The Sharks' season is over. Their lengthy offseason has begun.
As one of the seven teams not included in the expanded playoff format NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday, San Jose can now turn its full attention toward getting the franchise back to the postseason. The Sharks ranked dead last in the Western Conference when the season was indefinitely paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now that it has been made official, they finished with their worst points percentage (.450) since Doug Wilson took over as general manager prior to the 2003-04 season.
It's a crucial offseason for San Jose, and Wilson knows it. On a conference call with reporters Tuesday, he laid out the Sharks' top priorities and expectations moving forward. He made it clear that missing out on the playoffs is unacceptable, but remains confident the team can turn things around in short order, much like San Jose did in 2003-04 and 2015-16.
Among the Sharks' top priorities this offseason, Wilson emphasized the importance of having a "great" draft.
"This is going to be a really important draft," Wilson said. "We've got seven picks, but three in the top 60, and this is a really deep draft for what we're looking for. Getting a pick in the first round, having the other two seconds, we know we'll come out of it with some good players."
As things currently stand, the Sharks' top picks in the 2020 NHL Draft consist of the Tampa Bay Lightning's first-round draft pick (acquired in the Barclay Goodrow trade), their own second-round pick and the Colorado Avalanche's second-round pick (acquired in the Brenden Dillon trade). As Wilson mentioned, they all fall within the first 60 overall selections.
There's always the possibility that one or more of them could be traded, but it sounds like he has a specific position he plans to target.
"We have three very important picks," Wilson continued. "We need to add, if you ask me, probably forwards."
Forwards, huh? That really shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the Sharks tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the fourth-fewest goals per game this season (2.57), not to mention half of their starting defensemen are locked up long term. Luckily for San Jose, the strength of the 2020 draft arguably is its collection of forward prospects, led by presumptive top pick Alexis Lafreniere.
Barring a major trade, the Sharks won't have any chance to acquire Lafreniere or any of the other cream-of-the-crop prospects. Tampa Bay enters the expanded 2020 NHL playoffs tied for the best odds to win it all with the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. The Lightning's first-round pick can't fall within the first 15 overall selections (since they're not subject to the qualifying round), and based on expectations, it's likely to land somewhere near the end of the first round.
So, which forward prospects expected to go near the tail end of the first might be Sharks targets? While there are far too many possibilities to account for, there are at least three that would seem to be legitimate candidates based on San Jose's prior draft history.
Dylan Holloway, C, Wisconsin
Holloway, 18, is old for his age, having just missed the 2019 draft cutoff by eight days. He was coming off a very strong season at the time, having been named MVP of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but struggled somewhat in his first collegiate season this year on an underperforming Badgers team. Holloway is a talented skater, and at 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, possesses great physical skills. He was one of the most anticipated prospects in his class coming into the year, but his struggles could cause him to drop in the first round. He would be a steal if San Jose acquired him in its latter stages.
The Sharks have had decent luck drafting centermen from the University of Wisconsin. Former Badger Joe Pavelski was a seventh-round pick in 2003, and we all know how that turned out. As a prospect, Holloway is both younger and held in much higher regard now than Pavelski was at the time, and while it would be unfair to expect anywhere near the same amount of production, it sure would be a poetic selection.
Lukas Reichel, LW, Eisbaren Berlin
NHL.com: No. 11 ranked European skater
ESPN: No. 23 overall prospect
Elite Prospects: No. 51 overall prospect
Depending on what rankings you look at, there is going to be plenty of variance in Reichel's draft projections. Some are captivated by his creativity and skills at just 17 years of age, while others are concerned about his physicality. His production, however, is hard to ignore. He averaged 0.57 points per game for Eisbaren Berlin this past season, the fourth-highest scoring average by an under-18 player in the history of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany's top hockey league. Two of the three players that posted a higher U18 scoring average eventually were drafted by the Sharks.
In 1996, San Jose selected Marco Sturm in the second round. In 2001, the Sharks made Marcel Goc their first-round pick. One of them certainly panned out better than the other, but the German connection cannot be ignored.
Noel Gunler, RW, Lulea (Sweden)
NHL.com: No. 9 ranked European skater
ESPN: No. 30 overall prospect
Elite Prospects: No. 19 overall prospect
Another prospect with a wide range of evaluations, Gunler, 18, offers a skill set that doesn't match up with his draft projection. Why? There reportedly are lingering character and maturity concerns, which ultimately prevented his inclusion in multiple international tournaments. The deeper it gets into the first round, however, his skill and production likely will be too good to pass up. That should sound familiar, especially as it pertains to the Sharks' most recent first-round pick.
Ryan Merkley was regarded as one of the top overall talents in the 2018 NHL Draft, but he slipped all the way to the No. 21 overall pick in the first round due to character concerns, at which time San Jose snatched him up. Merkley unquestionably now is the Sharks' top prospect, and his OHL production insists they got quite a steal. Though Gunler plays an entirely different position, he might offer a similar kind of value.