Last season, I wrote a similar piece previewing the San Jose Sharks and the reasons fans should remain optimistic entering the 2020-21 season. After all, under general manager Doug Wilson, the team had never missed consecutive postseasons, and the club did make additions that improved the squad.
And there was still positive results from last season. Returning from season ending injury, Tomas Hertl returned to his status as a quality NHL centerman. Youngsters Mario Ferraro and Nikolai Knyzhov locked themselves into the distant future of the Sharks’ top-four defense core.
However, last season was obviously not a success for the franchise. Erik Karlsson, Kevin Labanc, and Timo Meier, among others, were not able to recreate their form from the 2018-19 season. The Sharks’ additions only improved them from 29th in the league to 25th, and the team has yet to show it can return to the elite status it held in 2018-19.
Nevertheless, I will still try to reason why their perceived poor outlook could be misplaced, and mention the reasons Bay Area hockey fans still have positives to look for in the upcoming season.
Sharks Have Young Talent with Great Potential
When John Leonard won a top-six spot to enter the 2020-21 season, his only competition for the spot at the time was Ryan Donato. Due to inconsistency and lacking elite status, neither were mainstays in the top of the lineup and their large minutes were more product of the team not having any young talent warranting a large role.
But now, there is youth throughout the prospective Sharks’ lineup. And this talent has warranted these roles. They have seen the likes of Kevin Labanc, Noah Gregor, and Leonard not even feature with the team’s “first-team” preseason squad. These youngsters have defeated competent teammates on route to winning large roles.
The clearest of these being recent first round selection William Eklund, whose may have carved out a first line and top power play spot on the roster. In part due to Evander Kane’s absence, the Swede has produced five assists through four preseason games, and not moved from Hertl’s wing in the team’s top-six.
Another Swede with a large role entering 2021-22 is Jonathon Dahlen. After torching the second division of Swedish hockey for two seasons, Dahlen has enjoyed a successful training camp on route to slotting alongside Timo Meier and Logan Couture in the top six.
Jasper Weatherby has quickly transitioned from under-the-radar prospect to the team’s likely fourth-line center. Finishing his college season at the University of North Dakota, the Sharks lured the youngster away from captaining his college team in his senior year, and has impressed enough at the Rookie Faceoff and training camp to win an NHL spot.
After two seasons as a professional Finnish hockey player, Santeri Hatakka has emerged as a likely bottom pair defenseman for the NHL club. Aided by Knyzhov’s week-to-week status, the blueliner will likely slot into the third defensive pair. When Knyzhov returns, his NHL status is uncertain.
Still in training camp battles, Jeffrey Viel and Adam Raska continue vying for fourth line jobs. Newly 20-year-old Raska especially has come out of nowhere for the Sharks, after being drafted 201st-overall in 2020. Both youngsters are high-energy forwards looking to defeat veteran Matt Nieto for an NHL job.
Even if the Sharks miss the playoffs, seeing the future of the Sharks on display on a nightly basis should supply optimism of the team’s future.
Better Goaltending Keeps Sharks in Games
Wilson bought out Jones’s three remaining seasons under contract due to his consistency over the last three regular seasons to sport a .896 save-percentage (SV%). Now, the Sharks have two goalies with much better outlooks.
For reference, last season an average goalie had a .903 SV%. San Jose, thankfully, now has two goalies above that mark to enter the next season. Acquired via trade and free agency, the team has now healthily addressed their worst position group from the last three regular seasons.
James Reimer, the presumptive backup, finished with a .906 SV% in 2020-21. However, he lost playing time due to Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek’s quality performances and played 22 games. Per MoneyPuck, he saved -.288 goals above expected per 60-minutes. While under average, it’s a sizable improvement upon Jones.
Adin Hill, 25 years old, has gone from third-string goaltender of the Arizona Coyotes to the likely starter in San Jose. Traded ahead of the expansion draft for a second-round pick and Josef Korenar, Wilson has identified Hill as the team’s starter of the future.
In 19 games of 2020-21 NHL action, in relief of injured Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, Hill flashed a .913 SV%. He was an average goalie according to MoneyPuck’s SV% above expected models. In JFresh’s model, Hill is best identified by his ability to stop high-danger chances. The youngster rarely has poor starts, which should keep his team in games throughout the season.
Currently, Hill is dealing with an injury to his wrist that was sustained in practice. However, the Sharks remain optimistic he will start the Oct. 16 season opener.
The impacts of switching from underwhelming goaltending for three seasons to average netminding could improve the Sharks enough to compete in their division.
Strong Depth on the Barracuda
The club’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, will have numerous depth options to support the NHL club should that be needed. Finishing fourth in their division as a .500 team, the Barracuda will have a massive boost of quality talent to enter their next season.
Leonard, who had a goal and an assist in two AHL games last season should be a dominant figure in his second professional hockey season. At 23 years old, he should continue to grow with large AHL minutes and compete for an NHL spot throughout the season.
Just returned to the Barracuda, Sasha Chmelevski will look to improve upon a dominant conclusion to his 2020-21 season. He had 17 points in his last 15 AHL games, including nine points in his last four games, before receiving another NHL call-up. With versatility to play center or winger, the 22 year-old should see more NHL time soon.
Noah Gregor and Joachim Blichfeld were released from Sharks’ training camp pretty early after both receiving NHL shots last season. Blichfeld, the Barracuda leader in points and goals last season, and Gregor, who had five goals in 30 NHL games, are always options for call-ups throughout the season should the team look for depth scoring.
On the blue line, the Sharks will have numerous offensive-minded options, if needed. The first being Ryan Merkley, whose underwhelming first professional season could be attributed partially to and irregular preseason and training camp, lacking spot on the top AHL powerplay unit, and pairing with big-bodied and not offensively-talented Jaycob Megna.
Merkley was second in points among Barracuda defenseman, behind Robby Russo who did benefit from the team’s top power play unit. I expect Merkley to eventually receive NHL action this season.
Merkley’s main competition for AHL power play time is fellow youngster Artemi Kniazev. The 20-year-old will make his professional debut this season, exiting the Chicoutimi Sagueneens where he scored five goals and 18 points in 14 games.
Both these offensive defenseman were overtaken by the two-way and smooth skating Hatakka, but they all possess potential to make NHL debuts soon. Jacob Middelton, Brinson Pasichnuk, and Nicolas Meloche have all made NHL debuts, and are always young depth options for the Sharks.
How Optimistic Should Fans Be?
In a division where there’s a huge drop off from the Vegas Golden Knights to the other teams, anything is possible. In a full 82-game schedule, there will be less chance for randomness and hot streaks to carry teams into surprise playoff appearances.
With a roster filled with young players, it’s hard to predict how the season will turn out. Eklund, Dahlen, Weatherby, and Hatakka will likely take on key roles despite never slotting into an NHL game. So, their impacts over an 82-game season is unkown.
Even if the Sharks miss the playoffs, the influx of promising players and improved goaltending should show the team in a more positive light than their recent seasons. What do you make of my reasons for fans to remain optimistic? Let me know in the comments!
Josh Frojelin is a young writer from the Bay Area. Josh grew up as a Sharks fan, being introduced to hockey by his father. He is now attached to his phone, waiting to hear the latest in hockey news. In addition to writing, Josh loves theatre, and his corgi Rocky.