Everyone knows the right side of the San Jose Sharks’ defense core. Erik Karlsson, two-time Norris Trophy winner and the NHL’s highest-paid defenseman, has enjoyed a major bounce-back season. He still suffers from the injury bug, but is still a massively effective player. Brent Burns, another Norris Trophy Winner, also remains in teal. The bearded veteran has been extremely successful even in the latter part of his career. Since 2012-13, he’s never produced under a point-per-game, and even has put up multiple 20 goal seasons from the blue line.
But, those stars are aging. At 31 and 36 years old respectively, the offense-heavy blueliners will need some support from left-handed and more reliable defensive skaters to support the veterans, and those players will have to be cheap. After all, Karlsson and Burns’ collective cap hit takes up 24 percent of the team’s cap space.
Luckily, the Sharks have found some younger talent to help those veterans. Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have regressed from their times in the top four, and will soon be replaced by the new faces of San Jose’s defense.
Currently an alternate captain, Mario Ferraro has become a fan-favorite and go-to defensive player for the Sharks. While his role this season on the first pairing and primarily facing opposing top lines has been a little too large for him, he’s still a key top-four defenseman for the team’s future.
With just over eight-and-a-half weeks left in the season, the likelihood of his return from injury is a little bleak. Either way, this season was key in his development. He’s sported a letter on his chest for the first time since captaining University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2018-19 and has averaged 23:19 of ice time so far.
His results, however, have not been as promising as previous seasons. During his rookie season in 2019-20, he had a marginally positive impact on the Sharks’ controlling of expected-goals. That is pretty incredible, considering that was the worst roster he was a part of, as the team finished third-last that season.
In an increased role where he played over 22 minutes per-night in 2020-21, Ferraro flourished. He and Burns’ pairing controlled 51.5 percent of expected-goals despite a sizable jump in ice time and quality of competition from the previous season. At such a young age, many expected him to take another step forward.
With injuries to many of the defensemen under him, the 23-year-old was forced to play an even larger role, one that has proven too big for him. At even-strength, Burns and Ferraro have been outscored 34-28 which is expected as they control 46.8 percent of expected-goals together. They were also significantly outshot and were put on separate pairings ahead of Ferraro’s lower body injury.
Ferraro is a pivotal part of the Sharks’ future and is a certain top-four mainstay for years to come. In a slightly smaller role next season, barring the health of his teammates, he should continue to impress.
One of the few bright spots from the Sharks’ season so far, Jacob Middleton may be playing himself into a decent extension in the upcoming offseason. His first full NHL season has seen massive strides since his days as a mainstay on the San Jose Barracuda in the American Hockey League (AHL).
In extremely limited minutes and games in 2019-20, Middleton shined in his 86-minute sample size on a pairing with Tim Heed. That third pairing controlled 60 percent of expected-goals together in their sheltered minutes. Last season, he returned to the Barracuda, where he had been an alternate captain since 2017-18.
Middleton then won a role on the NHL roster coming out of training camp in 2021-22. Alongside Karlsson, who has been nothing short of stellar this season, he has put up fantastic results. Even without the Swedish star, he’s still had an extremely positive impact on the team.
Middleton and Karlsson have been the Sharks’ best pairing this season, controlling 56 percent of expected-goals together. Albeit a flawed statistic, I think it is worthwhile to note that he is the only Sharks’ defenseman with a positive rating in the plus/minus column this season, coming in at a plus-6. He, along with Ferraro, will be restricted free agents this offseason.
The Russian blueliner was trying to rehab a nagging lower-body injury in 2021-22. However, it was eventually determined he would need surgery with about a two-month recovery window. This was a devastating blow to the Sharks, after Nikolai Knyzhov was a pleasant surprise in his top-four role last season.
Four months later, head coach Bob Boughner still has little information as to when the 23 year-old could return. Middleton has taken over his role alongside Karlsson, which Knyzhov previously held in 2020-21.
In that role, Knyzhov was a little outside his comfort zone. With that pairing on the ice, the Sharks controlled 44 percent of expected-goals, while being only marginally outshot. However, in more limited roles, Knyzhov was one of the team’s most effective defenseman.
In much more limited sampling, Knyzhov was stellar in third-pairing roles alongside Simek and Vlasic. With either veteran joining Knyzhov, San Jose controlled over 60 percent of expected-goals. At a young age, it’s likely that he could develop into a quality second or third-pairing guy for years to come. Like Ferraro and Middleton, he will also need a new contract this summer.
In his first year of North American hockey, having played in the Finnish professional league for the last two seasons, Santeri Hatakka has become one of the Sharks’ more exciting defensive prospects. A 2019 sixth-round selection, he transitioned quickly to the smaller ice, and even started the season as the team’s seventh defenseman.
The 21-year-old is a mobile two-way defender who missed some time due to injury. With 20 AHL games under his belt, he will possibly return to the Sharks’ lineup soon in place of the injured Ferraro and Karlsson.
In a seven-game sample size, where he played in the NHL due to four Sharks defensemen testing positive for COVID-19, I thought he was impressive. His most common defense partner was Nicolas Meloche, and they were pretty average in controlling expcected-goals together.
Hatakka was especially impressive in his debut against the Winnipeg Jets, where he frustrated his opposition, namely Nikolaj Ehlers, with solid defensive plays. With more minutes, either at the NHL or AHL level, he should continue to progress into a serviceable player for the Sharks.
Another 2019 draft pick, Artemi Kniazev has had a harder adjustment to the AHL than most. Which makes sense, while Hatakka was facing men in the Finnish pro league, Kniazev was dominating the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). As an undersized and offense-leaning player, he will have a much different development path than him.
After being held scoreless in his first 16 AHL games, Kniazev put up two goals and 10 points in his next 20 games. In place of an injured Hatakka, Kniazev even skated in an NHL game with very limited minutes and finished a minus-2 on the night.
The most unproven of the left-handed options moving forward, Kniazev will have plenty of time to develop behind the above defensemen. Though, given his offensive results at the junior level, the second-round pick certainly carries the most scoring potential of the names mentioned.
The Future of the Sharks’ Blue Line
All these players have warranted NHL minutes and are still progressing given their younger age. Besides Middleton, who is 26 years old, all these blueliners are 23 or younger. The future of the Sharks’ blue line will be molded by these mostly defensive defensemen who will hope to propel the games of Karlsson, Burns, and eventually Ryan Merkley one day.
What do you think of this young group of defensemen? Let me know in the comments!
All stats are according to MoneyPuck.com as of 2/28/2022
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!