Timo Meier was the Sharks' last first-round draft pick to make his NHL debut in teal.
Could defenseman Ryan Merkley, with his major junior career in the rearview mirror, be next?
"I think I'm ready [to play in the NHL]," Merkley said Saturday from the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz., in a video conference with reporters. "I've worked hard for the last nine, 10 months here, but that's not up to me. I've just got to come in here, work hard.
"I feel confident with my game and where I am. I would love the opportunity, but for me, it's [about] just coming into work, show I've made those strides in the [defensive zone] and I think I've worked hard enough this summer and put on enough weight."
Merkley, 20, will play professionally with the Sharks or the AHL's San Jose Barracuda this season. The Sharks have (at least) two open spots on the blue line, depending upon how many defensemen they carry when the regular season begins Jan. 14. Merkley's third camp since being drafted offers his most realistic chance of ending it on the NHL roster, and San Jose's at ending a drought.
Meier debuted Dec. 16, 2016, just shy of 18 months after the Sharks selected him No. 9 overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. San Jose traded its first-rounder in 2016 and shipped 2017 first-rounder Josh Norris to the Ottawa Senators in the Erik Karlsson deal, leaving over four years (and counting) between first-rounder debuts. Only two other players drafted after Meier -- center Dylan Gambrell (second round, 2016) and defenseman Mario Ferraro (second round, 2017) -- have played at least 50 NHL games.
After a team led by an aging core ended the coronavirus-shortened regular season in the Pacific Division and Western Conference's cellar, the Sharks will have little chance of returning to the playoffs if young players are unable to seize regular roles. The timing could be right for Merkley to take one himself on the team's bottom pair.
"Merks has got to have a good camp," Sharks coach Bob Boughner told reporters Friday. "With no preseason games, it's going to be a lot of evaluations through practices and scrimmages. There's some guys that played last year at the Barracuda, and there's some new guys, new faces [like Merkley] that there's gonna be a good competition for the [sixth and seventh defensemen]."
Merkley is coming off the best season of his junior career, having scored 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) in 60 games with the London Knights. Had the coronavirus pandemic not forced the cancellation of the Canadian major junior season, London would've been among the favorites to win an OHL title and the Memorial Cup.
Doug Wilson Jr., the Sharks' director of amateur scouting, said last year that the organization was happy with Merkley's growth in the defensive zone last season. Merkley said his defensive reads are better, as is his ability to win puck battles after gaining as many as 12 pounds over the offseason. The defenseman told reporters that his weight now is anywhere between 180 and 183 pounds.
Merkley's improvement in his own end will dictate whether or not he makes the team, but his offense could keep him there. Jacob Middleton, another defenseman vying for one of the spots that Boughner mentioned, said Merkey's offensive ability was apparent being while partnered with him in training camp and skating alongside him in the Bay Area before then.
"That guy's got some skill, man. He's really good," Middleton said Friday. "He's got a lot of upside. He's a smooth skater. He walks the blue line. We were skating in [Fremont] for the last couple weeks, and he was walking the line like [John] Klingberg on Dallas, so he looks good."
Klingberg scored 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 27 playoff games in the Stars' run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, averaging 23:20 of ice time. With Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson ahead of him on the right side, it's unlikely Merkley would play nearly that much if he made the Sharks as a rookie.
Merkley would have the benefit of playing big minutes in every situation if he started the season with the Barracuda, but he could have a road to playing time on the power play in the NHL. Boughner said Saturday that his plan is to play Burns and Karlsson together on the Sharks' top power-play unit, leaving an opening for a playmaker at the point on the second. Other than Burns and Karlsson, two Norris Trophy winners, none of the Sharks' defensemen offer as much as offensive upside as Merkley.
The Sharks' power play also must contend with Joe Thornton's departure this offseason, potentially leaving a legitimate need for Merkley's skills on the man advantage. Merkley first must prove he's ready defensively, though, and he's embracing the opportunity.
"The first two camps, you're coming in here trying to watch the guys [and] learn, obviously not expecting much as a young guy," Merkley said. "But now knowing I'm either with the 'Cuda or the Sharks, it's an exciting time. It's kind of nerve-wracking but certainly difficult after nine months off to get that pace going again, so it's good to get the legs under me and get going again."