Martin Jones rebounds from benching to lead Sharks to fifth straight win

Martin Jones rebounds from benching to lead Sharks to fifth straight win

Through the first few months of the NHL season, the spotlight on the San Jose Sharks has spent a lot of time focused between the pipes. Even after Martin Jones’ game turned around at the start of December, his critics were back out in full force last Sunday when he was pulled in the first period after giving up three quick goals to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Clearly, Jones needed a turnaround performance on Tuesday when Peter DeBoer sent him back out to start against the Minnesota Wild. No. 31 did just that, standing tall as he notched his first shutout of the season and helped the Sharks extend their winning streak to five games with a 4-0 victory.

“Everyone has tough games, and obviously that was a tough one for him,” Logan Couture said, referring back to Sunday’s game in Chicago. “But we have all the confidence in the world in (Jones) – that he was going to rebound. He played very well tonight.”

Things did look dicey at the start of Jones’ return to the crease on Tuesday when a long shot by Minnesota's Eric Staal rang off the post. While the puck didn’t find the back of the net, it was a scary sight given Jones had given up three goals on four shots just a couple nights before. (Namely that rough game-opening marker by Alex DeBrincat that trickled right past the netminder’s pad.) After that chance by Staal, however, Jones stood on his proverbial head to keep the Wild’s trickiest shots from finding the back of the net.

DeBoer said he knew from Jones’ body of work over the last couple of seasons that he could have a rebound performance like he did. “I knew right after the Chicago game I wanted to come right back with him,” the Sharks coach said. “In my time with him, he’s always responded after a game like that [against Chicago] with a big game. Every time. I was confident we were going to get that type of game out of him tonight.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Sharks also put up a strong defensive effort in front of him. There’s no denying that stretching a detailed game out over a full 60 minutes and not giving Minnesota any room made Jones’ job a bit easier to do. It’s the kind of defensive effort the Sharks admitted they lacked earlier in the campaign.

“There’s no doubt he was left exposed by the game in front of him,” DeBoer said of San Jose’s woes from earlier in the season. “I think everyone is better than early in the season.”

Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say Jones’ game is coming around at the right time. The Sharks will now head home to host the Winnipeg Jets, who are without a doubt the hottest team in the whole league right now. San Jose might’ve been more concerned heading into a contest with the Central Division juggernaut back in November when they were giving up more goals than they were scoring.

Martin Jones’ successful rebound performance, though, showed the Sharks are ready to take on anybody.

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

When it comes to the Sharks' top prospects, 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Merkley is in a tier unto himself.

San Jose selected Merkley with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft after he slipped due to character concerns. His talent, however, has never been in question and was too good to pass up.

Merkley impressed during his participation in the Sharks' rookie camp last September, and just completed what is likely to be his final season in junior hockey with the OHL's London Knights. With 15 goals and 76 points, he was the OHL's second-highest scoring defenseman, and his 61 assists ranked fourth-most in the entire league. London's season was brought to a premature conclusion due to the coronavirus pandemic, at which time the Knights sat in first place in their conference with a 45-15-2 record. San Jose's top prospect played a key role in their success.

"Ryan had a very good year," Sharks scouting director Doug Wilson Jr. said last week on a conference call (H/T The Athletic's Kevin Kurz). "In his career, every single season he scored more goals, he had more assists, he had more points and his plus-minus got better all four years in the OHL. I’m very excited about Ryan."

Always an offensive standout, Merkley is a great skater with advanced vision and tremendous passing ability. Though he has added more than 10 pounds in weight since the rookie camp, he's never going to be an imposing physical specimen, and his defense definitely is the area where he'll need to improve most. The Sharks, however, have someone specific in mind for him to learn from and model his game after.

"The biggest thing with [Merkley] was he’s never going to hit guys like Brent Burns or Radim Simek, he’s going to play defense more like Erik Karlsson," Wilson Jr. added. "If we can get him to use his stick to angle guys off in the neutral zone and then get the puck going north faster, that’s how he’s going to play defense. I think that’s what you saw this year with him."

Karlsson has long been regarded as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and deservedly so. He signed an eight-year contract extension prior to the currently-paused season, so he should be around for quite a while. Merkley has a long way to go to get on Karlsson's level, but he already has been studying the former Norris Trophy winner for some time now.

"Yeah. He’s not the biggest of bodies, but he’s a great skater and closes up the gap well, makes that great first pass," Merkley told Kurz about Karlsson. "I do think there are some similarities and things I can look up to. Obviously, he’s one of the best in the world. So [Wilson Jr.] and [the Sharks staff] were big on me watching him and watching the way he defends. It’s just (about) growing, getting better and getting more reps."

In addition to Karlsson, Merkley has another Sharks' defenseman to learn from in Mario Ferraro. They roomed together during the rookie camp, and Merkley made sure to follow Ferraro's extremely successful rookie season.

"For sure, it was awesome for him. I was excited for Mario," Merkley said. "He got a good chunk of NHL games. He’s a workhorse. I’ve never seen anybody (take care of) the body and (do) what he does off the ice. It’s incredible. He never stops moving out there, his work ethic is incredible. He’ll play a long time in the league because there’s not many that take care of their body like that or work as hard as he does. It’s awesome, something I can look up to and follow."

[RELATED: What NHL's potential 24-team return could mean for Sharks]

Ferraro projects as a future top-pair defenseman and it wouldn't be surprising if he eventually was involved in the captaincy. The Sharks are hoping Merkley turns out just as well.

And, if they end up with another Karlsson ... that's the dream.

NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end


NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end

The NHL and the players' association took a big step toward returning to the ice, but it could mean the Sharks' 2019-20 season is over.

The NHLPA announced Friday night that it has "authorized further negotiations with the NHL" on a 24-team return to play format.

As the players' association noted, the sides still have more details to work out before the league officially can resume the season that was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While no specifics were provided on the teams that would be allowed to resume playing, the Sharks are not one of the 24 best teams in the NHL standings.

The Sharks possessed the worst record in the Western Conference (29-36-5; 63 points) and the third-worst record in the NHL when the season was suspended.

[RELATED: What went wrong for Sharks]

If this is how the Sharks' season concludes, it will put an end to a campaign in which the team entered with high expectations.

Last season, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks again were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this season, but the departure of several veterans, combined with poor play early in the campaign, led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer after 33 games. Bob Boughner took over as interim coach, but San Jose skated to just a 14-20-3 record under him.