Maybe it is a new day for the San Jose Sharks?
No, not because they opened the pre-season with a 5-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sharks went 5-1-0 last pre-season, for all the good that did them on the way to the fourth-worst record in the NHL.
Instead, it’s more about a change of philosophy.
“Last couple of years, I think it was a little easy to get to the NHL,” Tomas Hertl said of the path from the Barracuda to the Sharks.
Hertl is referring, I believe, to the end of the Doug Wilson era. From 2019 to 2022, 29 Sharks made their NHL debuts. That was a league high.
Of those 29, the only sure-fire NHL’er was Mario Ferraro. Nikolai Knyzhov, Noah Gregor, and Jeffrey Viel are right there too, with top prospects William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau waiting in the wings.
Here’s the full list, by year.
2019-20 (9): Danil Yurtaykin, Mario Ferraro, Lean Bergmann, Noah Gregor, Joachim Blichfeld, Joel Kellman, Alexander True, Maxim Letunov, Nikolai Knyzhov
2020-21 (9): Nicolas Meloche, John Leonard, Fredrik Händemark, Sasha Chmelevski, Alexei Melnichuk, Jeffrey Viel, Josef Korenar, Brinson Pasichnuk, Ivan Chekhovich
2021-22 (11): William Eklund, Jonathan Dahlén, Jasper Weatherby, Ryan Merkley, Santeri Hatakka, Artemi Kniazev, Scott Reedy, Jayden Halbgewachs, Zach Sawchenko, Adam Raška, Thomas Bordeleau
Suffice to say, this is no murderer’s row of prospects.
GM Mike Grier, when he took over last summer, vowed to change this open-door policy. Head coach David Quinn echoed this before the beginning of last season.
“When you rush a player and give them something he doesn’t deserve, A, I think it’s counterproductive to development, and B, the other players in the locker room look at that situation a little funny,” he said. “I think when Mike and I talked, he certainly feels strong that these guys have to earn their opportunity. We can’t just give it away because they’re a good young prospect.”
Last year, just five Sharks made their NHL debut, Nick Cicek, Eetu Makiniemi, Henry Thrun, Danil Gushchin, and Tristen Robins. And just two of them debuted before the Trade Deadline, after which San Jose waved the white flag on their season.
It’s worth noting too, that none of them debuted on opening night, unlike Yurtaykin, Ferraro, and Bergmann in 2019, Leonard and Meloche in 2020, and Eklund, Dahlen, and Weatherby in 2021.
That is more evidence of Grier’s approach, that he didn’t pencil in any NHL neophytes into his first 2022-23 line-up. It looks to be the case this year too.
The additions of Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Givani Smith, and Filip Zadina up front, on top of Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Kevin Labanc, Luke Kunin, Alexander Barabanov, Oskar Lindblom, Nico Sturm, Jacob Peterson, and Fabian Zetterlund, give the San Jose Sharks 14 more experienced forwards battling for jobs. Like I said, Eklund and Bordeleau are itching for their spot too.
On the blueline, San Jose have 10 defensemen who aren’t waiver-exempt that you can conceive on the opening night roster.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ferraro, Jan Rutta, Radim Simek, Matt Benning, Nikolai Knyzhov, Kyle Burroughs, and Jacob MacDonald are the vets, with prospects Nikita Okhotiuk and Leon Gawanke pushing. There’s also waiver-exempt Henry Thrun.
“That’s what I wanted from day one — to have competition in here, internal competition where guys are pushing themselves, and the guys from underneath are pushing up to grab a spot,” Grier said on Thursday. “You’ve got to play well — it’s the best league in the world for a reason, and no one should have a spot in the league or in the line-up given to them.”
I’m not saying the Sharks are making the playoffs, but it’s a good problem to have.
“That’s what we’re trying to create here, an atmosphere of competition,” Grier said, “and I think we have that this year, and it will definitely lead to some tough decisions down the road.”
Speaking of those tough decisions…
Thrun starred with two goals, one on the power play, and an assist, as another PP was expiring.
Good fake by Thrun https://t.co/sM7cQYPIaw
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 25, 2023
This was an admittedly inexperienced Golden Knights squad that Thrun faked out there.
But for a San Jose Sharks power play that doesn’t have a clear No. 1 quarterback, it was a pretty good audition for Thrun.
Quinn said that Thrun will continue to get looks on the PP in camp. He also backed up Thrun, who said during morning skate that he feels quicker after this off-season.
“He’s done a really good job this summer working on the things we touched on that he needed to get better at,” Quinn said. “He’s had a really good camp.”
“I really like his game,” Hertl agreed. “He’s young, but he’s got a lot of confidence. He’s really a good skater. And he’s got some skill.”
Rutta also got a turn up top on the power play, and notably, Zadina played bumper, while lefties Duclair and Hoffman got the prime right flank position on the man advantage, conducive for one-timers. The Sharks didn’t try out a five-forward PP unit, which Quinn said was on the table. It’s only one exhibition contest, so let’s not read too much into all this, but it’s worth monitoring.
Also on the bubble? Quinn reviewed the play of Bordeleau, who centered Duclair and Barabanov.
“I thought Bordy skated hard and did some good things with those guys,” he said. “I thought that line got better and better as the game went on. I thought they got off to a little bit of a slow start.”
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