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Ryan Merkley Is Growing Up

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Ryan Merkley, San Jose Sharks, San Jose Barracuda
Credit: San Jose Barracuda

Ryan Merkley isn’t even 20.

But it feels like he’s been in the public eye forever, doesn’t it?

Since the Guelph Storm made the 15-year-old the No. 1 pick in the 2016 OHL Draft, Merkley has experienced a series of very public ups and downs.

In his rookie season, there was a bench argument with his head coach. Despite top-five talent, questions about his maturity and defensive commitment caused him to drop to No. 21 in the 2018 NHL Draft to the San Jose Sharks. Even last year, Merkley was subjected to an outlandish rumor that he had been sent down to a Junior B team.

But through it all, Merkley has continued to produce: His 269 career points is the most among all 2000-born OHL defensemen. And by most accounts, his temperament and defensive game have improved by leaps and bounds.

Turning 20 this Friday, the San Jose Sharks’ top prospect is now getting ready for his first pro season from his Oakville, Ontario home.

San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Merkley, who spoke candidly about how he used to “coast” on the ice, what’s inspired him to get ahold of his emotions, and what he’s learned from Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He also reflected on the dark side of being a teenage hockey celebrity in Canada and how he and his parents have learned to cope with the overwhelming attention.

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San Jose Sharks

What’s Doug Wilson Doing with Sharks Forwards?

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Credit: flrent (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If the San Jose Sharks are done this off-season, they’re not going to look remarkably different up front next year.

I don’t mean in terms of names and faces. San Jose legend Joe Thornton going to Toronto is change enough. Meanwhile, long-time penalty killer Melker Karlsson is also gone.

I mean in terms of proven NHL ability.

In October 2019, the San Jose Sharks had, by my count, 10 NHL-proven forwards:

  • Logan Couture
  • Evander Kane
  • Timo Meier
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Marcus Sorensen
  • Patrick Marleau
  • Joe Thornton
  • Melker Karlsson
  • Barclay Goodrow

The 2019-20 Sharks finished last in the Western Conference.

One year later, San Jose has…wait for it…10 NHL-proven forwards:

  • Logan Couture
  • Evander Kane
  • Timo Meier
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Marcus Sorensen
  • Patrick Marleau
  • Stefan Noesen
  • Ryan Donato
  • Matt Nieto

Of course, it’s not simply about quantity, it’s also about quality. Assuming Couture, Kane, Meier, Hertl, Labanc, Sorensen, and Marleau at least hold serve — a big if considering the 41-year-old Marleau’s advanced age — we’re weighing Donato, Nieto, and Noesen versus Thornton, Karlsson, and Goodrow.

Safe to say, neither trio is to be mistaken for the Legion of Doom.

Donato has second-line upside but was a fourth-liner on an average Minnesota squad. On youth and upside, I’ll give him the edge over the 41-year-old Thornton, who is a question mark as a potential third-line center with the Maple Leafs.

Colorado leaned on Nieto on the PK as much as San Jose relied on Karlsson there. Nieto also adds an element of a speed and perhaps a touch more offense, so the Long Beach native should be a small upgrade.

Goodrow and Noesen isn’t really a comparison. Goodrow has proven to be an ace penalty killer and a Stanley Cup-caliber role player — Noesen, up to this point in his career, is a fourth-liner who hasn’t displayed any special teams value. While both are ultimately bottom-six forwards, Goodrow is clearly the more valuable NHL player right now.

So is Donato, Nieto, and Noesen versus Thornton, Karlsson, and Goodrow perhaps a wash? It’s close either way. Anyway, this isn’t point: The point is, right now, are the 2020-21 San Jose Sharks appreciably better at forward than the 2019-20 version?

I’m not convinced.

I haven’t forgotten about Joel Kellman, Noah Gregor, Dylan Gambrell, or Antti Suomela, but I don’t consider any of them NHL-proven. Gregor may also be the only forward in this group who has legitimate middle-six upside.

Fredrik Handemark, John Leonard, Lean Bergmann, Alexander True, Joachim Blichfeld, Sasha Chmelevski, and Jayden Halbgewachs should also be in the mix, but they’re all huge question marks at the NHL level because of their inexperience. None of these forwards are blue-chippers either.

So here’s the question that San Jose Sharks fans are rightly asking: What’s Doug Wilson doing?

The Sharks have about $3 million dollars in cap space. It’s the stingiest free agent market in recent memory, meaning bargains a-plenty.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Soderberg, Erik Haula, Josh Leivo, Dominik Kahun, and Conor Sheary are among the cost-friendly middle-six UFA forwards still available.

Last summer, San Jose made the mistake of heading into the season relying on too many unproven forwards. Besides Bergmann and Gambrell, Peter DeBoer was forced to dress Danil Yurtaykin and Lukas Radil on opening night.

“Looking back,” Wilson admitted last week, “maybe I didn’t have enough depth and competition last year, early in the season.”

By March, Gambrell was the only NHL regular of the aforementioned group.

And granted, last off-season, the Sharks didn’t boast significant cap space, it wasn’t a buyer’s market, and Kane was suspended for the first three games of the season.

That’s not the case here: It’s a buyer’s market and San Jose has money to spend.

Wilson, however, countered yesterday: “Would it be nice to add some things? We probably have to re-establish certain areas of our game and earn some things to be added.”

That sounds like Wilson is planning to start the 2020-21 season with this forward group as is.

He also added, of 2019-20’s rotating cast of young forwards: “We have some guys who had a taste last year, they’re now going to be a year older. So we think they’re ready to compete.”

Wilson isn’t wrong here and should know his internal assets better than anybody else. A lot can change in a year. But he also burned credibility last season with his reliance on in-house help that didn’t help.

Okay, so we’re at least two-and-a-half months away from the start of the season. There’s still plenty of time for Wilson to add to his forward group and at a reasonable price. We should be careful about taking the GM’s public statements at face value.

But right now?

Safe to say, there are more questions than answers in this San Jose Sharks’ line-up.

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Locked On Sharks

Let’s Get Sad About Joe Thornton Leaving San Jose

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Joe Thornton

Kyle, Erik, and JD are very sad. We talk about Joe Thornton’s signing with Toronto, where we were when we heard the news, and how we spent the weekend coping with the news. We look at his signature moments on and off the ice with the San Jose Sharks, including his famous four-goal quote (15:00), punching Petr Mrázek (21:30), and his fellowship with the boys (23:15). Check out the podcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

 

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San Jose Sharks

Joe Thornton Lost the Faith — Doug Wilson Hasn’t

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Doug Wilson was a little wrong.

In this morning’s press conference to discuss Joe Thornton signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he said the San Jose Sharks were second to the Pittsburgh Penguins in wins and points since Jumbo’s first game in teal on December 2, 2005.

While San Jose is indeed second in victories — they have one less than Pittsburgh’s 660 — the Sharks have the most points (1,443), regulation wins (531), and regulation-overtime wins (589) in the NHL since Thornton’s arrival to then-HP Pavilion. They’re also tied for the best power play (20.9%) and have scored the fourth-most goals in the league.

And yes, all those points and goals didn’t amount to a Stanley Cup — but it’s just one way to underscore Thornton’s impact on the San Jose Sharks franchise.

Here’s another way.

“There’s probably very few players in all sports that could alter a franchise in the way he has,” Wilson said. “Even more than the numbers, he set a culture of professionalism, an unmatched love for the game of hockey. He really helped solidify, I think, the city of San Jose as a true hockey town.”

Of course, Wilson deserves just as much credit for that, from agreeing to suit up for the expansion San Jose Sharks after a distinguished playing career in Chicago, to acquiring Thornton as Sharks general manager.

But here’s something that Wilson might be very wrong about: Is San Jose still a playoff team?

Wilson asserted last week: “Do I think this is a playoff team with this roster? Yes, I do.”

Joe Thornton had his doubts, otherwise he would’ve come back.

Wilson acknowledged as much: “[Toronto] had a better year than we did last year. That’s a fair and honest evaluation with where it sits today.

“Joe, at 41, is looking at where the runaway left is and the opportunity. I fully understand that.”

It’s not as if Wilson didn’t try to keep his franchise icon. But Wilson — understandably after years of doing so — wasn’t willing to push all his chips into the middle of table anymore with this current San Jose Sharks roster.

“Joe and I have a very open, honest relationship. I shared with him the things that we were doing,” Wilson noted, before revealing, “we weren’t going to…in this year’s draft, we ended up drafting nine forwards. We needed to rejuvenate and replenish our system. I wasn’t really in a position to move, potentially, our first-round pick next year.”

It’s fair to say the San Jose Sharks are out of the “all-in” game, and Thornton could see that. The additions of Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Donato, Matt Nieto, and Marleau didn’t move the needle enough for somebody who’s declared “I’m a Shark” on multiple occasions. Even last February, Jumbo was already pining for greener pastures.

“I need to win a Stanley Cup,” the 41-year-old acknowledged on a Zoom call this morning.

Joe Thornton: “I need to win a Stanley Cup.”

Wilson tried to accommodate Thornton’s wish during the most recent Trade Deadline: “Joe and I were working on it together, but there just wasn’t a match. There wasn’t a team that he wanted to go be a part of or a team that needed a centerman or that type of fit. We worked together on that just as I did with Patty Marleau. We just couldn’t get a match.”

So what are the San Jose Sharks, if they aren’t “all-in” anymore? They’re still trying to win, of course — but they’ll have to do it with a jumbo-sized hole in their line-up and in their hearts.

“You don’t replace the love of the game, the passion and the energy that he brings. It’s up to everybody else who saw what he did, how he lived his life, emulate that and bring it to the table so we can re-establish our game and our team,” Wilson said of Thornton. “You have to have a whole leadership group. It’s on a whole group of players. It’s not a one-person leadership mentality.”

Wilson expressed faith in a group that honestly, Thornton looks to have lost some belief in.

“We as an organization have gone through this a couple times before in the past and we’ve bounced back very quickly,” Wilson pointed out, hearkening back to a disastrous 2002-03 season that segued into the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals berth the next year and a up-and-down 2014-15 campaign that led to a 2016 Stanley Cup Final appearance. The San Jose GM added: “When Patty went to Toronto [in 2017], you had players like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Barclay Goodrow, Tomas Hertl step up and evolve their game.”

So who’s going to rise to the occasion for the Sharks next year?

Wilson pointed to the team’s younger veterans: “Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, it’s their time. They need to step up to the next level.”

Besides Hertl, Meier, and Labanc, he referenced captain Logan Couture and Evander Kane: “We’ve got five top-six forwards.”

He added, talking about Joel Kellman, Fredrik Handemark, Dylan Gambrell, and other pivots who have never played regular top-nine NHL minutes: “I’ve got eight or nine centermen to vie and fight for those two spots [at third and fourth-line center].

Wilson has spoken consistently about “Our best players needing to be our best players” all off-season — and there’s no doubt that he’s addressing Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

“I like our defense,” Wilson noted. “I want to leave a spot open for some competition for some of the younger guys.”

He’s also hoping for more out of the Gambrells, Joachim Blichfelds, and Noah Gregors on his squad: “We have some guys who had a taste last year, they’re now going to be a year older. So we think they’re ready to compete.”

The San Jose Sharks have about $3 million dollars in cap space right now. They’re missing an NHL-proven top-six forward, an entire third line, and a bottom-pairing defenseman. They still have time — will they take advantage of the stingiest free agent market in recent memory? Or will they pretty much stand pat?

Thornton, it seems, has made up of his mind on that score. Wilson, as usual, wasn’t tipping his hand to us.

“Would it be nice to add some things?” Wilson mused. “We probably have to re-establish certain areas of our game and earn some things to be added. We certainly have that flexibility to do that.”

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