Sharks get first look at surprisingly forward-thinking Blue Jackets blueline


Sharks get first look at surprisingly forward-thinking Blue Jackets blueline

Sharks defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are a traditional ‘shutdown’ pairing, but their Friday night counterparts are anything but. 

That’s not surprising, since Blue Jackets blueliners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, who have spent more five-on-five minutes together than any other defensive pairing according to Corsica, play for notably forward-thinking head coach...John Tortorella? 

"A shutdown pair in our game now is being up the ice, having the puck and doing things in that end, so you're not defending all the time," Tortorella told last week

That John Tortorella? 

Yes, that Tortorella. The man who’s long decried the use of puck possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick while repeating any number of hockey cliches to anyone who would listen, now sounds like he’s angling for the keynote at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference. 

Tortorella’s backed up his words with forward-thinking usage this season. Jones and Werenski have started 57.89 percent of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, the highest among the 27 pairings that have played 500 five-on-five minutes together as of Thursday.

Plus, the pair has seen a pretty even distribution of top competition, as the following charts from Micah McCurdy’s show. 

The blue bars in the upper right of both graphs represents each player’s ice time against opposing forward by their position on the depth chart. The red ‘stairs’ represent league-average ice time against that depth chart position. 

Jones and Werenski, then, play above-average minutes against opposing teams’ top-four forwards, and slightly below average-to-average time against the rest of the group. All things considered, Tortorella distributes their minutes pretty evenly. 

By contrast, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer uses Braun and Vlasic in a far more traditional sense. Out of the previously mentioned 27 pairings, the two started the lowest percentage of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone (38.68) as of Thursday.

Braun and Vlasic also see much more time against their opponents’ top forwards.

That’s above-average or average time against a team’s top-six forwards, and below-average minutes against the bottom-six. Unsurprisingly, Braun and Vlasic see a lot less of the puck in their offensive zone (47.23 percent adjusted corsi-for percentage) in five-on-five situations than Jones and Werenski (55.47 percent). 

Why the stark difference? It likely comes down to personnel.

Columbus also relies on Jones (33 points, second on Columbus) and Werenski (22, fifth) for offense, while Vlasic and Braun’s assignments free up San Jose’s best offensive defenseman and leading scorer, Brent Burns. The Blue Jackets have a celebratory cannon, but they don’t have the same firepower aside from their shutdown defenders that the Sharks do. 

Don’t call it an advanced stats awakening just yet, as San Jose’s still a better possession team than Columbus. Nevertheless, it’s surprising to see the notoriously old-school Tortorella ahead of the curve on anything, let alone player usage. 

In a season where an expansion team sits atop the Western Conference standings, though, maybe we should have expected it. 

Sharks Day 2 2018 NHL Draft Tracker


Sharks Day 2 2018 NHL Draft Tracker

First round (No. 21 overall): D Ryan Merkley, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Third round (No. 87 overall): C Linus Karlsson, Karlskrona HK / Karlskrona Allsvenskan (SHL/SuperElit)​

Fourth round (No. 102 overall): C Jasper Weatherby (BCHL)
Sixth round (No. 176 overall)
Sixth round (No. 182 overall)

* * *

After the Sharks made one of the biggest splashes of the first round on Friday, San Jose entered the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft with six picks, two each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds. 

Here all of the Sharks' pick from Saturday.

Position: Center
2017-18 Team: Karlskrona HK / Karlskrona Allsvenskan (U-20)
Height: 6-1
Weight: 179 lbs
Age: 18
Shoots: Right
Selection: Third round (No. 87 overall; Acquired from Arizona in exchange for No. 114 and No. 145 picks)
Scouting report: The Sharks traded a pair of picks, a fourth rounder and a fifth rounder, to select the second-leading scorer from Sweden's under-20 league last season. Karlsson tied for the league-lead in goals (27), and even played 13 games with Karlskrona's pro team as an 18-year-old. He was one of the biggest risers in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, finishing the season as the service's No. 39 European skater, after being unranked at midseason. 

2017-18 Team: Wentachee Wild (BCHL)
Height: 6-4
Weight: 216 lbs
Age: 20
Shoots: Left
Scouting report: Weatherby led the BCHL with 74 points (37 goals, 37 assists) in the regular season, and in postseason scoring with another 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in just 20 playoff games. He was a man amongst boys in more ways than one, as he's the oldest draft-eligible BCHL player and the biggest, according to EliteProspects. He's committed to play at the University of North Dakota this fall.

This story is being updated. 

Sharks select D Ryan Merkley with No. 21 overall pick in 2018 NHL Draft


Sharks select D Ryan Merkley with No. 21 overall pick in 2018 NHL Draft

The Sharks swung for the fences with their first-round pick, selecting high-risk, high-reward defenseman Ryan Merkley with the No. 21 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft on Friday in Dallas. 

Merkley, 17, is a self-described offensive defenseman and the second-youngest player eligible for the draft. He scored 67 points (13 goals, 54 assists) in 63 games with the OHL's Guelph Storm this past season, the sixth-highest total of any draft-eligible defenseman that played in Canadian major junior this season, according to EliteProspects, 

NHL Central Scouting ranked Merkley as the No. 21 North American prospect in its midseason rankings, but Merkley fell to No. 45 in its final rankings. That was in large part due to perceived maturity issues and concerns about the defensive side of his game, which didn't stop San Jose from taking a chance on the talented teenager. 

"Well, we came in here looking for difference makers," San Jose general manager Doug Wilson told NBCSN's Kathryn Tappen. "We've replenished our team, we've got a lot of core guys, but the game has changed a little bit. Finding a puck-moving defenseman like this that's got a little risk-reward to him, we think it's a good thing for us."

Merkley was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the OHL Draft in 2016, and scored 55 points in 62 games in 2016-17. He won the Emms Family Award as the OHL's rookie of the year, and only one other draft-eligible OHL defenseman (Evan Bouchard) scored more points than him this season.

But, he was also benched for a period following a public argument with his coach in a game that season against the Sudbury Wolves, according to the Sudbury Star, and was healthy-scratched at another point. This past season, he was suspended three games in February for an ugly, retaliatory slash in a game against the North Bay Battalion. 

"Scouts say the immaturity comes in many forms – overstaying shifts, cavalier disregard for playing defence, being petulant or ill-tempered when things don’t go his way, being hard on teammates, clashing with coaches and a perceived lack of self-awareness and accountability," TSN's Bob McKenzie wrote in his final draft rankings. 

Merkley is well-aware of his reputation. He told reporters in Dallas that his agent, CAA's J.P. Barry, set him up with a sports psychologist to work on the mental side of his game. He said that he thinks he needs another season in the OHL before he's NHL-ready, in order to "show everybody that I can grow up and I can get better defensively."

"I know what I've done wrong," Merkley said. "I know my my bad habits. I know the areas I've got to work on for sure if I want to get to the next level [and] I've got to fully invest in getting better and showing everyone what I can do and completing my all-around game."

It will probably be a while before Merkley plays a meaningful game in San Jose. He'll need to put on more muscle and will likely require some seasoning before suiting up with the Sharks, but Wilson said that the blueliner was simply too good of a player to pass up on.

"He's got high-end talent," Wilson said. "We think he's a difference maker. We spent quite a bit of time with him, and we believe in him."

Merkley is the first defenseman the Sharks picked in the first round since 2013, when San Jose selected Mirco Mueller No. 18 overall. His selection fills a hole in the organization's pool of defenseman, after the Sharks traded prospect Julius Bergman on Tuesday and placed veteran Paul Martin on unconditional waivers in order to buy out his contract on Friday.