Sharks

Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

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USATSI

Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

It wasn't that long ago that the Sharks had a talent advantage over just about every other team in the NHL. However, due to a combination of departures, injuries and the general passage of time, that advantage has been significantly diminished, if not evaporated altogether.

And, barring some one-sided trades, it's unlikely to be built up again in short order.

In addition to the fact that San Jose has an aging roster, it doesn't have many obvious solutions waiting on deck. The Sharks don't have a first-round pick in the upcoming 2020 draft, and their minor-league system lacks a stable of sure-fire future NHLers. If that wasn't frightening enough, their prospect pool pales in comparison to almost all of their current division rivals, according to The Athletic's Scott Wheeler.

Wheeler has been unveiling his 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings over the last month, and while he is generally higher on the Sharks' prospects than most other evaluators, that assessment is relative. Of the 31 teams in the league, Wheeler ranked San Jose's prospect pool No. 25 overall. Of all the Pacific Division teams, only the Calgary Flames' prospect pool was ranked worse (No. 26).

Now for the scary part.

The Los Angeles Kings were ranked No. 1 overall, while the Anaheim Ducks (No. 6) and Vegas Golden Knights (No. 10) also fell in the top 10. The Vancouver Canucks came in at No. 13, and the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars were ranked No. 15 and No. 18, respectively. 

Yikes.

Most other teams in the division have caught up to San Jose this season, and based on the prospect pool rankings, they're well situated to shoot right on past the Sharks in the near future. Wheeler's rankings are based on both volume and quality, but projected skill level is paramount. That's where San Jose gets dinged.

[RELATED: Sharks' Burns advises Ferraro how to better protect himself]

To be eligible for Wheeler's prospect pool rankings, a player must meet three criteria:

  • Be younger than 23 years old (for goalies, under 24)
  • Not currently in the NHL (with rare exceptions)
  • Either signed to an NHL contract or selected in the entry draft, without the expiration of either of those rights

For each team, Wheeler ranked a minimum of 15 prospects and a maximum of 20, all of which he believes have "even a remote chance at the NHL." Starting at the bottom with the No. 31-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets and moving upward, the Sharks were the first team listed with more than the minimum 15 prospects (they have 18). Wheeler is impressed by the depth in San Jose's system, but admits he's "not in love with many of the guys near the top."

"The result is a lot of interest, without a ton of fascination," Wheeler summarized. "A lot of players who have tools that might help them into depth roles but overall very few I’d bank on as top-of-the-lineup options."

In addition to ranking the prospect pools across the league, Wheeler also broke down each team's respective prospect pool into tiers. San Jose was split into four, with a description of each:

Tier 1: Ryan Merkley

"On talent and upside alone, Merkley is the clear No. 1, with the ability to play higher in the lineup and make more of an impact offensively than any other prospect in the organization." 

Tier 2: Joachim Blichfeld, Jonathan Dahlen, Sash Chmelevski, Artemi Knyazev and Noah Gregor 

"A really strong group of five prospects who I think have a chance at being middle six contributors."

Tier 3: Alexander True, Lean Bergmann, Jeremy Roy, Ivan Chekhovich, Yegor Spiridonov and John Leonard 

"Another group of six players with legitimate NHL hopes."

Tier 4: Nicolas Meloche, Jayden Halbgewachs, Vladislav Kotkov, Karlis Cukste, Timur Ibragimov and Dillon Hamaliuk

"A final group of prospects that all have intriguing NHL qualities and an outside chance."

While Wheeler's prospect pool rankings paint a somewhat bleak picture for the Sharks, it could get considerably brighter soon, depending on what happens at the upcoming trade deadline and in the 2020 entry draft. With the playoffs all but out of the picture, San Jose has every reason to see what it can get in return for anyone who could provide more value to the organization elsewhere than if they remained with it.

The Sharks don't have a first-round pick right now, but there's a decent chance they could acquire one, or at least add some more selections or prospects to their arsenal. If the near future is going to be brighter for San Jose than the present, the Sharks will not only need some of their current prospects to quickly take steps forward but also acquire new ones that will raise the overall talent level in the system.

Could Joe Thornton leave Sharks for Maple Leafs in NHL free agency?

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Could Joe Thornton leave Sharks for Maple Leafs in NHL free agency?

Joe Thornton has said his 22nd NHL season won't be his "last hurrah," and the longtime Shark can sign elsewhere this summer as an unrestricted free agent. 

Thornton wasn't traded to a contender to pursue his first Stanley Cup before this week's deadline, and winning a ring will be top of mind on July 1. San Jose currently has the second-worst record in the Western Conference, so could Thornton be tempted to leave the Bay Area this summer? 

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman predicted Wednesday in his "31 Thoughts" column that the Toronto Maple Leafs "will be a factor" if Thornton decides to sign elsewhere. 

"I can’t confirm this, but I believe the Maple Leafs considered adding him now," Friedman wrote Wednesday. "Two things stopped it: 1) their decision not to make short-term fixes after the Carolina loss, and 2) are they really a legit contender if they have to go through Boston or Tampa Bay or both? ... Thornton would have eased the tension right now, but the organization wants to see how everyone top to bottom reacts and performs. Next season is a different story."

The Maple Leafs' last loss before the trade deadline came at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes and an emergency backup goalie, and the notoriously tranquil Leafs fan base and media circuit reacted about as calmly as you'd expect. Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas was a cooler head, however, opting not to make any major moves while the Leafs hang on to the Atlantic Division's last playoff spot. 

Toronto should make the Stanley Cup playoffs, but its path out of the Eastern Conference looks daunting this year and beyond. The Atlantic boasts the NHL's two best teams in the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, and both are as well-built for success in the 2021 postseason as they are this spring. Thornton could help the Leafs close the gap, but he'll turn 41 in July and can't do that by himself. 

If all goes well this offseason -- and that's still an if -- Thornton's current team would have a clearer route to a Cup. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has made it clear he intends to build a contending team for 2021. San Jose restocked its draft cupboard ahead of the trade deadline and could use that newfound ammunition to build around a core that Wilson believes in. The Pacific Division is by far the NHL's weakest, too, and the teams ahead of the Sharks all will face a salary-cap crunch of some kind this summer. The opportunity is there to get back into contention that might not have been if San Jose was in another division.

[RELATED: Marleau faces familiar foe in first game with Penguins]

Thornton, for his part, told The Athletic's Kevin Kurz that he believes in the Sharks' ability to contend next season. 

"I think we’ve seen -- maybe not to this extent -- but I think last time we missed the playoffs (in 2015), we go to the Cup final (in 2016)," Thornton told Kurz on Tuesday. "We have pieces here that are the backbone of this team, and I hope that’s the case going forward.”

Thornton is at the stage of his career where winning is more important than anything else. As long as he believes he can do that in San Jose as his career winds down, it's hard to envision anything else. 

Watch ex-Shark Patrick Marleau get ready for Penguins debut vs. Kings

Watch ex-Shark Patrick Marleau get ready for Penguins debut vs. Kings

Patrick Marleau has played in more regular-season games against the Los Angeles Kings throughout his 22-year NHL career than any other opponent. He'll face them for the 116th time Wednesday night, but in a big change from most of the prior 115, it won't be as a member of the Sharks.

Marleau currently exists as San Jose's all-time leader in points (1,102), goals (518) and games played (1,551), but he won't be able to add to those totals throughout the remainder of the current season as he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to Monday's NHL trade deadline in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick. He grew up rooting for Pittsburgh, and will make his debut with his new club when the Kings host the Penguins at Staples Center on Wednesday night.

If there's one thing missing from Marleau's Hall of Fame resume, it's the absence of a Stanley Cup. He's in a much better position to pursue that with the Penguins the rest of the way than he was with the Sharks, and Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford is looking forward to adding Marleau's veteran presence to what is an already talented group.

"He can still really skate, and as you get older that's important for you," Rutherford said after acquiring Marleau. "He should be a good fit for us."

"His desire to get that ultimate prize is going to be big for him because time is running out."

[RELATED: Why Sharks GM Wilson a big winner at NHL trade deadline]

With 1,715 career games played, Marleau has Gordie Howe's NHL record of 1,767 in his sights. He'll have to return for a 23rd season in order to eclipse that target, and despite the trade, there is certainly good reason to believe he would be open to a third stint in San Jose.

Until then, Sharks fans are going to have to get used to seeing one of the franchise's all-time greats wearing colors that aren't teal -- again.