Sharks Have a Strong Core of Young Wingers for the Future

The San Jose Sharks have had many star wingers throughout their history. Franchise legends such as Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau were key contributors, and the team has even possessed stars such as Teemu Selanne, Sergei Makarov, and Dany Heatley briefly.

The Sharks are now transitioning toward a young core, especially in the Sharks’ wing depth seeing a massive youth movement on their roster. Although the organization has invested time and money in Evander Kane, the 29-year-old will need support. The Sharks, with their numerous wingers 25 and younger, appear set at this position for the present and future.

Current NHL Contributors

Although they are not consistent contributors, the Sharks have three talented young players who will hopefully become consistent top-six wingers. With Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Ryan Donato playing on the top two lines, but latter two have seen constant fluctuation throughout the team’s fourteen games.

Labanc has averaged the most ice time of the three. Notching a goal in his most recent game, he broke a 10-game goal-scoring drought. Six points in 14 games are not ideal, but his advanced stats indicate he has played well and deserves his consistent top-line spot.

Kevin Labanc RAPM chart via Evolving-Hockey.com

RAPM charts indicate how well a certain player performs above or below an average NHL player, which is represented by the x-axis. Labanc has controlled expected goals and shot attempts on offense well above average. The 25-year-old’s ability to control expected goals and shot attempts in the offensive zone, while remaining average defensively, proves he was deserving of his recent four-year extension.

Meier has seen increased ice time after a stint on the third line. The three-time 20-goal scorer has fewer goals this season, but his driving inside and maintaining of possession has greatly helped Tomas Hertl on the second line. He’s not scoring at his usual pace, with seven points in 14 games, especially considering he led San Jose in points last season.

Meier has shown flashes of brilliance, utilizing his frame and strength to drive play and create scoring chances around the net. However, he is a streaky player, and in nine of his 14 games this season he has been held without a point. Consistency is imperative for the 24-year-old to solidify his place in the top six, but we’ve seen in the last two seasons that he can score consistently at a high rate.

Donato has been an interesting acquisition. The former Minnesota Wild winger began the season on the third line, and recently rejoined that unit, but he has moved throughout the top nine in the team’s 14 games. His three goals are tied for fourth on the team, and he’s added four assists.

Donato is third on the team in expected goals, and his stint with Labanc and Logan Couture on the top line was electric in its small sample size. On the second or third line, his production dips. Although hailed as a diamond in the rough by some ahead of the season, he has mainly shown to just be a high-end third-line talent and a shootout specialist.

Young Roster Players

The Sharks have also received production from some of their less established NHL talents. Beginning with rookie John Leonard, who has a goal and two assists in his first nine games of NHL experience. After a Hobey Baker nomination and leading the NCAA in goals in 2019-20, the 22-year-old has shown he can contribute.

Looking at Leonard’s high goal-scoring total in his junior year does not quite show his play style. He succeeds in making smart plays, utilizing a high hockey IQ at such a young age, to make the best play in that scenario. This is best seen in his first NHL goal, where he found space and identified a short-side shot that went unseen by Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson. His attention to detail and his ability to make the smart play at a young age is an indication that he should be a solid contributor in the future.

The Sharks’ 2015 draft pick, Rudolfs Balcers rejoined the club after being claimed off waivers by the Ottawa Senators, and he has recently slotted in on the second line alongside Hertl and Meier. Only one assist through four games, he has provided energy and some speed to the Sharks middle six.

Balcers, 23, has never been a huge point producer, notching just 12 points in 55 games. He will still grow as a player given his young age, however does not have the largest toolset to project him in the Sharks’ top six for the future.

Noah Gregor has been fascinating this season and has seen 10 games so far, playing throughout the bottom six. The 22-year-old has experience as a center, but seems to excel more as a winger, given his speed being his strongest attribute as a player. His speed and shot have led to his two goals this season.

However, due to inconsistencies in his game, Gregor has been pulled in and out of the lineup by coach Bob Boughner. His goals per 60 minutes show he scores goal at the second-best rate on the team in relation to ice time, only under Couture. In my opinion, he warrants more game time as he can be a great depth producer currently and for the future.

Prospects Primed for NHL Next Season

The Sharks have a few prospects who deserve NHL looks as soon as this season, but all are sure to contend for roster spots in 2021-22. Beginning with Ivan Chekhovich, recently turning 22 and producing at a great rate in the KHL. For Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo he’s logged 31 points in 38 games. Using NHL-equivalency, an estimation tool comparing point productions in different leagues, one could expect him to score 54 points in a normal 82 game schedule.

Chekhovich’s .82 point-per-game rate in the KHL is similar to players such as Evgeni Kuznetsov and Kirill Kaprizov when they were in their 21/22-year-old seasons. The Russian winger also has two points in three international appearances. After a rough 2019-20 AHL season, his rebound in the KHL indicates the Sharks have a future impact scoring winger in their prospect system.

Joachim Blichfeld is another prospect off to a nice start to their season. With three goals and six points through four AHL games, the Danish right-winger has been quite impressive to watch. His exceptional shot is a large part of his game, using it to score and create chances for rebounds.

He and teammate Alex True have been standouts early in the San Jose Barracuda’s season, and complement each other very well on the team’s top line. If Blichfeld can continue this success, he could earn another NHL call-up. He did not produce any points in the NHL last season in his first three games, but his 32 points in 44 games on the worst 2019-20 AHL team in the league were impressive.

Last, it is important to talk about Jonathon Dahlen, who is in a weird situation, producing very well in the second division of Swedish hockey. In the Allsvenskan, Dahlen has 21 goals and 61 points in 36 games. He refuses to play in the top Swedish league or the AHL, wanting to lead his hometown club Timra IK to promotion to the SHL.

There is no denying Dahlen’s great skill, but how he will translate from a second division league to the NHL is uncertain. His disinterest to play in North America is a small cause for concern, but the Sharks have a high talent player who will likely compete for an NHL spot next season.

The Sharks Plethora of Options

Adding in Kane under contract through 2024-25 and a few talented wingers selected in the 2020 draft, such as Ozzy Wiesblatt and Danil Guschin, the Sharks are set for the future at wing. Kane and the previously mentioned nine options give the Sharks the good problem of having to decide between quality talents for next year’s wing core.

The Sharks have a plethora of options for the next five years and beyond to fill out their roster. While none project to be world-class talents, many of these wingers will be impact players in San Jose for many years.


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