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.
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.
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.