Sharks rookies continue developing at AHL level with Barracuda

Sharks rookies continue developing at AHL level with Barracuda

SAN JOSE – There have been a few shuffles of the deck as players in the Sharks’ organization have bounced between the Barracuda and NHL club.

Rourke Chartier, Dylan Gambrell, Antti Suomela, and Jacob Middleton may all currently be skating for the AHL squad, but they’ve spent time in the Joe Pavelski-led lineup as well.

NBC Sports California attended Barracuda practice on Thursday as the team reconvened for their first skate after the AHL All-Star break. Here’s a quick check-in on how those four players’ seasons are shaping up.

--Rourke Chartier spent the first part of the 2018-19 season playing fourth-line center for Team Teal. He’s since bounced between the two clubs, registering 13 points (four goals, nine assists) with the Barracuda.

“Going up and down, I think it has been a good experience,” Chartier said on Thursday. “I’ve had a lot of fun just playing hockey. Hopefully, I can catch some more rhythm in the second half, whichever team I’m on.”

The 22-year-old center said the rhythm he’s had so far can be contributed to having the opportunity to consistently play games. Even if he’s a healthy scratch for the Sharks one night, he can follow that up playing a couple games for the Barracuda and staying fresh.

“At the end of the day you want to be playing games and getting better here,” Chartier said. “So when I do get another opportunity (at the NHL level) it’s going to be a lot easier having played some games.”

--The last time NBC Sports California caught up with Dylan Gambrell, he was reflecting on the things he wanted to improve in his personal game at the NHL level. At the AHL level, though, the 22-year-old rookie has been one of the Barracuda’s top players.

“I think my development is going well,” said Gambrell, who is tied for third on the team with 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) through 29 games. “Both teams are doing well too, so that’s been good.”

The University of Denver product brings a lot of speed to the Barracuda squad, which is considered one of the fastest teams in the league. Gambrell said the quickness of the AHL team has helped to prepare him for when he gets called up to the big club.

“It just makes it an easier transition,” he summarized. “There’s not as big of a jump, or at least you don’t notice it as much when you get called up.”

[RELATED: How Burns, Karlsson have impressed NHL All-Star goalies]

--Antti Suomela may only have seven points (two goals, five assists) in 17 games for the Barracuda. But head coach Roy Sommer said the Finnish rookie is bound to break out.

“With him, the work ethic is there, and he has a big compete to his game,” the coach complimented. “I think he just has to figure out the North American game. Things happen a lot quicker here than where he was at. But he’s picking it up.”

--Sharks fans are probably most familiar with defenseman Jacob Middleton because of his abrupt call-up to the big club earlier this month. A move made possible by the close proximity between the NHL and AHL teams.

“I think everyone -- all the teams that have come from out east, it’s a lot less wear-and-tear on your players,” said Sommer, whose players only have to jump across the practice facility when recalled. (Instead of having to make the long coast-to-coast flight the players took when the team was still located in Worcester, Mass.)

Sommer also echoed what Chartier said about getting players into games as opposed to them sitting around and getting rusty.

“Instead of guys just sitting for long periods of time, they get an opportunity to get in games and get their rhythm.”

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


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 calm 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.