When Joakim Ryan suits up in his first NHL road game against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, he’ll do so in a familiar place.
Ryan, a New Jersey-born Swede, played for the Devils’ youth program and nearby Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in high school. In fact, he’s already played at the Prudential Center, skating in the state championship game with CBA in 2009.
He’s not the only one due for something of a homecoming, as the Sharks may see a familiar face line up on the opposing blueline.
This is the Sharks’ first matchup against New Jersey since trading 2013 first round pick Mirco Mueller ahead of June’s Expansion Draft. Mueller was once considered the future on the San Jose blueline, a smooth-skating defenseman with size to boot.
The Swiss defender never fulfilled his potential, in part because his development was rushed from the start. He made the NHL roster as a rookie in 2014-15, almost by default. Other than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the only defensemen ahead of him on left side of the depth chart were a far past-his-prime Scott Hannan and regular scratch Matt Irwin. Such was the nature of the Sharks’ “step back” that year.
Mueller finally got regular playing time, albeit in the minors, during his second professional season. By then, he was pushed down the organizational depth chart by the team’s acquisitions of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak, and the development of Dylan DeMelo. David Schlemko’s signing last summer kept Mueller there for most of 2016-17, but it was Ryan and Tim Heed that ensured Mueller’s NHL future would lie elsewhere. The Swedes surpassed him, and emerged as perhaps the AHL’s best defensive pair in the process.
It’s fitting, then, that Ryan and Heed will be in the lineup tonight, and Mueller may not, as the fresh start he needed hasn’t quite panned out. He’s averaging a career-high 18:44 in ice time, but has been scratched in three of New Jersey’s seven games, including Thursday night’s overtime win in Ottawa.
So Ryan comes home to New Jersey under much happier circumstances than Mueller will reunite with the Sharks. One prodigal son returns, and the other is simply trying to save face.
It’s still early in his Devils tenure, of course, and Mueller may yet emerge as a regular on the New Jersey blueline. His Sharks reunion, though, will serve as a reminder of what once was, what could have been, and what is now San Jose’s future on defense.