Joachim Blichfeld

Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

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USATSI

Sharks' future looking bleak with No. 25 ranked prospect pool in NHL

It wasn't that long ago that the Sharks had a talent advantage over just about every other team in the NHL. However, due to a combination of departures, injuries and the general passage of time, that advantage has been significantly diminished, if not evaporated altogether.

And, barring some one-sided trades, it's unlikely to be built up again in short order.

In addition to the fact that San Jose has an aging roster, it doesn't have many obvious solutions waiting on deck. The Sharks don't have a first-round pick in the upcoming 2020 draft, and their minor-league system lacks a stable of sure-fire future NHLers. If that wasn't frightening enough, their prospect pool pales in comparison to almost all of their current division rivals, according to The Athletic's Scott Wheeler.

Wheeler has been unveiling his 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings over the last month, and while he is generally higher on the Sharks' prospects than most other evaluators, that assessment is relative. Of the 31 teams in the league, Wheeler ranked San Jose's prospect pool No. 25 overall. Of all the Pacific Division teams, only the Calgary Flames' prospect pool was ranked worse (No. 26).

Now for the scary part.

The Los Angeles Kings were ranked No. 1 overall, while the Anaheim Ducks (No. 6) and Vegas Golden Knights (No. 10) also fell in the top 10. The Vancouver Canucks came in at No. 13, and the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars were ranked No. 15 and No. 18, respectively. 

Yikes.

Most other teams in the division have caught up to San Jose this season, and based on the prospect pool rankings, they're well situated to shoot right on past the Sharks in the near future. Wheeler's rankings are based on both volume and quality, but projected skill level is paramount. That's where San Jose gets dinged.

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To be eligible for Wheeler's prospect pool rankings, a player must meet three criteria:

  • Be younger than 23 years old (for goalies, under 24)
  • Not currently in the NHL (with rare exceptions)
  • Either signed to an NHL contract or selected in the entry draft, without the expiration of either of those rights

For each team, Wheeler ranked a minimum of 15 prospects and a maximum of 20, all of which he believes have "even a remote chance at the NHL." Starting at the bottom with the No. 31-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets and moving upward, the Sharks were the first team listed with more than the minimum 15 prospects (they have 18). Wheeler is impressed by the depth in San Jose's system, but admits he's "not in love with many of the guys near the top."

"The result is a lot of interest, without a ton of fascination," Wheeler summarized. "A lot of players who have tools that might help them into depth roles but overall very few I’d bank on as top-of-the-lineup options."

In addition to ranking the prospect pools across the league, Wheeler also broke down each team's respective prospect pool into tiers. San Jose was split into four, with a description of each:

Tier 1: Ryan Merkley

"On talent and upside alone, Merkley is the clear No. 1, with the ability to play higher in the lineup and make more of an impact offensively than any other prospect in the organization." 

Tier 2: Joachim Blichfeld, Jonathan Dahlen, Sash Chmelevski, Artemi Knyazev and Noah Gregor 

"A really strong group of five prospects who I think have a chance at being middle six contributors."

Tier 3: Alexander True, Lean Bergmann, Jeremy Roy, Ivan Chekhovich, Yegor Spiridonov and John Leonard 

"Another group of six players with legitimate NHL hopes."

Tier 4: Nicolas Meloche, Jayden Halbgewachs, Vladislav Kotkov, Karlis Cukste, Timur Ibragimov and Dillon Hamaliuk

"A final group of prospects that all have intriguing NHL qualities and an outside chance."

While Wheeler's prospect pool rankings paint a somewhat bleak picture for the Sharks, it could get considerably brighter soon, depending on what happens at the upcoming trade deadline and in the 2020 entry draft. With the playoffs all but out of the picture, San Jose has every reason to see what it can get in return for anyone who could provide more value to the organization elsewhere than if they remained with it.

The Sharks don't have a first-round pick right now, but there's a decent chance they could acquire one, or at least add some more selections or prospects to their arsenal. If the near future is going to be brighter for San Jose than the present, the Sharks will not only need some of their current prospects to quickly take steps forward but also acquire new ones that will raise the overall talent level in the system.

Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

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Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

Heading into the All-Star break last season, the St. Louis Blues were a .500 team (22-22-5). In the 33 regular-season games that followed, they caught fire and carried that momentum to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

This season, the Sharks enter the All-Star break four games below .500 with 32 games left to claw their way back into playoff positioning and hopefully do the same. As the Blues proved, it's not out of the realm of possibility, but if we're being realistic, it remains a longshot.

Whether the Sharks qualify for the postseason for the 20th time in the last 22 years or end up in dead last, there are a few potential developments to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of the season that will have an impact on the team both in the present and well into the future.

Even if the playoffs are out of the question, these three storylines will be front and center for San Jose:

Trade candidates

For the Sharks to have any shot of making it back to the postseason, they'll need to emerge from the All-Star break the same way the Blues did: by putting together a lengthy winning streak. St. Louis won 10 in a row coming out of the break last season, and San Jose might require something similar. But if the Sharks don't catch fire coming out of the break, it will be time to face facts before long.

If and when the playoffs become obviously out of reach, it will be time for general manager Doug Wilson to make some magic happen. The season can't be a complete loss, and he'll surely work the phones in an effort to expedite a partial rebuild. Considering the Sharks don't have their first-round draft pick as a result of signing Erik Karlsson to a contract extension, they need to recoup assets wherever they can get them.

Defenseman Brenden Dillon is the obvious name to keep an eye on, and the most likely San Jose player to be traded for two reasons. First, his physical style comes in higher demand the closer you get to the postseason. Second, he actually would bring back a decent-sized haul. Other players like Melker Karlsson certainly could be had, but the question will be if it is worth San Jose's while to do so, since he won't bring back anywhere near as large of a return as Dillon would.

As soon as it becomes obvious the current season is headed nowhere, the Sharks need to shift their focus to the future.

Boughner's audition

It hasn't been the easiest season to be an NHL head coach. Seven bench bosses already have been fired, including former Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. 

DeBoer, of course, has since been re-hired by the rival Vegas Golden Knights. His former top assistant, Bob Boughner, was promoted to Sharks interim head coach upon DeBoer's dismissal from San Jose. And, frankly, the coaching change appeared to provide the Sharks with the jolt they needed -- initially, at least -- as the team was far more competitive following the switch.

But three blowout losses leading into the All-Star break have sapped all of that momentum out of the Sharks, and Boughner hasn't shied away from calling out his players for unsatisfactory performances in those contests. While he definitely has the respect of the locker room, if San Jose continues its lackluster play coming out of the break, it might lead to questions as to whether or not Boughner is the right fit for the organization moving forward.

The other side of the lots-of-coaches-have-been-fired coin is that many of those established coaches now are unemployed -- but are unlikely to be for long. Most, if not all, will be hired to fill head coaching vacancies in the offseason, and Wilson wouldn't be doing his due diligence if he didn't consider all potential options. A strong finish for the Sharks this season likely would be a boon to Boughner's chances of having the interim tag removed from his title. But if it goes the other way, San Jose might have to make its second coaching change in a span of six months.

[RELATED: What has gone right for Sharks in disappointing season]

Balancing act

At what point does the current season become about the future? That might be the most important question facing the Sharks throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign. They've dug themselves a considerable hole, and while they still can dig themselves out of it, they need to be prudent in how they go about determining which players to give opportunities to.

The Sharks' ideal scenario, obviously, is making it back to the playoffs. But if San Jose encounters any sort of extended losing streak, that should probably signal Boughner and Wilson that it's time to see what the Sharks have in their system. Instead of giving ice time to known quantities, San Jose would be better off finding out which of its prospects are the real deal, and which aren't.

Maxim Letunov, Joachim Blichfeld, Alexander True, Jayden Halbgewachs, Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, Dylan Gambrell, Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaikin are all 23 years old or younger. Some of them already have made their NHL debuts, while others still are awaiting their opportunity. If and when the decision is made to focus on the future, the Sharks should throw as many of their fringe prospects against the wall as they're comfortable with, and see who sticks.

If San Jose does enter a rebuilding phase, chances are you'll be seeing plenty of those guys moving forward.

Sharks send trio of high-scoring forward prospects to Barracuda camp

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USATSI

Sharks send trio of high-scoring forward prospects to Barracuda camp

Sharks prospects Joachim Blichfeld, Ivan Chekhovich and Sasha Chmelevski will start the season in San Jose. They just won't do it in the NHL. 

The trio of promising forwards were among the 25 players named to the AHL Barracuda's training-camp roster Monday, ahead of all three prospects' first full professional seasons. 

All but four of the Barracuda players were in camp with the Sharks, and the team cut two more players to reduce their training-camp roster to 32. Blichfeld, Chekhovich and Chmelevski were among a group of forwards competing for roster spots following the Sharks' litany of offseason departures, but waivers-exempt forwards with AHL experience Dylan Gambrell, Antti Suomela and Alexander True remained with the Sharks on Monday, as did German rookie Lean Bergmann and former Kings winger Jonny Brodzinski. 

Blichfeld scored scored 114 points with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks last season, while Chmelevski (75 points with the OHL's Ottawa 67s) and Chekhovich (105 points with the QMJHL's Baie-Comeau Drakkar) also enjoyed successful final seasons in Canadian major junior. Chmelevski starred for the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championships, winning a silver medal and tying for second on the team with seven points at the tournament. They each played in one of the Sharks' preseason games, with Blichfeld (goal) and Chekhovich (goal, assist) getting on the score sheet. 

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None of Blichfeld, Chekhovich and Chmelevski are older than 21, and each likely will be relied upon to play big roles in the AHL. That doesn't necessarily mean you won't see them make their NHL debuts this season. 

"I think the good thing is that we’ve seen over the years that regardless of where you start, we need bodies, we need depth," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said last week (H/T The Athletic). "Guys are going to get opportunities throughout the season regardless of where they end up starting.”