In their prime, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, and Erik Karlsson dominated the NHL and were paid handsomely for their talents; $26.5 million or 33% of the San Jose Sharks’ salary cap space is dedicated to these blueliners annually. However, the Sharks are paying for them to be the stars they once were, but they’re all over 30 years old, struggle defensively, and have expensive contracts that cripple the team’s ability to sign quality blueliners to bolster the team.
Luckily, there is no better way to supplement aging and expensive talent than with young and inexpensive talent. San Jose has some decent defense prospects that will likely start the 2021-22 campaign with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL, but will warrant NHL opportunities in the next few seasons.
It looks like Sharks fans will have to temper the hype around Ryan Merkley being their best prospect and savior of the organization. A bold selection in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft, Merkley had succeeded offensively in the OHL, but his defensive effort and alleged character issues led him to fall to 21st overall.
In 2020-21, Merkley did not come as advertised. He finished the campaign playing in the AHL, showing the same defensive errors that he made in junior but without the offensive impact. The former London Knight had a goal and 11 points in 31 AHL games.
Those numbers need context, however. Head coach Roy Sommer never gave Merkley time on the first power-play unit, which would have helped his point production; the team’s top unit dominated at the end of the regular season on the backs of Sasha Chmelevski and Maxim Letunov. Merkley always found himself on the second unit, with less time and less talented players.
When I say Merkley’s defensive play needs work, it’s often not in the defensive zone. When he’s in his own end, or defending the rush, his skating ability and quickness are adequate enough to supress any high-danger scoring chances. He usually makes the correct read in his defensive coverage. It’s his carelessness that makes his defensive play worrisome.
Often, and especially during 4-on-4 or 3-on-3, Merkley can be overambitious and make risky plays in the neutral zone or the offensive blue line. These mistakes almost always lead to odd-man rushes against and prime scoring chances for the opposition. Flaws like that must be fixed before he makes the jump to the Sharks since they will not translate well to the NHL.
However, Merkley has the skating ability and quickness to be an effective player offensively at the next level. In his final junior season in 2019-20, he had 15 goals and 61 assists in 60 games. The Knights dominated the OHL at that time, and he was a large part of their success. He had to adjust to the pro level in 2020-21, and his offensive effectiveness will return with more experience; however, his defensive miscues must be fixed to become a quality NHLer.
While the Merkley hype train may be slowing, the anticipation for Artemi Kniazev should be gaining steam. The 48th-overall selection in 2019 just finished his last junior season with the Chicoutimi Sangueens and has already signed his entry-level contract.
With five goals and 18 points in 14 QMJHL regular-season games, the Russian blueliner increased his point production after starting 2020-21 in Russia due to the pandemic. In the QMJHL playoffs, Kniazev continued his success, potting four goals, and nine points in nine games.
Like Merkley, Kniazev succeeds off his skating ability and offensive instincts. However, unlike Merkley, Kniazev makes fewer miscues that lead to scoring chances. His offensive impact is not as dominant as Merkley’s, but he will be an effective player.
In the sixth round of the 2019 Draft, Doug Wilson Jr. selected his fourth defenseman, Santeri Hatakka, while heading up the Sharks’ drafting team. While I wouldn’t herald Hatakka as the same caliber of player as Merkley, Kniazev, or Mario Ferraro, but Wilson Jr. has clearly succeeded at drafting defenseman since 2017
Hatakka, 20 years old, recently signed his entry-level contract after finishing his second professional season with Ilves Tampere of the SM-Liga. While the jump from professional hockey in Finland to North America will be a big one, he has the makings of an NHL defenseman.
He is not offensive-minded, with a goal and seven points in 44 games this season, but his physicality makes him standout on the ice. His speed through the neutral zone is a huge asset offensively and defensively. His highlight reel goal at the recent World Junior Championships shows that ability clearly.
Now that he has signed with the organization, the Finnish defenseman will likely play with the Barracuda next season, if not the next few seasons. He will be a long-term project for the Sharks, but early returns are positive on the sixth-round selection.
Pasichnuk was a college free-agent signing during the last offseason. After leading Arizona State University and NCAA in points by a defenseman in 2019-20, he only had eight points in 32 games with the Barracuda.
He was given a chance in the NHL, slotting onto the third pairing in four games near the end of the season. At 23 years old, it’s difficult to see him in a prominent NHL role, and I think he’ll continue with the Barracuda for the foreseeable future.
Options for the Future
Luckily, the Sharks already have young defensemen playing prominent roles on their roster. Mario Ferraro shocked many by becoming a lineup regular last season and progressed into a top-pairing role in 2020-21. He’s just 22 years old and should be a top defenseman in San Jose for the future.
Nikolai Knyzhov, 23 years old, went from an average AHL defenseman in 2019-20 to Erik Karlsson’s defense partner this season. As a much more defensive-oriented player, he will be crucial to the team’s success moving forward, and the Sharks will surely draft more defensemen in the upcoming NHL Draft. In 2020, Wilson Jr. exclusively selected forwards, and San Jose will need a top defenseman in their system if Merkley’s confidence continues to flag.
Whether we see the Sharks draft Luke Hughes or Brandt Clarke early in the first round or with any of their eight selections, the organization will be in pursuit of a solid blueliner without a future dominant blueliner in their prospect pool as of now. They have some solid options among the group they have who will surely make an NHL impact. However, adding a top prospect in the 2021 NHL Draft could see this defense group of the future go from decent to dominant.
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!