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Which Veteran Defenseman Will Sharks Sign?

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Credit: NHL

A glance at the San Jose Sharks defensemen depth chart reveals a glaring hole.

Behind Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the right side, San Jose has Ryan Merkley, and then…

Nicolas Meloche is a 23-year-old that the Sharks acquired last summer by sending goalie Antoine Bibeau to the Avalanche. The 26-year-old goaltender is currently without a contract, if that tells you anything about Meloche’s trade value. Nick DeSimone turns 26 in November and has played as many NHL games as you or I.

San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson referenced this last Friday: “You want to have a spot of competition for people. Pasichnuk signed with us. Merkley is obviously a first-round pick. [Jake Middleton] is a quality veteran who’s paid his dues. So you want them to be able to compete. But you also want to have competition.

“You don’t want to give spots away. We’ve got five NHL-quality d-men.”

So while Merkley and recently signed Brinson Pasichnuk (a lefty) offer exciting statistical profiles, it would be a major surprise if the Sharks went into the season with those two duking it out for the sixth defense spot. After the organization misevaluated its own prospects ahead of the 2019-20 season, it seems near impossible that Wilson will go into next year without a veteran defenseman in that role.

And there aren’t many veteran blueliners left on the free agent market, especially in San Jose’s price range. So who could Wilson possibly be targeting?

Wilson’s quote after signing bottom-pairing defender Dalton Prout last year may indicate the type of player he’s looking for:

“Dalton is a very smart defenseman who has shown he can move the puck cleanly under pressure and keep his turnover rates low,” said Wilson, “We believe his ability to hold the defensive zone blue line is underrated and that he is one of the best at limiting net-front rebounds by effectively using his size and stick. We’re excited to add his responsible defensive play to our blue line.”

It’s difficult to quantify that player profile.

Analyst CJ Turtoro has visualized Corey Sznajder‘s manually tracked data, which may help. Prout’s sample size of tracked data is small, so the caveat exists that these results have not stabilized yet. What the recorded data we have from the 2016 through 2018-19 seasons shows is that Prout did well when asked to break up plays at his own blueline. Among the defenders Corey tracked, Prout ranked in the 72nd percentile in terms of blueline entry attempts broken up.

Dalton Prout tracked data

The rest of his tracked data leaves something to be desired. Whatever Sznajder saw while re-watching Prout’s games, it certainly wasn’t a defenseman who “can move the puck cleanly under pressure” — and that’s not all that differed from Wilson’s assessment of the player. According to the NHL.com, Prout had one of the worst giveaway rates of all defensemen who played at least 20 games between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.

So it appears the one thing we have that may help us tie Wilson’s player assessment to quantifiable information is the blueline breakup ability.

Which Available Defensemen Fit Prout’s Profile?

Armed with Doug Wilson’s quote and Dalton Prout’s micro data profile, we can peruse the remaining free agents to see who the San Jose Sharks might have a contract for. Along with being steady at the blueline, we’re probably also looking for a player with size. Wilson believed Prout was good a “limiting net-front rebounds with his size and his stick,” after all. Though the Sharks don’t necessarily need to solve their right-shot blueline conundrum now — lefty Mario Ferraro, for example, played on the right side for a lot of the year — we’ll start with right-handed UFAs.

Puckpedia, as always, is a wonderful resource for this type of research. Here are the remaining UFA right-shot defensemen, sorted by games played in 2019-20.

In a word, this list isn’t most appetizing. Alex Pietrangelo will probably have a contract by the time you read this, and he wasn’t coming to San Jose anyway. Mike Green has retired. Prout, of course, is a UFA, but as Sheng Peng noted, he’s not quite ready to join an NHL team yet:

By process of elimination, we can cut this list down to three players who may fit the Prout mold.

Jan Rutta

Jan Rutta has performed well at the blueline the last three seasons disrupting would-be entries.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound sturdy right shot played depth minutes for the recently crowned Stanley Cup champion Lightning. Though he was known for his fluid skating and ability to move the puck while playing overseas, it’s likely that the depth defender’s reach and strength are what draw NHL teams to him. Of the 285 defensemen to suit up for at least 20 games during the past two seasons, Rutta’s rate of giveaways is the 16th-best, in the event Wilson is counting. Evolving Wild’s contract model projects Rutta’s market value to be somewhere around one-year, $824,000, which is ideal given the San Jose Sharks budget.

Rutta tracking data San Jose Sharks

Yannick Weber

The 32-year-old journeyman defenseman just finished his fourth season in Nashville. He’s just 5-foot-11, but at 200 pounds, he surely passes the size muster of NHL GMs. He’s registered about one hit per game, which makes him a touch more physical than Rutta. Clearly, his one major strength is breaking up plays at his blueline. Evolving Wild’s model assigns Weber a cap hit value of $651,000, which is below the veteran minimum of $750,000, so we’ll say he’s a veteran minimum contract.

Yannick Weber tracking data San Jose Sharks

Sami Vatanen

Vatanen is here because he’s been fairly disruptive at the blueline during the past few seasons. But, at just 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, the 29-year-old defender doesn’t quite fit the rough-and-rugged profile Wilson seems to be looking for — of course, the San Jose Sharks GM may have changed his search criteria since last offseason. Vatanen is also known more for his offensive prowess than his ability to box out forwards in front of his crease. And, there’s the pesky fact that Evolving Wild projects Vatanen’s next contract to be worth around $2 million for one season. That’s a tough sell for a team up against it.

Sami Vatanen San Jose Sharks

What About Lefties?

Because this signing doesn’t also have to fix the San Jose Sharks’ organizational depth, we can also look at lefty defensemen who still stand without a contract.

To spare you, we’ll list the players who meet the blueline disruptor criteria and whose projected contracts aren’t likely to be prohibitive to the Sharks’ pocketbook: Slater Koekkoek and Ben Hutton. Hutton and Koekkoek, like Weber and Rutta, also sport low giveaway rates, according to NHL.com’s database.

Who Will Sharks Sign?

Evolving Wild projects both Hutton and Koekkoek to be worth around $1.5 million on a one-year deal. Assume the Sharks sign Patrick Marleau to his rumored $1 million deal and Joe Thornton to a similar contract. That leaves the Sharks with about $4.7 million in cap space to sign a depth defender and add another NHL forward, while leaving some wiggle room for call-ups during the season. A $1.5 million deal for a depth defender isn’t a deal breaker. But if the Sharks are hoping one of Ryan Merkley or Brinson Pasichnuk overtake said defender, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on a signing while still bringing in a helpful player.

Using our research here and Wilson’s previous words, it seems likely that the Sharks have a candidate in mind. To understand what you’re about to see, here’s a primer:

Micah Blake McCurdy developed a model at HockeyViz to evaluate players. His model adjusts for a player’s teammates, opponents, and the score of the game, among other factors, to try to isolate as much as possible a player’s individual impact on the game. The output of his model is a heatmap that shows just what sorts of shots a player helps his team take on offense and prevent on defense. Dark red represents lots of shots for and dark blue represents a dearth of shots against. These individual outputs are paywalled, so I’m only going to share one with you, that of the player the Sharks are most likely to sign.

 

Jan Rutta San Jose Sharks Tampa Bay Lightning

Micah Blake McCurdy | Hockeyviz.com

Rutta checks plenty of boxes.

He’s big, he doesn’t give the puck away, he’s solid at breaking up zone entries, and it will probably only require a veteran minimum contract to lure him to San Jose. On top of all that, he has been a solid generator of offense in a depth role in Tampa Bay.

Rutta killed penalties for the Lightning and also played with Victor Hedman for portions of the season, which suggests the utility man can play up and down the lineup just fine. Rutta just added a Stanley Cup win to his resume, no doubt sending Wilson’s eye all a-twinkle.

The San Jose Sharks would probably be better off with someone more capable of exiting his own zone, but Rutta otherwise seems to fit both the hockey man’s ideal of a depth defenseman and the analytics nerd’s vision of a useful role player. For $800,000 or thereabouts, this deal would be too good for Wilson to pass up.

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timorous me

I’d be okay with someone like Ruuta, considering there are a couple young defensemen in the pipeline. I would prefer to see Ferraro get to play on the left side this year–it seemed like his game tailed off a bit after he moved more to the right–but I know there is an argument for playing D-men on their off side. Not sure I’d do it with Ferraro, though, since his future likely will lie on the left side with the right set for a few years, presuming no trades and Merkley coming up.

whiskerz

Guess we gotta wait and see who Sharks finally sign. Been a very quiet free agency period for us

SG

Ruuta or Weber.

Alaskan_ice

I have limited knowledge on Ruuta but it sounds like a good fit. I’m sure DW will find a way.

Analytics

Rocky Thompson: “Leave analytics out of the locker room.”

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Credit: Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

George Kingston was the San Jose Sharks’ first head coach. Fast forward to 2015: He was the President of the NHL Coaches Association when he sent a fateful e-mail.

“George Kingston always sent out an e-mail asking for people who would want to present at the NHL’s coaches conference at the NHL entry draft,” San Jose Sharks associate coach Rocky Thompson told Oilersnation earlier this week. “I felt I needed to get my name out there, so I called him and said I’d like to present.”

Thompson’s career was at a crossroads when he took the stage at the 2015 NHL Coaches Association Global Coaches’ Clinic in Florida. He was a coach without a team — the Edmonton Oilers had just fired his head coach Dallas Eakins — and he didn’t know if incoming head coach Todd McLellan would keep him.

There were over 400 coaches in attendance: “He blew them away.”

Windsor Spitfires owner Bob Boughner was one of them: “What he said really hit home with me.”

The Spitfires hired Thompson as head coach and he led them to the 2017 Memorial Cup. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights followed up, selecting Thompson to be their first-ever AHL head coach, and he led the Chicago Wolves to the 2019 Calder Cup Finals.

Trevor Letowski on Rocky Thompson’s Analytical Bent

How Rocky Thompson’s AHL Coaching Stint Will Help Sharks

Watching Rocky Thompson’s PP Breakouts with an NHL Coach

And now, the circle from Kingston to Boughner to San Jose is complete: Last month, the San Jose Sharks tapped Thompson to be part of the head coach’s staff. Thompson will be running the defense and the power play.

San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Thompson in a wide-ranging interview earlier this month.

Curious how the San Jose Sharks might maximize Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns’s talents? How Phil Jackson and the triangle offense will apply to the Sharks? As a coach, how to use analytics the right way?

Thompson, to say the least, loves nerding out about hockey.

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Analytics

Deep Dive into San Jose’s Prospects, Part 6: NHL Regulars?

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Lean Bergmann, San Jose Sharks
Credit: San Jose Barracuda

As we climb the ladder of San Jose Sharks prospects, we inch ever closer to those who stand a reasonable chance of playing for the big-league club. One of these next three prospects has already logged a few NHL games. All three of them offer promise for the same combination of things that help any prospect: Draft capital, scouting profile, production progression, and lack of competitive options in the Sharks pipeline.

It’s not reasonable to expect any of these players to become top-of-the-lineup material. Their trajectories arc toward complementary players at the professional level, but those are roster spots best filled with young players on cheap deals. This group of three players has a good chance to fill exactly that role even if it’s no certain thing. Welcome — to the borderline NHL regulars group!

Before you dig in, check out the rest of this deep dive into the San Jose Sharks prospects — this series began before the 2020 Draft, so it’s focused on non-2020 Draft prospects.

If you’re new to these, you can check out the introductory explainer article here — this will have all the definitions you need to know.

Part 2 looked at prospects — Jeremy Roy, Jeffrey Viel, and Jasper Weatherby — whose time is already up. And indeed, that’s the case for Roy, at least in the San Jose organization. Roy’s entry-level contract expired two weeks ago, and the the Sharks declined to offer him a new contract, making the 2015 second-round pick a UFA.

Part 3 examined players — Jonathan Dahlen, Thomas Gregoire, Jayden Halbgewachs, Nikolai Knyzhov, Maxim Letunov, Scott Reedy, and Danil Yurtaykin — who likely have just one more year left to prove themselves. Halbgewachs was recently signed to a two-year contract, which Letunov got one year.

Part 4 analyzed prospects — Zachary Gallant, Vladislav Kotkov, Jake McGrew, and Kyle Topping — who still have time left but are otherwise unlikely to become NHLers.

Part 5 focused on some of the more intriguing youngsters in the San Jose Sharks system: Zachary Emond, Joseph Garreffa, Santeri Hatakka, Krystof Hrabik, Timur Ibragimov, Zach Sawchenko, and Yegor Spiridonov.

So who are the Sharks prospects that I project to be borderline NHL regulars?

Lean Bergmann – W

Lean Bergmann played 12 games with the Sharks during the 2019-20 season. He finished the season with the big club, playing four of the team’s last seven games. In those four games he averaged just 7:54 of ice time and took just two shots on goal. 

Advanced metrics that adjust for a player’s context don’t show Bergmann in a very bright light, either. It’s too hard to take much away from a sample size of just 96 minutes of ice time, but his impact on even-strength expected goals for & against and shots for & against were all one standard deviation or more worse than average. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish given that the model in question pulls everything back toward average to begin with. 

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Bergmann struggled in the NHL. He was forced into a situation few 21-year-olds would envy: A team that had lost its high-end forward depth and would struggle immensely to begin a season that ended with a new head coach behind the bench. 

Lean Bergmann San Jose Sharks

Even without that context, it’s difficult to expect much from a prospect who never really got going until his age-20/21 season. As a 17- and 18-year-old in the USHL, Bergmann failed to crack the half-point-per-game mark before returning to Germany. There, he impressed, with a 0.58 point-per-game campaign. 

According to Elite Prospects, Bergmann’s scoring rate ranks ninth among 222 DEL forwards to play at least 20 games during a U21 season since 2000-01. We should note, however, that of the eight forwards ranked above him, most either scored at a higher rate at the same age or even earlier. The closest trajectory to Bergmann’s own was that of Marcel Müller. Müller played one game for the Maple Leafs but otherwise spent the better part of two North American seasons with the AHL Marlies. 

So why is Bergmann exciting? Not much exists in the way of scouting reports for the undrafted free agent. Those that are floating in the internet ether describe a combination of size, toughness, and shooting ability. 

Chris Legg of Dobber Prospects writes of someone who, for his size, “can really dangle and shoots the puck with authority.”

In an interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz, Barracuda General Manager Joe Will spoke of a forward who “showed character, skating, and good physio” despite a lack of production. 

A more in-depth scouting report at McKeen’s Hockey describes a player who, “has very quick hands for someone his size, and…can effectively utilize his size and strength to create offensive chances for himself.”

Usually, scouting reports that focus on size and strength aren’t incredibly encouraging. Bergmann, however, has already logged NHL time with the Sharks’ current head coach, however brief. He has skill to go along with his frame, and another year in North America should help him further acclimate to the smaller rink. According to Elite Prospects, Bergmann did score in the top one-third of 20- and 21-year-old forward seasons in the AHL since 2000-01. 

Right now, there are probably two or more spots in the San Jose Sharks’ bottom-six up for grabs. Bergmann may not necessarily have an inside track to one of them, but he has the profile and existing NHL experience to earn himself another stint with the big club whenever the 2020-21 season begins. 

Dillon Hamaliuk – W

The best thing going for Dillon Hamaliuk is his second-round draft capital. Nearly three-quarters of skaters drafted in the second round play at least one NHL game. A majority of them make it to 10 games. Part of that statistic has nothing to do with the player. NHL teams try their darndest to make expensive investments pan out: Just look at the opportunities the Sharks have given Dylan Gambrell relative to Noah Gregor. 

That something out of a player’s hands is the core reason he might make the big leagues isn’t a glowing endorsement. There’s more to the big forward’s chances than draft position, though. Byron Bader’s prospect model compares players’ scoring rates to those of thousands of other drafted players. After his draft season, Hamaliuk had a 45 percent chance to become a regular NHLer. 

Dillon Hamaliuk San Jose Sharks NHLe

Only about 40 percent of second-round skaters go on to play 80 NHL games, which we’ll consider makes them “regular.” If we knew nothing but the winger’s scoring rates at the time of the draft, we could safely assume he was following the trajectory of so many other second-round picks before him to the NHL. 

Jeremy Davis, formerly of Canucks Army, also built a prospect evaluation model. Davis ranked Hamaliuk as the 2019 draft’s 30th-best prospect. He was involved in more than 21 percent of his team’s 5-on-5 goals but had just a 19 percent chance of making the NHL. This discrepancy hints at Hamaliuk’s play behind the raw scoring totals. 

The season before his draft year, Hamaliuk’s impact on his team’s scoring network was poor. In other words, he was overly reliant on strong teammates for his scoring. We can excuse him for that as a young rookie playing in a tough WHL. The concern is that his inability to score without strong teammates has stayed with him.

Highlight reels, which are supposed to highlight a player’s ceiling, quickly become repetitive. Hamaliuk is scoring goals, often from up close and after rebounds and around the blue paint. He is rarely making a pass or creating a play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every team needs finishers. His brand of scoring probably just means he’ll need a sharp center to play with if we are to expect exciting goal totals moving forward. 

He makes the most of his teammates’ playmaking, however. InStat has tracked shot and expected goal differential since September 2018. Hamaliuk has been on the wrong side of the shot share ledger more often than not. Where he thrives is being on the ice for a high volume of expected goals. 

That isn’t a surprise. To quickly peruse a handful of scouting reports, I fed them to a word cloud generator. 

Dillon Hamaliuk San Jose Sharks Scouting Report

(Word cloud algorithm and image from Jason Davies)

You can see that some of the most prominent words in his reports have to do with strength, power, and the net front. There are also adjectives, including “decent,” “effective,” “solid,” and “good.” Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but they aren’t effusive reviews, either.  

The 2019-20 season was a challenge for Hamaliuk. Per Sheng Peng, he came down with mono in November and his scoring rates understandably fell. Per Elite Prospects, the power forward scored 0.7 points per game in September and October. In November and December, he scored just five points in 14 games. 

In Peng’s interview, Doug Wilson Jr. mentions that Hamaliuk was finally back and healthy three weeks before the interview, which would have been about the beginning of February. During the 15 games between February 2 and the end of the season, Hamaliuk scored 11 points, back at his 0.7 point-per-game rate from earlier. It’s good to see him rebound. It’s hard to get excited about a 19-year-old not cracking the point-per-game threshold in junior hockey. 

Hamaliuk’s statistical and scouting profiles point to someone who is good once the puck is in the offensive zone but who may not be helpful getting it there. His calling cards are his size and strength, which aren’t scouting terms that typically portend high-level success. His second-round draft position and the Sharks’ love of power forwards should provide Hamaliuk ample opportunity. Realistically, his NHL career arc is one of an effective bottom-six player.

Alexei Melnichuk – G

San Jose signed Alexei Melnichuk to a two-year entry-level deal in May this year. The Russian goaltender turned 22 one month later and is poised to play spoiler to the other goaltending prospects in the pipeline. 

It’s difficult to get a good read on goalies because there is so little information available about those who do not play in the NHL already. The best approach for Melnichuk might be to compare him to another goaltender whom he followed up the ladder in the St. Petersburg program: Igor Shestyorkin (Shesterkin).

Shestyorkin made his triumphant arrival at the NHL level this season for the New York Rangers as a 24-year-old. Melnichuk served as Shestyorkin’s understudy in the MHL, VHL, and KHL, tracking about two seasons behind Shestyorkin.

For example, Shestyorkin played his first KHL games during his age-17/18 season. Melnichuk didn’t see KHL time until he was 19. Here’s a comparison of the two goalies save percentages in the leagues in which they played the most games in a given season. 

Shestyorkin’s save percentages are much stronger than the Sharks’ free agent signing up until this past season.

This year, Melnichuk’s 0.930 in the KHL was very similar to Shestyorkin’s 0.933 during his age-20/21 season. The major difference? Shestyorkin accomplished this while playing nearly twice as many games. 

If the Rangers’ new No. 1 didn’t make the leap to the NHL until his age-23/24 season, it’s hard to believe Melnichuk will arrive much sooner. This is a very rough estimate, of course, but if Melnichuk is tracking about two seasons behind his older compatriot, then the earliest we should expect him in a San Jose Sharks uniform is the 2023-24 season. 

It’s exciting to have a young goalie with a track record of professional success. If Shestyorkin can be a star in the NHL, maybe Melnichuk can be an average goalie? That’s an ideal situation for an undrafted addition at a position of need.

Looking Ahead

This series covers 33 San Jose Sharks prospects in total, and doesn’t include 2020 Draft picks.

After this installment, eight skaters — about 25 percent of the total prospect pool — remain. Byron Bader’s database of historical draft picks says about 25 percent of all skaters (no goaltenders included) chosen in the Draft become NHL regulars. That places Bergmann and Hamaliuk right on the cusp of future NHL regular material. Melnichuk is in a different category, but his relatively promising track record and immediate access to the San Jose Barracuda’s crease give him a strong chance, as of this writing, of becoming an NHL regular.

There’s nothing certain about this group of players, but it feels safe to call them future borderline NHL regulars.

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