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Roster Cuts: Path for Eklund, Raska, Merkley to Make Sharks?

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And then there were 30.

Over the last couple days, the cuts to the San Jose Sharks training camp roster have come fast and furious.

Yesterday, before San Jose topped Anaheim 3-1, forwards Noah Gregor and Joachim Blichfeld were among six Sharks sent to AHL camp or juniors.

“Let’s face it, you come into camp, give people opportunities, and they sort themselves out,” Boughner said of Gregor and Blichfeld. “Those guys are still a big part of the future of this organization. If it’s not now, we need them to go down and dominate at that level and be ready when they get their call.”

This morning, defensemen Artemi Kniazev, Brinson Pasichnuk, and Montana Onyebuchi, along with goalie Alexei Melnichuk, were re-assigned to the San Jose Barracuda. Also, John Leonard was sent to AHL camp and Ozzy Wiesblatt went to juniors.

Shortly thereafter, forwards Jayden Halbgewachs, Joel Kellman, and Nick Merkley, and defenseman Jaycob Megna were placed on waivers. They’ll report to the Barracuda if they clear.

So what’s the path for rookies like William Eklund, Adam Raska, or Ryan Merkley to make the 23-man roster out of camp right now?

Forwards

There are currently 18 forwards left at training camp:

  • Rudolfs Balcers
  • Alexander Barabanov
  • Nick Bonino
  • Sasha Chmelevski
  • Andrew Cogliano
  • Logan Couture
  • Jonathan Dahlen
  • William Eklund
  • Dylan Gambrell
  • Tomas Hertl
  • Evander Kane
  • Kevin Labanc
  • Timo Meier
  • Matt Nieto
  • Lane Pederson
  • Adam Raska
  • Jeffrey Viel
  • Jasper Weatherby

Last night, San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner intimated: “You’re probably going to keep 14 forwards.”

Let’s assume these nine forwards — Rudolfs Balcers, Alexander Barabanov, Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Matt Nieto are shoo-ins for the opening night roster.

Let’s also assume that Evander Kane, currently under investigation for sexual assault, domestic battery, and COVID protocol violations, isn’t available for the beginning of the year – and won’t count on the roster.

That leaves eight young forwards, Sasha Chmelevski, Jonathan Dahlen, William Eklund, Dylan Gambrell, Lane Pederson, Adam Raska, Jeffrey Viel, and Jasper Weatherby vying for five jobs.

Out of this bunch, you’ll need to find a fourth-line center between Gambrell, Pederson, and Weatherby. It’s worth noting that Weatherby is waiver-exempt, Gambrell and Pederson are not.

Let’s say the San Jose Sharks play it safe, keep Gambrell and Pederson, and send Weatherby down. They could also keep Weatherby up and waive either Gambrell or Pederson – it’s hard to see them waiving both. Regardless, you now have just three spots left for five forwards.

Now it’s Chmelevski, Dahlen, Eklund, Raska, and Viel for three winger spots.

Let’s presume Dahlen is safe for now. The 23-year-old is also the only one of this remaining five to not be waiver-exempt. So now that’s four wingers for two jobs.

Eklund and Chmelevski provide a little more skill. Chmelevski is also versatile; he’s played a lot of center at the pro level.

Meanwhile, Viel and Raska offer a more physical element. 2020 seventh-rounder Raska has been a pleasant training camp surprise.

“He just makes an impression every time he plays,” Boughner said of Raska last night. “He plays with heart and soul and a ton of urgency and that’s something we need.”

Of this group, Eklund has been the most impressive performer. It doesn’t matter his age or size – or lack thereof. At the moment – Eklund is a top-nine forward in San Jose. He’s also helped a generally moribund Sharks power play – he has four PP assists in three exhibition games. Right now, there’s every reason for Eklund to start the season with the Sharks. Reminder: As long as Eklund plays less than 10 NHL games, the Sharks won’t burn a year off his ELC.

“He didn’t really get anything five-on-five, but I thought Eklund was awesome,” Boughner said of the Swedish winger’s work against the Ducks. “He controlled the play tonight every time he was on the ice and played with a lot of confidence.”

So that leaves more skill – Chmelevski – or greater will – Raska or Viel – for one job.

This can also be Kane’s spot, if the San Jose Sharks are carrying him on their 23-man roster on opening night.

Defensemen

The San Jose Sharks currently have 10 defensemen left at training camp. If they’re going to carry 14 forwards, that means they’ll have to pare this list down to seven:

  • Brent Burns
  • Mario Ferraro
  • Santeri Hatakka
  • Erik Karlsson
  • Nikolai Knyzhov
  • Nicolas Meloche
  • Ryan Merkley
  • Jacob Middleton
  • Radim Simek
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Brent Burns, Mario Ferraro, Erik Karlsson, Nikolai Knyzhov, Radim Simek, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic appear to be shoo-ins.

In that case, Santeri Hatakka, Nicolas Meloche, Ryan Merkley, and Jacob Middleton are vying for a single spot.

Hatakka has probably been the best performer of this bunch throughout camp, but there’s an argument against putting him on the NHL roster unless he’s guaranteed games – why strand a developing 20-year-old blueliner on the bench every night? That would be Hatakka’s fate if he’s the seventh defenseman.

I could see Hatakka starting the season in San Jose and sitting a Simek.

The same could be said for Merkley – the 2018 first-round pick needs to be playing games. Another argument against him breaking camp in the big leagues? His skill-set is duplicated with the San Jose Sharks by Burns and Karlsson. So Merkley won’t necessarily be seeing time on the power play.

“I showed I could play defense against these guys,” Merkley remarked of his overall preseason last night. He led the San Jose Sharks with 20:30 TOI yesterday, adding a goal and an assist.

Both Hatakka and Merkley are waiver-exempt, while Middleton and Meloche are not. I’m not sure either would be claimed if they went through waivers. Regardless, either veteran AHL defender could work as your No. 7.

Here’s where it might get interesting: Knyzhov is currently nursing an undetermined injury and considered week-to-week. If he starts the season on the IR, there’s suddenly somewhere to suit up on the San Jose blueline.

That decision might come down to choosing between the more defensive Hatakka or the more offensive Merkley.

I could also see the San Jose Sharks perusing waivers or free agency or trading for some talent in the lead-up to Oct. 16. That will obviously depend on the talent available.

But last season, they claimed winger Rudolfs Balcers off waivers, signed defenseman Fredrik Claesson, and traded for defenseman Christian Jaros before the beginning of the regular season.

Goaltending

The San Jose Sharks currently have two goaltenders left at training camp:

  • Adin Hill
  • James Reimer

They’re also the two goalies that San Jose should start the season with, health willing.

James Reimer showed well in last night’s victory – meanwhile, Boughner has said that Adin Hill will get the last two preseason contests. It’s not set in stone, but Hill is projected to be San Jose’s opening night starter.

Can Hill take the reins and prove he’s a No. 1 netminder at this level? He’s going to get a chance, starting Oct. 16.

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