When Timo Meier scored an empty-net goal in the Sharks' 4-2 win over Chicago on Tuesday at SAP Center, you could see the look of relief on his face.
The Swiss forward has not been immune to the scoring woes that plagued the Sharks through the first month of the 2019-20 season. Since Meier signed a four-year, $24 million contract this summer, the pressure on him to produce has been greater than ever.
Meier isn't alone. The Sharks put a lot of stock into their young talent this season, wanting players like Lean Bergmann, Dylan Gambrell and Noah Gregor to step up and take on larger roles. That transition hasn't been easy and San Jose collectively has struggled, placing more pressure on other young players like Meier, Kevin Labanc, and Tomas Hertl even greater.
But the Sharks are finally getting an idea of what their roster is capable of, following a win Tuesday that was partially fueled by the return of defenseman Radim Simek. San Jose has a chance to right the ship that is, without a doubt, a perfect set-up for Meier, Labanc and Hertl to get going.
"Timo and Banker and those guys, those are guys who we're expecting a lot out of," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said last week. "They've got to take a step here this year. Some of those guys played in support roles in the past and benefited from playing behind some key guys. Now they're the key guys and with that comes some pressure to produce. They aren't the only guys, but I think we're expecting a lot from those guys and we're trying to hold them to that."
The results have been mixed through 16 games.
Labanc kept scoring during the Sharks' losing skids, but some of his defensive mishaps have him toward the bottom of the NHL in plus-minus. Dylan Gambrell began to find his footing after a less-than-impressive training camp but is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury.
Even Hertl, who took a huge leap once he started centering San Jose's second line, only has scored five goals this season. And then there's Meier, who has three goals through the first 16 games of the season when he had 12 goals at the same point last season.
Suffice to say, this isn't the start the Sharks hoped for. Fortunately for San Jose, it isn't too late for this contingent to take the next step.
The Sharks got a visible boost on Tuesday night from Simek's return, and the nudge from the defense resulted in more offensive-zone time for San Jose. If that kind of elevated defensive play continues, it gives the offense an opportunity to create more scoring chances. Plus, DeBoer's newly-configured line combinations appear to have given the team an added jolt, as both Meier and Hertl showed a spark on a line together on Tuesday evening.
If the Sharks' offense uses Tuesday's win as a jumping-off point, San Jose could still turn around the season.
Granted, the Sharks won't play Chicago every night. San Jose has the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Pacific Division-leading Edmonton Oilers coming up on the homestand, and each of those teams can challenge the Sharks in different ways.
If there was ever a time for the Sharks' young core to grow into bigger roles, it would be now.