see improvements by the prospects now eligible to play in the AHL. This goal is headlined by seeing strides taken by Ryan Merkley to become an NHL-level defenseman. The Sharks’ first-round pick in 2018 was noted for his immense offensive talent, but defensive effort and possible attitude problems have loomed large. His coach for the London Knights believes both of Merkley’s negatives have improved and averaging an assist-per-game last season, the offense is still huge. While the NHL is a possibility this season, he likely begins the season in the minors.
Artemi Kniazev also will likely play in the AHL next season. Turning 20 on Jan. 4, he will be eligible to play in the AHL next season. San Jose’s 2019 second-round selection has been playing for Russia in the World Junior Championship and has one goal and four points through the first four preliminary games. He has looked adequate on a solid Russian blue line and will look to continue that success.
Sasha Chmelevski will look to improve in his second full AHL season. He struggled at the start due to injury but overall finished with 11 goals and 27 points in 42 games on a struggling Barracuda squad. The hope for Chmelevski is to eventually crack the Sharks’ top-six forward group, as he is one of their best center prospects, and a strong sophomore campaign would be excellent.
Wingers John Leonard and Joachim Blichfeld, while currently pushing for NHL jobs, will likely see AHL time. Leonard led the NCAA in goals last season and is appearing as a late bloomer and solid prospect. Blichfeld, the Barracuda’s lone All-Star in 2019-20, had 16 goals and 32 points in 44 AHL games and saw three NHL games. Both will be important to the Sharks’ future and hopefully gain quality AHL experience.
Probably most important, Alexei Melnichuk is a strong candidate to be the AHL starting goalie. After a stellar small season with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL last year, Melnichuk has not disappointed in 2020-21. On a lackluster Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo team, he has a .912 save percentage and the best goals-against average on the team. The 22-year-old Russian will look to impress in his first encounters with North American hockey.
These Goals Extend Past 2021
In a season of uncertainty, it is important that the Sharks set themselves up to succeed beyond this shortened season. The team must do what is best for the franchise currently, while strongly considering future ramifications.
With training camp underway, it is unlikely the team adds any substantial players to the roster. It is essential Wilson and head coach Bob Boughner determine if the current core of players is to make a run for the playoffs, or develop young players and focus on the future.