With Sharks' roster growing older, Barracuda's success that much sweeter

With Sharks' roster growing older, Barracuda's success that much sweeter

SAN JOSE – The Sharks’ top minor league affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, has advanced to the American Hockey League’s conference final round. The best-of-seven series against the Grand Rapids Griffins begins on Saturday at SAP Center for Game 1 and continues on Sunday for Game 2.

Their performance so far, both in the regular season and the playoffs, is encouraging for an organization that fielded an NHL roster in 2016-17 that was among the oldest in the league. The Barracuda is just the opposite. While every AHL roster features young players and prospects, the Barracuda were younger than most.

Essentially, AHL teams are permitted to field no more than six veteran skaters on a nightly basis, or players that have skated in 260 or fewer professional games at the start of the season. Only John McCarthy, who had played in 457 professional games, qualifies as a veteran for San Jose.

“It’s really rare. Most of the year we’ve been the youngest team in the league,” said Sharks assistant general manager Joe Will, who oversees the Barracuda. “If you average it out over the year we’ve been the youngest team in the league while doing this. It’s just a good sign.”

Many of the players on the Barracuda roster were either drafted by the Sharks or unearthed and signed as free agents. Some were high round picks, like Timo Meier (first round, 2015) and Mirco Mueller (first round, 2013), while others like Danny O’Regan (fifth round, 2012), Kevin Labanc (sixth round, 2014) and Joakim Ryan (seventh round, 2012) have been late bloomers. Tim Heed, their top offensive defenseman, and Marcus Sorensen, who cracked the Sharks’ playoff roster, were both signed out of the Swedish League last May. All are under the Sharks’ control past this season (Heed, Ryan, Sorensen and Mueller are restricted free agents).

The added emphasis on accumulating players for the future began in 2013, according to Will. The Sharks selected a total of 24 players in three drafts from 2013-15, utilizing some of their own picks and others acquired through various trades, with 10 of those drafted players appearing in games for the Barracuda throughout the course of this season.

“There’s just a lag time, you don’t see it right away,” Will said. “Sometimes it’s three or four [years]. That’s kind of what it is now, and we just happen to have a very good freshman class, a bunch of young guys coming in at once.”

Considering the uncertainty of the Sharks’ roster next season, with players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau pending unrestricted free agents and others like Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin all on the other side of 30, the Barracuda’s rise would seem to be coming at a good time.

Will isn’t afraid to look ahead to training camp already.

“The ultimate motivator is just to have this competition come through,” he said. “I think the players with the Sharks know that the players with the Barracuda are playing really hard, and are going to come into camp and compete for jobs.”

“All these guys going through [the Calder Cup playoffs] right now, it’s just valuable experience. It’s almost like a new season for them. So many of them played [for the Sharks] this year and are candidates to come up for jobs in the near future. It’s really a good thing.”

Barracuda vs. Grand Rapids third round schedule

Game 1 – Saturday, May 20, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (6 p.m.)
Game 2 – Sunday, May 21, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (5 p.m.)
Game 3 – Wednesday, May 24, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
Game 4 – Friday, May 26, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
*Game 5 – Saturday, May 27, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
*Game 6 – Tuesday, May 30, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (7 p.m.)
*Game 7 – Wednesday, May 31, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (7 p.m.)

* – if necessary

Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic practices in Tampa, moves closer to return


Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic practices in Tampa, moves closer to return

After injuries broke up the Sharks’ defensive corps at the start of the new year, it looks like San Jose’s blue line is inching closer to getting the band back together.

Injured defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t likely to see game action, although coach Peter DeBoer called him a game-time decision against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. The news was reported by Paul Gackle of the San Jose Mercury News.

“We’ll see how he feels," DeBoer told the media after Friday’s practice. "I think he’s getting closer.”

Vlasic has been sidelined since the beginning of the month when he sustained an upper-body injury against the Colorado Avalanche. He participated in the Sharks’ practice in Tampa Bay on Friday ahead of the game against the Lightning – the first time he has been a full participant in team practice since sustaining the injury. 

While it’s a positive sign Vlasic has rejoined his teammates, DeBoer remains cautious about putting him back in the lineup too soon.

“We’re not going to put him out there and get him reinjured,” the Sharks’ bench boss said. “Especially with the 10-day break on the horizon. But if he can help us and get in there then he will.”

Vlasic has registered 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 42 games played so far this season for Team Teal.

Sticking with the theme of blueliners: Erik Karlsson was absent from morning skate on Friday with an undisclosed ailment. DeBoer told the media he was taking another maintenance day and is expected to be in the lineup Saturday in Tampa Bay.

Why Sharks' play against playoff teams is encouraging down the stretch


Why Sharks' play against playoff teams is encouraging down the stretch

The Sharks apparently sent the Tampa Bay Lightning into a tailspin.

The Lightning has lost three of their last eight games since the calendar flipped, including one Thursday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs. San Jose handed Tampa Bay the first of those losses on Jan. 5, in one of the Sharks’ most impressive performances this season. 

Of course, the use of "tailspin" was purely tongue-in-cheek. It’s far too early to say a team that only lost seven times in regulation in the first half the season is “coming down to earth.” Even with Thursday’s loss, the Lightning is still nine points clear of the Calgary Flames in the race for the President’s Trophy. 

Tampa Bay's not-quite-a-funk began thanks in large part to what was arguably the best third period of the Sharks' season. Nursing a 3-2 lead entering the final 20 minutes, San Jose scored twice and held the Lightning to just 10 shot attempts across all situations, including only eight during 5-on-5 play. 

Against Tampa Bay, San Jose played to its strengths and possessed the puck. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks ranked no worse than fifth in their share of 5-on-5 shot attempts (first), unblocked attempts (second), shots (second), scoring chances (second), and high-danger chances (fifth) entering Friday.

But part of what made their performance against the Lightning so noteworthy was, well, that it came against the Lightning. Tampa Bay is in the top seven of each of those aforementioned metrics, and boasts one of the league’s deepest lineups up front and on the blue line. There’s a reason they’re so far ahead of the rest of the league. 

The Sharks’ win was not an outlier, though. San Jose is 12-9-1 against teams currently in playoff position, and boasts solid underlying numbers against that group. 

Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
5v5 CF% 55.53
5v5 FF% 55.33
5v5 SF% 54.74
5v5 SCF% 54.56
5v5 HDCF% 54.44

Those numbers are right around what the Sharks have posted on the season as a whole, albeit slightly lower. That control hasn’t necessarily translated into 5-on-5 goals, however, as the Sharks have been outscored 54-49. In all, they’ve scored on around 8.5 percent of their 5-on-5 shots against playoff teams, while Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have stopped about 88.7 percent of the shots they’ve faced. 

That’s fairly emblematic of the first half of San Jose’s season, which is when 18 of the Sharks’ 22 games against teams in position to make the postseason occurred. Jones has been better lately, and the Sharks have tightened up defensively. Dell is still trying to rediscover his early-season form, but Jones’ improvement may be enough to assume San Jose's save percentage will rebound.

It’s fair to assume the playoff picture will change during that time, too. One team in the Eastern Conference is within five points of the last Wild Card spot (Buffalo), while five teams in the West can say the same (Edmonton, Anaheim, Vancouver, St. Louis, Arizona). 

[RELATED: Doug Wilson says Sharks' trade deadline deals must strike right balance]

This being the parity-pursuing NHL, all but nine teams are in the playoff bubble right around the All-Star break. If you expand our sample to include those teams, the Sharks are 20-12-4 against teams with a conceivable shot at the postseason. Unsurprisingly, they’re also about as strong of a possession team against those teams as they are against the entirety of the league.

Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
5v5 CF% 56.10
5v5 FF% 56.00
5v5 SF% 55.43
5v5 SCF% 56.17
5v5 HDCF% 57.46
5v5 GF 83
5v5 GA 81

In other words, the Sharks aren’t just making their hay against cellar-dwellers, and should be largely encouraged by their 5-on-5 performance against playoff teams. There is the risk of parsing down a still-developing sample size, which is why we didn’t examine the Sharks' special-teams performance against those teams. But, it’s still worth keeping an eye on down the stretch given the remainder of San Jose’s schedule.

In addition to Saturday’s trip to Tampa, the Sharks will also play the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals three days later. In all, 26 of San Jose's 33 remaining games are against teams currently within five points of a playoff spot.

As races tighten up down the stretch, that number will change. Still, it’s no thing that the Sharks have played particularly well against the teams that comprise the bulk of their schedule. That includes the Lightning, who have only lost consecutive games (in regulation or otherwise) once this season. 

It still won’t be a tailspin if Tampa Bay loses on Saturday, but it would be another important notch in San Jose’s belt.