Sharks

Sharks suddenly in better position with draft picks, college signings

Sharks suddenly in better position with draft picks, college signings

Given the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we could all use a bit of a pick-me-up right now. It's understandably difficult, but focusing on what bright spots there are will help us get through this unprecedented time.

Taking the glass-half-full approach shouldn't be new to Sharks fans. They had a few months head start before the team's disappointing season was indefinitely paused.

Yes, it was clear early on that it was going to be a tough season in San Jose. The Sharks dropped their first four games of the season, and turned to former captain Patrick Marleau to get back on track. After a strong November, San Jose undid it all with a putrid December, and at that point, it became easy to focus on all of the things the franchise didn't have. The most notable absence was that of hope.

One by one, the Sharks' best players went down with severe season-ending injuries. One of them -- Erik Karlsson -- was like a double punch to the gut. Not only would San Jose not have the benefit of having the former Norris Trophy winner in the lineup, but the cost it took to acquire him -- including the Sharks' unprotected 2020 first-round draft pick -- looked disproportionally painful. Every team in the league would have made that trade for Karlsson -- and signed him to the same eight-year contract extension -- but nearly everything that occurred from that point on was a string of bad luck for San Jose.

There was an upside to losing all of those top players, though. Whatever lingering hopes of a playoff run existed soon went out the window. The Sharks and general manager Doug Wilson could turn their attention to the future, and that's exactly what they did.

In sending Brenden Dillon to the Washington Capitals, Marleau to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Barclay Goodrow to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline, Wilson overhauled the Sharks' cupboard of draft picks in both quality and quantity. He acquired four picks -- including a 2020 first-rounder -- that will fall within the first three rounds, and San Jose now has seven selections in each of the next three drafts.

Those will come in very handy as the Sharks try to get back into contention -- and stay there. Sustained success is built through young, controllable assets, and the draft is the best way to acquire them.

That said, there are always some prospects that fall between the cracks. Brinson Pasichnuk was one such prospect who was never drafted, yet became one of the best players throughout all of NCAA Division I hockey. The Arizona State standout agreed to join the Sharks organization, Wilson announced Tuesday, adding to San Jose's collection of promising young defensemen, including Mario Ferraro and Ryan Merkley.

[RELATED: Sharks' Ferraro moved in with parents during NHL pause]

Shortly after Pasichnuck agreed to join the Sharks, Hobey Baker Award finalist John Leonard did the same. Leonard, San Jose's sixth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, tallied 105 points over 106 career games at UMass Amherst. He had the option of returning to school for his senior season, but had little left to prove at the collegiate level. While he isn't a new prospect to the Sharks' system, it's nonetheless a positive development for San Jose.

Two months ago, the Sharks' future appeared as bleak as it had in nearly two decades. Since then, however, they've taken several steps in the right direction, and there is considerably more reason for hope.

We can all use a little of that right now.

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley modeling his game after Erik Karlsson

When it comes to the Sharks' top prospects, 19-year-old defenseman Ryan Merkley is in a tier unto himself.

San Jose selected Merkley with the No. 21 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft after he slipped due to character concerns. His talent, however, has never been in question and was too good to pass up.

Merkley impressed during his participation in the Sharks' rookie camp last September, and just completed what is likely to be his final season in junior hockey with the OHL's London Knights. With 15 goals and 76 points, he was the OHL's second-highest scoring defenseman, and his 61 assists ranked fourth-most in the entire league. London's season was brought to a premature conclusion due to the coronavirus pandemic, at which time the Knights sat in first place in their conference with a 45-15-2 record. San Jose's top prospect played a key role in their success.

"Ryan had a very good year," Sharks scouting director Doug Wilson Jr. said last week on a conference call (H/T The Athletic's Kevin Kurz). "In his career, every single season he scored more goals, he had more assists, he had more points and his plus-minus got better all four years in the OHL. I’m very excited about Ryan."

Always an offensive standout, Merkley is a great skater with advanced vision and tremendous passing ability. Though he has added more than 10 pounds in weight since the rookie camp, he's never going to be an imposing physical specimen, and his defense definitely is the area where he'll need to improve most. The Sharks, however, have someone specific in mind for him to learn from and model his game after.

"The biggest thing with [Merkley] was he’s never going to hit guys like Brent Burns or Radim Simek, he’s going to play defense more like Erik Karlsson," Wilson Jr. added. "If we can get him to use his stick to angle guys off in the neutral zone and then get the puck going north faster, that’s how he’s going to play defense. I think that’s what you saw this year with him."

Karlsson has long been regarded as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and deservedly so. He signed an eight-year contract extension prior to the currently-paused season, so he should be around for quite a while. Merkley has a long way to go to get on Karlsson's level, but he already has been studying the former Norris Trophy winner for some time now.

"Yeah. He’s not the biggest of bodies, but he’s a great skater and closes up the gap well, makes that great first pass," Merkley told Kurz about Karlsson. "I do think there are some similarities and things I can look up to. Obviously, he’s one of the best in the world. So [Wilson Jr.] and [the Sharks staff] were big on me watching him and watching the way he defends. It’s just (about) growing, getting better and getting more reps."

In addition to Karlsson, Merkley has another Sharks' defenseman to learn from in Mario Ferraro. They roomed together during the rookie camp, and Merkley made sure to follow Ferraro's extremely successful rookie season.

"For sure, it was awesome for him. I was excited for Mario," Merkley said. "He got a good chunk of NHL games. He’s a workhorse. I’ve never seen anybody (take care of) the body and (do) what he does off the ice. It’s incredible. He never stops moving out there, his work ethic is incredible. He’ll play a long time in the league because there’s not many that take care of their body like that or work as hard as he does. It’s awesome, something I can look up to and follow."

[RELATED: What NHL's potential 24-team return could mean for Sharks]

Ferraro projects as a future top-pair defenseman and it wouldn't be surprising if he eventually was involved in the captaincy. The Sharks are hoping Merkley turns out just as well.

And, if they end up with another Karlsson ... that's the dream.

NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end

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NHLPA OKs further talks with NHL on 24-team return; Sharks' season could end

The NHL and the players' association took a big step toward returning to the ice, but it could mean the Sharks' 2019-20 season is over.

The NHLPA announced Friday night that it has "authorized further negotiations with the NHL" on a 24-team return to play format.

As the players' association noted, the sides still have more details to work out before the league officially can resume the season that was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While no specifics were provided on the teams that would be allowed to resume playing, the Sharks are not one of the 24 best teams in the NHL standings.

The Sharks possessed the worst record in the Western Conference (29-36-5; 63 points) and the third-worst record in the NHL when the season was suspended.

[RELATED: What went wrong for Sharks]

If this is how the Sharks' season concludes, it will put an end to a campaign in which the team entered with high expectations.

Last season, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks again were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup this season, but the departure of several veterans, combined with poor play early in the campaign, led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer after 33 games. Bob Boughner took over as interim coach, but San Jose skated to just a 14-20-3 record under him.