Hockey is back in full swing.
The San Jose Barracuda could have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the American Hockey League for the 2021-22 season.
But more importantly, a return to normalcy with a manageable schedule, typical travel and regular fan attendance presents a sigh of relief for Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer and his team.
“It’s actually going to be fun seeing people in the building again,” Sommer said during his season-opening press conference. “They’re a big part of everyone’s organization and when you have all of those people behind you, it’s going to give us a lot of momentum.”
After last year’s shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate will return to a normal schedule with 68 regular-season games, including 64 intradivisional match-ups divided against the Bakersfield Condors, Colorado Eagles, Stockton Heat, Henderson Silver Knights, Ontario Reign, San Diego Gulls, Tucson Roadrunners and this year’s new addition Abottsford Canucks. 34 games will be played at home at SAP Center in San Jose.
Under Roy, the Barracuda have annually planned a preseason camping trip, but they weren’t able to do it last year.
However, this year, they managed to spend a few days together, creating some team-bonding activities during these trying times.
“We just did a camping trip a couple days ago,” Sommer said. “We brought everyone up north. Some guys had never been in sleeping bags before. It was fun. We played some beach games. We had a good camp fire. Everyone froze at night. That’s stuff they’ll talk for years to come, especially the guys who’ve never camped before.”
The Barracuda are well-equipped among the forward group for the upcoming campaign with seven of the 13 forwards on the opening night roster bringing in NHL experience. Sommer described that luxury with the forward depth as an “enjoyment.”
“It’s fun putting lines together,” Sommer said. “You can mix and match the first top three lines and you’re still going to have three really solid lines. We got a lot of fire power up front. We’ll hopefully score a lot of goals.”
Forwards Dylan Gambrell, John Leonard, Joel Kellman, Sasha Chmelevski, Noah Gregor and Joachim Blichfeld all seized opportunities with the San Jose Sharks last season, but will begin this year looking to showcase their scoring prowess at the American Hockey League level. With no taxi squad scenario this season, the options for call-ups will be plentiful with a handful of players with NHL experience.
Nick and Ryan Merkley are the only two former first round picks on the 2021-22 roster. San Jose acquired Nick Merkley in a trade with New Jersey for defenseman Christian Jaros during the summer. The 24-year-old center showcased his playmaking skill set in a limited role at the NHL level last season. He registered two goals and 10 points in 24 games with the New Jersey Devils. Nick accompanies off-season acquisitions and former Tucson teammates Adin Hill and Lane Pederson, who both cracked the Sharks opening night roster against the Winnipeg Jets.
Ryan enters his second season with the Barracuda. After a solid showing in training camp this year, Sommer believes the San Jose Sharks’ 2018 first round pick has room to grow defensively.
“Offensively, we know he has all the tools, but I think the biggest part of his game that has to improve is breaking up plays and killing penalties,” Sommer said of Merkley, who registered 11 points in 31 games last season. “He can move pucks and get back for pucks quicker. I’d like to see him shoot more. He’s been running our power play down here and getting more pucks through that first two layers, creating those second chances.”
In goal, Alexei Melnichuk has impressed Sommer from development camp. However, Sommer has not ruled him as the No. 1 netminder with Zach Sawchenko as the other contender.
“He’s made big strides through camp,” Sommer said on Melnichuk’s embrace of North American hockey. “There’s still some learning to be done, but he’s making progress. We don’t have a No. 1 yet. Both of those guys have to earn it.”
The San Jose Barracuda kick off the 2021-22 campaign today against the Bakersfield Condors at Mechanics Bank Arena. Puck drop is scheduled for 5 PM PST.
Roy Sommer also shared candid thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected him and those around him.
“This whole COVID thing should wake a lot of people up,” Sommer said. “I’ve had three good friends die from it, so anyone who says it’s not real is full of shit. I’ve seen it. These guys were pretty healthy. They got it and they didn’t get over it. It really brings everything into perspective. The hockey and the virus, we’re still feeling the effects of it. I could go on and on with it, but I think it really woke everyone that the human race is vulnerable. Hockey takes a back seat to that stuff.”
Sheng’s Travel Fund
Help fund Sheng's travel! Every dollar goes to the cost of getting to and from Sharks road games.