The Sharks have managed to stay afloat while coach Bob Boughner and several key players remain out due to COVID-19 protocol.
With help from young players such as William Eklund, Nick Merkley and Jasper Weatherby, the youth has shouldered more of the load due to the long list of inactives, while simultaneously showing their inexperience, which has hurt the Sharks and contributed to San Jose's 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues Thursday night at SAP Center.
Merkley, who was recently called up from the AHL Barracuda in response to the Sharks' COVID outbreak, scored his first goal as a member of the Sharks on Thursday night.
If you were to ask Merkley, he would tell you that he's deserving of the opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level.
“The whole time i thought I was deserving of that role," Merkley told reporters postgame. "I thought I improved myself last year and obviously wanted to make a statement when I did get my call up. I thought I did well with the Barracuda and trying to seize the opportunity here.
“I think I'm a good playmaker at this level. I want to bring tenacity, I can play throughout the lineup wherever you need me. Just tenacity, playmaking, getting to the net. I use my shot when I can. Just be versatile and do whatever the team needs.”
Despite finishing the game minus-1 with 15:29 on ice Thursday night, first-round draft pick William Eklund has left a lasting impression on his teammates, specifically team captain Logan Couture.
“Very good player," Couture said of Eklund postgame. "[He’s] going to be a very elite player in this league. It’s tough to play in this league at 18-19 (years old) and he’s showing that he can do it. Very impressed, it isn’t easy what he’s doing. He’s playing top-six minutes, playing against the other team’s top-two lines every night. Nothing but credit to him, he’s showing up and proving that he can play in the NHL.”
Eklund, who is smaller in size, has shown his ability to avoid big hits and has proven that his size can translate to the professional level.
“Yeah I think so," Couture said. "He’s so agile and crafty and moves around the ice very well. I feel there’s more small players who can play now in the league and be effective and I think he’s going to be one of those.”
Another one of the Sharks' young stars, Jasper Weatherby, has proven himself at the professional level in a different capacity than Eklund. The 2018 fourth-round draft pick is big, strong, and has impressed teammates with his toughness.
“He stepped in and played very well through 10 games," Couture said of Weatherby. "Not easy to come from college right to the NHL, but he’s done a great job, especially at the center position. It’s very difficult when you have to take face offs every night … He’s got that build though where he’s a bigger guy, he’s strong, can play that strong, down-low game. He’s been very impressive.”
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the inexperience from some of their youth played a role in the loss to St. Louis on Thursday night. There are plenty of positives to take away from the youngsters performances thus far, but it's obvious that there are growing pains that come with learning and developing at the highest level.
“Sure it does, and that happens," assistant coach John MacLean said postgame. "Their effort is there, so you can’t get frustrated with that but how do you get experience? You get experience going through situations like we did tonight and how to play under that pressure and under line after line they kept coming. (St. Louis) makes good decisions with the puck when they have the lead and that’s something we can learn from as a group."
"It’s going to be like this for a little bit, but we’ve gotta deal with it," Couture said. The guys that have stepped in and played their first, second, third NHL games have played well and given it all they have. The veterans could do a better job of protecting those guys, playing out of their end a little bit more. I thought that was something we could have done better was play in the offensive zone. We were a little on our heels tonight.”
The Sharks will have a day off Friday before welcoming the New Jersey Devils on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PT to wrap up their five-game homestand.