Doug Wilson Jr. has headed the San Jose Sharks’ entry draft team since 2017. In those four drafts, the current head of scouting has selected four defensemen, all of whom have been quality selections, especially given the time they were selected.
Mario Ferraro was selected in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He stepped into the lineup in the 2019-20 season and has already shown he’s a capable, defensive-oriented, top-four defenseman. Ryan Merkley, a late first-round pick in 2018, struggled with the San Jose Barracuda in 2020-21 but is arguably the organization’s best prospect and will develop into a solid right-shot offensive defenseman.
Artemi Kniazev, a 2019 second-round selection, will join the Barracuda next season after he’s played the last few seasons in the QMJHL with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. He finished last season with 18 points in 14 regular-season games. In the sixth round of 2019, the Sharks selected smooth skating two-way defenseman Santeri Hatakka, who recently signed his entry-level deal and will play AHL hockey in 2021-22.
The Sharks will surely be looking at a defenseman in 2021 after the team opted to only select forwards in 2020. At THW, we have speculated San Jose likely selects a goalie or forward with the seventh overall pick. With no second-round selection, the team will be looking outside the top 60 for their blueliners of the future.
Wilson Jr. has selected one defenseman outside the first two rounds ever, Hatakka. All the blueliners he has selected seem to be pretty similar molds, usually between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot, and have decent if not great mobility. Fitting that mold, the Sharks have some nice options later in the draft.
Options on the USNTDP
Luke Hughes and Sean Behrens were both USNTDP blueliners selected in the first two rounds of our THW Mock Draft. However, I was surprised to see Aidan Hreschuk not selected. The 5-foot-11 blueliner mainly succeeds by imposing himself physically on his junior opponents.
Hreschuk is a developed talent on both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. In the USHL he tallied six goals and 37 points in 50 games. His scoring rate was narrowly under Hughes’ and Behrens’ rates, however, his power-play time was significantly less than the other two.
The left-shot defenseman usually uses his skating ability to aid his defensive efforts. As Tony Ferrari of Dobber Prospects notes, “he is able to cut down angles, lead with the blade of his stick, and use body positioning to thwart attacks. He can read a rush and understands where the attack is going, cutting it off and slowing the opponent.”
An option with a little less hype on the USNTDP would be Roman Schmidt. He would bring a different flavor of defenseman to the Sharks’ prospect pool, standing at 6-foot-6 and 209 pounds. Despite his large frame, he moves pretty well, and he’s characterized by scouts as a slightly above-average skater.
Schmidt would join Merkley as the only right-shot blueliner selected by Wilson Jr. However, he lacks the offensive ability that the other Sharks’ defenseman prospects possess. In fact, Schmidt had the lowest points-per-game of a USNTDP skater that drew into more than 12 games. He had three goals and 14 points in 45 games.
In the defensive zone, Schmidt excels off his mobility and large reach to pressure opponents in front of the net, on the boards, and off the rush. His frame allowed him to easily muscle off opponents and regain possession. In limited scenarios, he showed capability in leading rushes offensively. His play in the offensive zone often saw his shots often hitting opponents’ shin pads and could use work.
Both these players would likely need to be selected with the Sharks’ third-round selection. Both are smooth-skating defensemen who already have developed defensive games and would be great adds to San Jose’s prospect pool.
Aleksi Heimosalmi screams potential Sharks defenseman in my opinion. The Finnish blueliner excels defensively because his mobility can allow him to close gaps on defenders with ease. His superb skating allows him to join the rush and quickly transition from the defensive zone into a threatening offensive attack. His team in the Liiga, the top professional Finnish league, struggled mightily, and as a result some of his point tallies and shot share statistics. JYP was third-worst in the league, winning just 17 of 59 games.
Heimosalmi ranks comfortably in the top 100 of most prospect rankings, meaning the Sharks likely would need to select the smooth-skating defenseman in the third or fourth round. Wilson Jr. has only selected once out of Finland when he took Hatakka in 2019, and I would not be surprised for the Head of Scouting to return to Northern Europe in 2021.
Another option on that same Finnish team is Valtteri Koskela. A prospect with less attention than his above teammate, the 5-foot-10 defenseman split the season between the junior and top professional level. He averaged about half a point-per-game in the junior level, then that rate dropped to about .25 at the Liiga.
His skating is also brilliant, using it to quarterback offensive transitions, walk the blue line on offense, or step up and interrupt the opponent’s transition game. In his own defensive zone, he could get knocked off pucks a little easier than one would hope, but that’s somewhat common for a draft-eligible already playing in professional leagues. I would expect the Sharks to target him in the third, fourth, or fifth rounds.
I will also mention a personal favorite of mine, Jiri Tichacek. A little on the smaller side at 5-foot-9, his mobility really allows him to stand out on his second division Czech professional team. He played a top-four role and was never given chances to flourish offensively, displaying his defensive ability even further. He has a fair share of issues, and the Sharks could realistically wait until the seventh round to select him, but he fits the archetype for a player San Jose would be intrigued by.
Other European defenders, I speculate the Sharks would consider in rounds 3-7 due to the mobility would also include Jimi Suomi, Hugo Gabrielsson, Victor Sjoholm, and over-ager Ruben Rafkin. All these European blueliners fit the mold of what Wilson Jr. looks for in defenseman in their offensive upside and superb skating.
Sharks Will be Defense Hungry
The current core of Sharks defensemen includes 31-year-old Erik Karlsson, 34-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and 36-year-old Brent Burns. At this point in their careers, these blueliners likely only decline and lose speed as their lengthy contracts expire. The best way to lessen the impact of slow, aging, and expensive blueliners is to succeed on draft picks. This brings in quick and young defensemen on entry-level deals.
San Jose has eight selections in the 2021 NHL Draft, however, seven of those selections will be outside the top 70. Historically, the franchise has succeeded in late rounds, even with a defenseman, snagging Jason Demers, Douglas Murray, and Justin Braun later in drafts.
Given San Jose drafted no defenseman in last year’s draft and stocked up on forwards, I would be shocked if Wilson Jr. selected less than two blueliners. The Sharks will have numerous options in the later rounds, especially if they look at their previous archetype of defenseman in smooth-skating and skilled eligible blueliners.
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!