Between Douglas Murray, Evgeni Nabokov, Joe Pavelski, Jason Demers, Justin Braun, and Kevin Labanc, the San Jose Sharks have become accustomed to late-round draft picks working out spectacularly. And, it’s not like the franchise historically whiffs at the top of the draft either. Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Josh Norris have always proven effective top-six forwards.
However for every Hertl success story, there’s the likes of busts Nikolay Goldobin or Mirco Mueller. That is because drafting effectively in the NHL is incredibly difficult. From 2004-2014, just under half of drafted players started an NHL game. However, only 4 percent of draft picks project to play over 200 NHL games. A draft pick is a dice roll, on a 25-sided dice, and scouting prospects worldwide try to make that dice roll just a little more likely to pan out.
Despite the low success rate, draft picks are still incredibly valuable. Hitting on a young talent makes for a couple years of cheap talent on rookie salary. Talent in the team’s top-four defense group or top-six forward core for less than $1 million is incredibly helpful in a hard salary cap league.
And, Doug Wilson, Jr., head of scouting and son of general manager Doug Wilson, has reinvigorated the Sharks’ playoff hopes through sensational selections in the last five drafts. In fact, every pick in his debut 2017 NHL Draft signed an entry-level-contract (ELC). Additionally, a pick from four out of his five draft classes is currently on the team’s NHL roster. Wilson, Jr. has revitalized the Sharks and their playoff hopes through his constant acquisition of talented prospects.
Even with a recent COVID-19 outbreak, the Sharks’ hot start continued with two wins against the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets and a close loss to the St. Louis Blues. That success is product of Wilson, Jr.’s revitalization of the team’s prospect pool.
Drafting Without Much Capital
The first thing to know about Doug Wilson, Jr.’s drafting style, is that he’s made great value on low draft capital. After all, the Sharks have missed the playoffs only two of his five years heading the team’s draft process. When that happened in 2020… the Sharks did not have their own first-round pick.
Yet, the Sharks have been able to make good on their selections. For example, the 2019 NHL Draft is regarded as possibly the worst draft under Wilson, Jr. It’s important to point out that the club did not pick until 48th overall, and only secured five selections in the draft. Despite that, the organization has already debuted both of those players with Santeri Hatakka and Artemi Kniazev chomping at the bit to make NHL impacts.
In 2017, Wilson, Jr.’s drafting debut, he made good on the 19th- and 49th-overall picks for players that are both sure to play over 200 NHL games. Josh Norris and Mario Ferraro are both stellar talents for a team’s first two picks in the draft.
Wilson, Jr. has drafted once in the top 10 — William Eklund at seventh overall. Without a high-draft pick, the head of scouting has selected three players that I would be shocked if they do not play 200 games — Eklund, Norris, and Ferraro. Between players who have already debuted in Hatakka, Ryan Merkley, John Leonard, and Jasper Weatherby, and highly touted prospects in Thomas Bordeleau and Ozzy Wiesblatt, there will be others to hit that mark.
Value Used in Trades
The Sharks’ hot start has been product of career resurgences of Meier, Couture, and James Reimer. However, other key pieces to the team’s hot start are product of great drafting from Wilson, Jr. Jonathan Dahlen, currently at four goals and six points through his first eight NHL games, has been an integral part of the team’s first line. With four, he’s tied for the league lead in goals by a rookie.
At the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, while the Sharks were firmly in a playoff spot, the team made an under-the-radar deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Their 2018 third-round selection Linus Karlsson was flipped for Dahlen. Karlsson, who turns 22 years old in a couple weeks, was perceived as equal value to a player with .75 points per game to start their NHL career.
Then there’s Norris, a 2017 first-rounder with eight points through nine games so far this season. After producing 23 points in 37 games on the 2017-18 Michigan Wolverines, he became an integral part of the infamous Erik Karlsson trade. His 2018-19 and early 2021-22 seasons have showcased Karlsson’s ability as a top NHL blueliner. As the Sharks’ current third-leading scorer, an alternate captain, and the NHL’s 2021-22 highest paid player, its essential that the Swede’s success continue, considering the production Norris has shown in his early NHL career.
Quick NHL Turnarounds
On Oct. 30, due to COVID-19 cases and Couture’s non-COVID-related illness, the Sharks defeated the Jets with a lineup costing about $42 million against the salary cap. Without Karlsson, Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Evander Kane, and others, the Sharks won.
Ferraro, now in his third NHL season, is a huge part of the team’s success. Still on a rookie salary, the youngster debuted as a 21-year-old and now progressed into a first-pairing defenseman, who played nearly 30 minutes against the Sabres two games ago.
While Eklund may have been the obvious choice at seventh overall for the Sharks, his selection by Wilson, Jr. has been massive to the team’s success. With four assists through nine NHL games, he’s contributed greatly to the team’s top-six forward group and revitalized power play. His entry-level contract will not be started, as Kevin Kurz of The Athletic reports — he will return to Djurgardens IF of the Swedish Hockey League prior to playing a 10th NHL game.
The other Swedish forward, Dahlen, has been in a similar role. With a higher goal and point production, he’s been key on the the top line and power-play unit in a smooth transition from second Division Swedish hockey to the NHL. His chemistry with Couture and Meier was stellar before illness impacted the three forwards.
Jasper Weatherby, after a strong conclusion to his 2020-21 NCAA season with the University of North Dakota, kept his momentum on route to winning a fourth-line center role. With two goals and four assists in 10 games, he’s been a pleasant surprise on the team’s power play.
Finnish 20-year-old Hatakka, day-to-day with an upper-body injury, skated in two games after serving as the seventh defenseman for the first seven games. He made great defensive plays, especially from speed allowing him to backcheck quickly.
Sharks’ 2018 first-round pick, Merkley, has now slotted into three NHL games. He scored a goal in his second game, a huge weight off his back. The prospect suffered an underwhelming start to his professional career last season, and will need to continue building his defensive game to stick in the NHL.
Kniazev was the latest San Jose Barracuda defenseman to take on NHL action. The 20-year-old played 12 minutes in his debut yesterday against the Blues, and will likely see more American Hockey League (AHL) time before making another NHL lineup.
Not yet slotted into an NHL game, Adam Raska went from a seventh-round pick in 2020 to borderline NHL bottom-sixer quickly. Currently in the Barracuda’s top six, the Czech winger nearly earned a place on the San Jose roster out of training camp. I would not be surprised to eventually see Raska in an NHL game this season.
Sharks’ Success Product of Wilson Jr.
The 6-4-0 Sharks have been 2-1 since their COVID-19 outbreak. If not for Wilson, Jr.’s drafting success, the Sharks could potentially be without Karlsson, Dahlen, Eklund, Weatherby, and half their newfound defensive depth. San Jose will look to get back on the horse tomorrow, taking on the New Jersey Devils. There could be players returning from COVID-19 Protocol, but the young depth of the Sharks may have already stolen spots from some long-tenured veterans.
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!