The Sharks seem somewhat set at the top of the right side of their defensive depth chart, at least for now.
Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are established veterans, with three Norris Trophies and nearly 1,300 NHL points combined. They're also 35 and 30, respectively, in a league that is becoming increasingly youth-driven. The future quickly becomes the present in the salary cap-driven NHL, and contributors on rookie contracts are among the most valuable commodities in the sport.
San Jose arguably had an eye towards that future even before general manager Doug Wilson traded for Karlsson. Nearly three months prior, the Sharks drafted right-handed defenseman Ryan Merkeley with the No. 21 overall pick. Now, just over two years later, Merkley is the team's top prospect entering his first professional season, and the Sharks are "very happy" with his progress.
"He's just a hockey rat who wants to be at the rink, and those are the types of guys we want to work with," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr.
Wilson Jr. said Merkeley's love of the sport stood out before and after the Sharks drafted him in 2018. The Sharks executive noticed Merkeley lingering on the bench at the NHL scouting combine that year, catching up with his peers well after his workout session was completed. Merkley also stuck around in Dallas after he became the first first-round defenseman taken by San Jose in five years, sitting in the team's suite at the American Airlines Center on the draft's second day and chatting with former development coach (and current Sharks assistant) Mike Ricci.
That, combined with Merkley's high-end skill, made the defenseman an easy choice for the Sharks despite concerns about his attitude and defensive game. San Jose drafted Merkley as a 17-year-old, and he would be traded twice in his last two seasons in the OHL. Merkley settled in with the London Knights this past season, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) and leading the Knights to first place in the Western Conference when the season was suspended -- and eventually canceled -- due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wilson Jr. has previously said he felt Merkley made strides on defense, and the Sharks will continue to work with him up close. Whether Merkley starts next season in the NHL or the AHL with the Barracuda, he'll develop under the front office's close watch in San Jose.
"At the draft (in 2018), I think what I was saying was you can't teach Merkley's skill, so that's when you have to really dig in and learn about the kid more to see if he has what it takes to learn, and be coachable, and progress the rest of his game and build that foundation," Wilson Jr. said. "And in our opinion he did, so we're excited to have him part of our future and have him turn pro this year."
Merkley will be one to watch whenever the Sharks convene for training camp. San Jose has no right-shooting defenseman signed beyond this season other than Burns and Karlsson, yet it's fair to wonder if the 20-year-old would be better served logging big minutes in all situations for the Barracuda to start his pro career.
No matter which level Merkley begins at next season, the Sharks' future beyond Burns and Karlsson will be here sooner than you think.