Well, the San Jose Sharks have truly been a mixed bag of results recently. The team is yet to find themselves in the winner’s column since April 6, dissolving their prior four-game winning streak. Currently sixth in the Honda West Division, but seventh in points percentage, they sit in a very odd scenario.
San Jose sits four points from the fourth place Arizona Coyotes, and three points behind the St. Louis Blues with three games more played. With 10 games remaining, and a pretty tough schedule that includes four games against the Colorado Avalanche, the Sharks playoff hopes are bleak.
Equally as disappointing are the Sharks’ tanking hopes. Solely off points-percentage, the club would likely select eighth in the upcoming NHL draft. However, they are significantly better than the next worse team, the Detroit Red Wings, creating little incentive to continue poor results as they’re draft position cannot become better.
Regardless, the Sharks’ recent seven-game winless streak greatly harms the outlook toward their “roster reset.” Doug Wilson’s press conference near the halfway mark of the season announced the 2020-21 season was seen as an opportunity to reset the roster and build for next season.
However, the players that would be part of this future core of the Sharks, have struggled in recent games, and makes the build toward a successful 2021-22 season somewhat bleaker. Even after a mostly positive trade deadline in which Wilson exchanged salary cap space for assets, I think the club’s future outlook is grim due to the lack of production and trust in the cornerstones of the new San Jose core.
Meier, Labanc, Donato, and Leonard Are Bottom-Six Wingers?
Personally, when I hear, “roster reset,” I think of giving young players prominent roles in order to develop them into key parts of the team’s future. Entering the season, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc were on the first line, and appeared to be key contributors for the present and future. John Leonard and Ryan Donato were new to San Jose, and were likely to fluctuate between the second and third line during the season.
However, those players have struggled and as a result been demoted from the roles they held the majority of the season. Meier, 24-years-old, has recorded 9 goals and 26 points through 44 games. His 17-goal pace would be his worst performance in a full NHL season in his young career. Labanc, with 10 goals and 25 points through 46 games has had an overall positive season, maybe lacking the production anticipated after his large contract extension, but his controlling of scoring chances better than the majority of his teammates has been promising.
Leonard, in his first professional season, after leading college hockey in goals last year, has 3 goals and 12 points through 38 games. He has averaged just 11:25 minutes of ice time this season, making his production reasonable for his ice time, but recently has had a scoring slump and now resides on the fourth line.
Donato, also on the fourth line currently, has six goals and 20 points through 46 games. He averages 13 minutes of ice time, but been under 10 minutes four of his last five games. His season has been up and down, and recently his production has fallen, but at 25 years old he still has the ability to be an impact performer.
Currently, all these young wingers reside on the bottom two lines. And, they haven’t exactly played well and merited copious amounts of ice time. However, I feel Bob Boughner is quicker to judge these players than veterans such as Evander Kane, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau, and as a result they stay in the top six over the youngsters who are necessary in the Sharks’ building for future seasons.
Marleau, who recently broke the record for games played in the NHL, has just 3 points in his last 14 games, and was held to just two points in the entire month of March. In April, Evander Kane has the same amount of points, five, as Meier and Labanc, and fewer goals than Meier, despite averaging significantly more ice time than both. Many have speculated, including Boughner, that Couture is playing through injury and he has just three goals and seven points in March and April combined.
Why have these veterans not seen similar punishment as the youngsters despite having equal if not worse production? And, given Wilson’s announcement the club should focus on 2021-22, should the team not preference the young players so they develop into key contributors next season? Obviously, point production is not the only metric these coaches should consider when making the lineup, but I think it is easy to critique the staff’s hypocrisy in how they treat youngsters and veterans.
Are There Reinforcements in the AHL?
Nearly every aspect of the Sharks’ game has struggled recently. Through this seven-game winless streak, the team has averaged 1.6 goals scored per game, and averaged four goals against per game. Despite lineup adjustments and roster moves, the Sharks presently struggle, and luckily next season they could have some options that could jump from the AHL to the NHL.
The San Jose Barracuda presently sit fifth in their division, but are above a .500 record. This is much better than last season where they finished dead last in the AHL, and the prospects that looked to develop in the professional league largely struggled. However, this season has been quite different and I would speculate some young AHLers warrant more NHL looks as early as this season.
Joachim Blichfeld and Alex True have had quality seasons. Blichfeld, 22, has produced 22 points through 25 games, and sits tied for sixth in the AHL with 12 goals. True, 23, has 20 points in 26 games with the Barracuda and in my viewings has looked quite solid as a net front presence and penalty-killer. Both Danish forwards slotted into two NHL games this season, and look to be earning more looks with the Sharks.
Midseason additions to the Barracuda such as Scott Reedy and Ivan Chekhovich have been impressive. After 17 goals and 34 points in 43 KHL games, Chekhovich returned to the Barracuda and struggled to produce at first, but now has a four game point streak and holds two goals and six assists through 15 games. Reedy broke out in his senior season at the University of Minnesota, scoring at a point-per-game rate. He now has three goals in 10 AHL games. Reedy does not have his entry-level contract begin until next season, so he cannot join the Sharks in 2020-21, but Chekhovich could.
Sasha Chmelevski has produced half-a-point per game this season, but also took time to adjust after the 10 months off playing. He joined Blichfeld and True on the top line for a few games this season and was able to dominate opponents before now returning to playing center.
Ryan Merkley has been a mixed bag of results. With one goal and nine points through 24 games, he has not been able to outdo his defensive woes as much as he had in junior hockey where he produced a point-per-game. His puck-moving and overall offense are yet to kick into high gear, although he contributes on the power play quite well. In the defensive zone, his reading of opponents tend to be good. But his irresponsible play in the neutral zone and at the offensive blueline can often lead to odd man rushes against.
Josef Korenar and Alexei Melnichuk have both made NHL debuts in net, but neither really impressed in the AHL. With a 5-1-2 AHL record Korenar was the better goalie with the Barracuda, but his .898 save percentage was not sensational. His two starts with the Sharks have been decent, and he’s gotten more comfortable the more he plays. Melnichuk has a 4-6-3 record with a .867 save-percentage that must improve. His last two seasons in Russia were great, but his adjustment to North America has been bumpy.
I could see perhaps Blichfeld, Chekhovich, and eventually Merkley being future Sharks, but overall the team does not have any stellar talent to supplement the Sharks’ for next season.
Reset Overall Going Poorly
The Sharks are not receiving the production they need from young players that would incline me to think the Sharks will significantly improve next season. And, this will be coupled with regression from older players such as Couture, Kane, Brent Burns, and Erik Karlsson. I don’t think the young players entering their prime will be able to help enough to make the Sharks consistent as the veterans regress as they play through their early-to-mid thirties.
And, the Sharks will not receive a highly touted prospect for their troubles. The team likely selects anywhere from 8th-12th overall, pending a draft lottery win. Players selected here likely do not make the NHL just after selection.
And, I’d argue the coaching staff is a large part of my bleak outlook on the Sharks. Last season, Mario Ferraro played large minutes at the end of the year, and this increased responsibility saw him develop into a great defender. Even despite poor results, the club chose to keep developing their young skater, knowing it would pay off in the future.
The same cannot be said about this season, where the coaching staff has largely refused to develop their talent. This is a difference of opinion I have with the coaching staff on how to approach skilled yet slumping players. The team plays Meier, for example, with lesser teammates and ice time and expects him to turn around his play an warrant more ice time. I would suggest increasing his ice time and the skill of his linemates in order to develop him into the first line winger they need him to be, regardless how his production looks this season.
Overall, the Sharks need more from their young talent to indicate the future years of this team will be promising, especially as these youngsters will need to overtake the spots of regressing veterans.