Sharks GM Doug Wilson explains why top prospects are still in minors

Sharks GM Doug Wilson explains why top prospects are still in minors

SAN JOSE -- There has been an overwhelming reaction to the Sharks' current group of promising prospects since training camp started back in September.

The offseason featured the organization boasting about how happy they were with the young talent coming up the pipeline. Yet at the end of training camp, the majority of those players were reassigned to the San Jose Barracuda. Since so few players have appeared with the big club since the season started, fans have been under the impression that not enough of these promising players have "stepped up."

But as Sharks' general manager Doug Wilson explained in an exclusive one-on-one with NBC Sports California, giving San Jose's crop of rookies enough time to develop at the AHL level is imperative.

"It was never a forgone conclusion that they would make the (NHL) team," Wilson said. "We look at this as a platoon system rotating people through."

New faces such as Lean Bergmann, Noah Gregor, and Jonny Brodzinski have rotated through the Sharks' lineup over the first month of the regular season as the team has dealt with injuries and suspensions. But even while filling roster spots for the NHL team, Wilson says the Sharks aren't looking to deviate from their game plan of getting the rookies plenty of work in with Roy Sommer and the Barracuda coaching staff.

"We've altered (our plan) a little bit with the suspension to Evander, injuries to Marcus (Sorensen) and other injuries that we have suffered," Wilson said. "But these young players are the key to our future. Roy, Mike Ricci, Evgeni Nabokov, Jimmy Bonneau, Michael Chiasson -- what they do is tremendously important to make sure the players are ready to play on a regular basis. And then when they come up, they get put in roles that they can succeed in."

When you look at how some of San Jose's most recent young guns have come up through the pipeline, it makes more sense as to why the organization isn't in a rush to bring any of their prospects up too soon.

"You take a look at our history, at Timo Meier's journey, Tomas Hertl's journey, Kevin Labanc's journey ... I think we do a really good job and we aren't going to alter that approach,": Wilson said.

Of course, it can't be left out that the Sharks do have one newbie who is impressing on the big stage. Rookie defenseman Mario Ferraro made the opening night roster and, despite the Sharks' rough start to the season, has visibly elevated his game with every opportunity he gets.

"Mario has played hard every night," Wilson said. "He reminds me a lot of when Radim Simek came in last year."

With so much season left, there's a strong possibility more prospects will get the chance to play with the big club as the Sharks need players to pencil into spots vacated due to injuries or suspensions. But in the meantime, they'll be getting plenty of work in at the AHL level so they'll be ready for the task of regularly playing at the NHL level.

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Bergmann, who has six points in five games for the Barracuda, is a perfect example of that kind of player.

"Lean plays with a high compete level and we know it's just a matter of time before he's ready," Wilson said. "But we want to make sure he grows as a player before then, too."

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

The Sharks seem somewhat set at the top of the right side of their defensive depth chart, at least for now.

Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are established veterans, with three Norris Trophies and nearly 1,300 NHL points combined. They're also 35 and 30, respectively, in a league that is becoming increasingly youth-driven. The future quickly becomes the present in the salary cap-driven NHL, and contributors on rookie contracts are among the most valuable commodities in the sport.

San Jose arguably had an eye towards that future even before general manager Doug Wilson traded for Karlsson. Nearly three months prior, the Sharks drafted right-handed defenseman Ryan Merkeley with the No. 21 overall pick. Now, just over two years later, Merkley is the team's top prospect entering his first professional season, and the Sharks are "very happy" with his progress.

"He's just a hockey rat who wants to be at the rink, and those are the types of guys we want to work with," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. 

Wilson Jr. said Merkeley's love of the sport stood out before and after the Sharks drafted him in 2018. The Sharks executive noticed Merkeley lingering on the bench at the NHL scouting combine that year, catching up with his peers well after his workout session was completed. Merkley also stuck around in Dallas after he became the first first-round defenseman taken by San Jose in five years, sitting in the team's suite at the American Airlines Center on the draft's second day and chatting with former development coach (and current Sharks assistant) Mike Ricci.

That, combined with Merkley's high-end skill, made the defenseman an easy choice for the Sharks despite concerns about his attitude and defensive game. San Jose drafted Merkley as a 17-year-old, and he would be traded twice in his last two seasons in the OHL. Merkley settled in with the London Knights this past season, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) and leading the Knights to first place in the Western Conference when the season was suspended -- and eventually canceled -- due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wilson Jr. has previously said he felt Merkley made strides on defense, and the Sharks will continue to work with him up close. Whether Merkley starts next season in the NHL or the AHL with the Barracuda, he'll develop under the front office's close watch in San Jose.

"At the draft (in 2018), I think what I was saying was you can't teach Merkley's skill, so that's when you have to really dig in and learn about the kid more to see if he has what it takes to learn, and be coachable, and progress the rest of his game and build that foundation," Wilson Jr. said. "And in our opinion he did, so we're excited to have him part of our future and have him turn pro this year."

[RELATED: What Sharks fans should know about Stanley Cup playoffs]

Merkley will be one to watch whenever the Sharks convene for training camp. San Jose has no right-shooting defenseman signed beyond this season other than Burns and Karlsson, yet it's fair to wonder if the 20-year-old would be better served logging big minutes in all situations for the Barracuda to start his pro career.

No matter which level Merkley begins at next season, the Sharks' future beyond Burns and Karlsson will be here sooner than you think.

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer must be a strange experience for Sharks fans.

Sure, it's weird for every hockey fan watching games played in front of empty arenas in the middle of August during a global pandemic. But Sharks fans haven't spent much of the last few years as passive postseason observers, advancing to at least the Western Conference final in two of the four years preceding 2020.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines now that the playoff field has been whittled down to 16 teams. Which should Sharks fans pay attention to? Here's a guide to the postseason for San Jose supporters.

The Villains

Sharks fans' rooting interests in the playoffs can be best described as "Anyone but the Vegas Golden Knights." Not only did San Jose and Vegas square off in the last two postseasons, but the Golden Knights now are coached by former Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.

You'd have a difficult time convincing teal diehards to root for Chicago in the first round, considering how many times "Chelsea Dagger" played in the Original Six franchise's Western Conference final sweep of the Sharks a decade ago. But when the alternative is seeing the DeBoer-led Golden Knights march toward a Stanley Cup, Sharks fans have an easy choice.

The Familiar Faces

My colleague in content Brian Witt highlighted some of the biggest former Sharks still playing for a Stanley Cup. Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski -- that's still odd to type -- leads the list, but there are quite a few players who once donned teal who are playing for hockey's ultimate prize.

The Eastern Conference could lead to some difficult rooting choices for Sharks fans, though. It's likely that two of the Philadelphia Flyers (Justin Braun), Tampa Bay Lightning (Barclay Goodrow) and Washington Capitals (Brenden Dillon) will square off, and each player still is looking for their first ring.

[RELATED: How Sharks benefit from Rangers winning NHL draft lottery]

The Jokes

Somewhat surprisingly, the NHL really has leaned into the weirdness of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs being played in two buildings -- Edmonton's Rogers Place and Toronto's Scotiabank Arena -- for audiences watching from their couches. There has been a tribute to the "fans" in attendance, a ban on the wave and even multiple appearances from designated hat throwers when a player scores a hat trick.

The NHL had to postpone a playoff game because Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena went to five overtimes. Columbus' official account then tweeted this.

The Sharks had some fun with it, too. Collectively commiserating over the playoffs' fundamental strangeness is going to lead to a lot more over the next couple months, even if San Jose isn't a part of the postseason.