The Young Sharks: Questions, Question Marks and Answers

When a team looks at a position on the roster, it is often in this context: do I have a solution here or do I have a job opening? It could be a center in basketball, a second baseman in baseball, or a left guard in football. If I have the player I want for that position, I have a solution. If I don’t, I have a job opening.

Joe Pavelski has been strong of late. (BridgetDS/Flickr)
Joe Pavelski is a center that has been a winger in recent years. (BridgetDS/Flickr)

When a team looks at a player instead of at a position, the question is similar: is this player a solution for our team? It is a slightly different question, with a little more flexibility. For example, a hockey player targeted to be a center might find himself as a winger, depending on the need.

It is the player-based question that will be explored here with the focus on Shark players who are early in their NHL careers.

“Is this player a solution for our team?” There are 4 basic answers: ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘question mark’ and ‘it is too soon to ask’. The question mark means you genuinely do not know the answer. Most NHL players have spent time in this ‘question mark’ state, it is not inherently good or bad. However, it is important is to have players move out of the ‘question mark’ category as expeditiously as possible. Either move up or move down. Sometimes it can take a couple of years to get that answer, you hope that isn’t the case too often. Both the player and management are best served with a clear answer. It is not healthy for a player to stay in the ‘question mark’ bubble for too long.

Recent Sharks Posts:

[catlist categorypage=”yes” numberposts=3 excludeposts=this]

It is also possible to ask about a player before that player is ready. This is a correctable error. Acknowledge the mistake, then allow the player more time to develop. At the appropriate point in the future, ask the question again.

The San Jose Sharks stated that this would be a year when younger players get a chance to earn a job. This means asking and answering this core question for a number of players. For all the criticisms management has taken, they did stick to this part of the plan. There are 9 Shark players who entered the season with less 1 season’s worth of NHL games that will finish this season with over 20 games played this year. Combined, these 9 have already played over 400 games NHL games this season.

So which of those 9 players are a ‘solution’ for the San Jose Sharks, which aren’t and which ones remain the question mark category? Top to bottom, here we go.

Just Say Yes

  1. Melker Karlsson (Forward)
Sharks salaries
Melker Karlsson has been the Sharks best young player this season. (Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports)

Karlsson has proven to be both effective and durable. His skill set, honed primarily in Sweden, has proven a good fit for the Sharks, and would be good for just about any team. He has spent most of his time on the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. While he probably falls short of being a top line talent, he does fit in. He battles hard everywhere, including at the net. He isn’t shy when he gets there. Karlsson has 13 goals in 48 games, with just one coming on a power play. He has shown plenty and should have a nice career in front of him. At age 24, Karlsson is one of the older rookies on the list and his maturity is apparent. He is a solution.

  1. Tomas Hertl (Forward)

Hertl has taken a major step back from his explosive rookie campaign. How much of that step back can be attributed to the knee injury he suffered 35 games into last season? That is unclear, but it is safe to say he hasn’t been the same since. Hertl has played every game this year, which is a good sign. His goal production is down substantially, which is not a good sign. He has fewer goals this season than he did last, despite playing twice the number of games. Hertl does remain part of the solution, and has looked somewhat better in the second half of the season. He rises well above question mark status, even if this season has not gone particularly well.

  1. Chris Tierney (Forward)
sharks top prospects
Early season struggles did not kept Chris Tierney down (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Tierney made onto the Sharks roster early in the year and quickly proved he wasn’t ready. So it was back to Worcester for more seasoning. It paid off. Tierney’s initial 14 games, all in 2014, resulted in just 2 points and -3 rating.  In the 24 games he has played since re-joining the team full-time in February, he has 14 points and is +7. Tierney has shown that he has some of the best puck handling skills on the team — skills he uses instinctively and effectively. The Sharks have a number of players that like to finish and until Tierney showed up, the Sharks had only one forward who was a natural set-up guy. Tierney’s upside is considerable, where he fits in will be dictated by his all around game including things like face-offs and defensive play. He won’t unseat Joe Thornton as the team’s top playmaker at least until the aging Thornton actually starts playing like he’s aging. Playing the role of second line center, though, is very much within reach, I could easily see Logan Couture moved to a wing in order to get Tierney as his set-up guy. Tierney is a solution in an area the Sharks really need a solution.

Question Marks

  1. Matt Nieto (Forward)

Nieto didn’t exactly regress following a respectable rookie season, but he failed to show much progress and that is concerning. Nieto has a modest 25 points in 67 games, but his -10 is second worst among the team’s forwards. Nieto is 22, slightly built and moves quickly on the ice. If the roster guide is correct, he is the smallest player on the team. An eyeball test would not dispute that. It is possible the NHL game is too physical for him. As he ages and gets stronger, things could move in a positive direction. For now, he is on the bubble. In the short-term, finding him a line with strong on-ice chemistry is important for him. He was a question mark last year, trending up. He is a question mark again this year, but trend line has gone flat. He needs to become a better player to become a solution.

  1. Barclay Goodrow (Forward)
Sharks top prospects
Barclay Goodrow has played well enough to stay in the mix for next year. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

I recall watching a preseason game where many eyes were focused on the Sharks top draft pick, Nicolay Goldobin. The top pick looked good. His largely unknown and undrafted linemate, Barclay Goodrow, looked better. Goodrow has vaulted past expectations, but he hasn’t vaulted into solution territory. 57 games in, he has 12 points and is -1, mostly on 3rd and 4th lines. It is a promising start, nothing more, nothing less. Goodrow’s strength comes from his determination. He has some skills, but he plays like a player who knows he is on the bubble and is determined to make it. He doesn’t project to a high upside. A career similar to Tommy Wingels, a solid 2nd to 3rd line player who brings energy and intensity, might be the best case scenario for Goodrow. At 6’2” and 215lbs, Goodrow has the physical frame to battle and endure in this league. His current stretch of 25 games with just 3 points seems disappointing, but he has been a +5 in that stretch, suggesting his all around play hasn’t suffered. If he continues to improve and plays hard night in, night out, he could become a solution.

  1. Mirco Mueller (Defenseman)

With Mueller, the question is premature. Mueller simply wasn’t ready for the NHL game this season and the Sharks did no one a favor by having him on the roster (to be fair, some tricky contract issues had a role to play in it). It is easy to look at Mueller’s stat line (4 points, -8 in 39 games) and conclude that he wasn’t effective. The stat that jumps out at me most is this: Mueller had only 2 penalties all year that involved contact during play. That speaks to limited physical play, something that will need to change before he merits time on the Sharks NHL roster. Fortunately, Mueller has time. He was the only teenager on the Shark roster this season – just recently turning 20. He is 6’3” and still filling out his frame. The Sharks should not feel the need to rush him. There is no ‘if’ with Mueller, he will definitely get another chance, the only question is ‘when’. When that next chance happens, he will be a question mark.

  1. Alex Stalock (Goalie)
Stalock Sharks
Alex Stalock has seen insufficient opportunities to make his case this season. (Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE)

It is not good to have a player remain as a question mark when there was adequate opportunity to get an answer. This is the case with Stalock. He had a strong rookie year backing up Antti Niemi last year and a not very good year backing up Niemi this year. Backup goalies are tricky to evaluate, witness the work of Andrew Hammond, Devan Dubnyk, Cam Talbot and Eddie Lack. Each turned heads once they had the chance to play regularly. Stalock had 4 starts in two weeks early in the season and managed a solid 924 save %. He had 3 starts in 5 days in December and managed a .928 save %. An illness to Antti Niemi brought Stalock 3 starts in this past week and his save % was .929. Aside from those 3 small and hopeful stretches, Stalock has only started in the nets sporadically. Those results have not been good. It has been typical for Stalock to go about 2 weeks between starts. In March, he had a gap of 26 days between starts. Of the players discussed in this article, Stalock is the only player who will likely play less than 25 games for the Sharks this season. At 27, he is also the oldest, by nearly 3 years.

Antti Niemi is in the final year of his contract and it is not obvious that he should return. This is why management needed to have a sense of urgency in evaluating Stalock. Based on the lack of opportunity for Stalock, management may have already written him off. If so, he fits the ‘no’ category. He is, however, under contract for another season, so he may yet get a chance. Stalock was a question mark coming into the season, trending up. Based on his play this season and the Sharks usage of him, he is trending down. He remains a question mark. Barely.

Just Say No

  1. Matt Tennyson (Defenseman)
(Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
The Sharks handling of Matt Tennyson has been puzzling. (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

Matt Tennyson’s play might have put him in the ‘yes’ group, but since he has only been in the line-up for 1/3 of the Shark games, he would seem to be a question mark. Tennyson is best on the team in goals allowed per 60 minutes at 5 on 5 — by a lot. Why the Sharks have had him play most of the season in Worcester is beyond me. For San Jose, Tennyson has 8 points in 27 games and is even on the season. This is more than respectable for a rookie defenseman playing third pair minutes. Tennyson will turn 25 just after the regular season ends, so he is closer to a finished product than most of the players in this discussion (only Alex Stalock is older). Perhaps Doug Wilson thinks Tennyson is in the way of guys like Mueller and in-season acquisition Brenden Dillon. He has played better than either of them. Maybe Tennyson is in McLellan’s doghouse. Something is not right here. His play merited a fuller look. With Mirco Muller, the question is not ‘if’ he’ll get another chance, but ‘when’. This does not apply to Tennyson. Three times, the Sharks have had a roster spot open in recent weeks for a defenseman, twice the call has gone to Taylor Fedun and once to Karl Stollery. It seems unlikely that Tennyson will get another chance. For reasons that are not at all obvious, the team seems to have decided Matt Tennyson is not a solution.

  1. Tye McGinn (Forward)

McGinn played 33 games for the Sharks and had 5 points, mostly in a 4th line role. The answer from the Sharks has already come, McGinn was waived prior to the trade deadline.

Also worth noting: James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins and Tyler Kennedy (Forwards)

All were younger players with at least a few seasons under their belt. They need to be mentioned since the Sharks did make decisions on them as they were coming to the end of their contracts and potentially headed for free agency. All should be on NHL rosters for years to come. None will be solutions for the Sharks, as all 3 were traded shortly before the trade deadline.