The Sharks began what might end up as the most critical stretch of the 2022-23 season Monday night with one of the two “comfortable” victories they’ve had this season.
San Jose is now one game into an 11-contest stretch that includes six meetings with teams in the bottom eight of the NHL standings. There are no games in this run against the clubs that look elite to this point. It’s a chance for the Sharks to play their way back into the fringes of postseason contention. Conversely, if they muddle their way through the next 10 games with a similar, .500-ish record, that might be the clearest indication the front office can see that making a playoff push just isn’t likely to happen.
Even the comfortable win Monday night came after a really sloppy first period against an undermanned Senators team. The top players dominated Ottawa in the second period and coach David Quinn was most pleased with how well his club managed the third period with a lead … something that has been one of the problem spots this season.
The Sharks are in Seattle on Wednesday night, and the Kraken are currently the best team (by points percentage) San Jose faces between now and a mid-December trip to Los Angeles.
We tackled one of the biggest questions of the early Sharks season — what does Erik Karlsson’s scorching-hot start mean for his future with the club — in Part 1 of this edition of the Sharks mega-mailbag. Now it’s time for Part 2, which includes a bunch of topics.
Let’s dig in.
Note: Submitted questions may be edited for clarity and style.
I know the Sharks could get several picks for Timo Meier but picks aren’t always guaranteed to get you quality guys. I truly believe Timo can be THE quality guy for years to come and the chemistry he shares with Tomas Hertl is undeniable. I just love his physicality, relentlessness and shot. Any chance the Sharks are able to keep Timo? — Carlos M.
There are several questions about the overall direction of the franchise that aren’t going to be part of this mailbag but will be referenced in a story/column that’s likely going to publish closer to the end of this week or at the start of next week. Meier’s future is going to be a huge clue about how close the new regime believes the Sharks are to being a good team.
I certainly think there is a chance the Sharks keep him. The argument about how long it will take to get back to being a playoff team/title contender is a little different with Meier than it was with Hertl last year at this time. Meier is three years younger, and could easily still be an elite player when San Jose is a good-to-great team again, even if that takes 4-5 years.
It’s a tricky situation though. Trading Meier will likely, but not definitely, make the process take longer. Keeping Meier would also likely, but not definitely, make it harder for the club to pick high in the draft if it’s not a playoff contender this year or next.
Ideally, the Sharks would keep Meier, and sign him to a long-term deal with a cap hit below the $10 million qualifying offer they must extend to him this summer to retain his rights for one more season before he can become an unrestricted free agent. And GM Mike Grier would be able to move some of the other long, expensive contracts to retool the roster and find more cap flexibility.
But, this is far from an ideal world. Meier is the most valuable trade asset in the organization, outside of maybe William Eklund and the club’s 2023 and 2024 first-round picks (because of the potential for them to be high selections). He’s also the only player on the roster that counts more than $5 million against the cap without any trade protection in his contract.
So, do Grier and his staff believe they can turn the Sharks into a contender in the next 2-3 years? If so, keeping Meier would be essential. The money shouldn’t be a problem, unless Meier wants more than $10 million per season. The cap ceiling is expected to start going up again, and there will be relatively easy ways to make room for Meier if he and the Sharks want him to stay.
Do the Sharks believe this process might take a little longer? And the longer this season goes without the club in the playoff picture, will they see an opportunity to add a young impact player at the top of the 2023 draft as the right step in the process?
If so, then Meier will likely be traded. The Sharks don’t have to do it before the coming trade deadline, but giving potential contenders two guaranteed playoff runs with him would likely drive the price up.
Who from the Barracuda has impressed you? Thoughts on the top prospects: William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau and Ryan Merkley? — Jamie M.
I’ve seen the Barracuda play in person three times so far this season, plus the rookie tournament and training camp. This is going to read way more harshly than intended, but the honest answer is closer to no one than a long list of guys.
That is not to say that several of the Sharks’ prospects aren’t having a solid start to the season. The most recent game, a 6-0 win at Tucson, might be the breakout performance for the kids that they needed to kick on from here. Eklund, Bordeleau and Tristen Robins are all producing at a rate that is totally fine for first-year AHL players. They also combined for four goals and eight points in the most recent game.
Watching them in person, and again it was only three games, I would say that each of those three guys is doing a couple of cool things per game, but there wasn’t enough consistent impact over the course of several shifts to think they are definitely ready to step in and help the Sharks right now. The last game I saw was the comfortable win against San Diego. Bordeleau had a great pass to set up a goal. Eklund made a sweet move to create a chance that would have been highlight-reel material. But really watching them closely … there were plenty of shifts where they were just kind of out there.
Those two guys in particular are not with the Barracuda to work on their offensive creativity. Both of those guys could dress for the Sharks on Friday against the Kings and look like creative NHL players in the right situations. But are they ready for everything else, from winning puck battles to managing the puck when it’s needed to defensive responsibilities? It would be hard to say so from those three games.
That’s also totally fine, and the point of having them in the AHL. The only way those guys were going to have a brief stay across town was if they dominated or if there were serious injury issues for the Sharks. Just being solid or making a few good plays per game wasn’t going to earn them early promotions.
The other “kids” — Robins, Daniil Gushchin, Brandon Coe and Ozzy Wiesblatt — were all likely to spend most if not all of this year in the AHL, if not into next year as well. Robins has been really solid, and has some similar stuff in his game to Bordeleau. The other three are off to varying degrees of slow starts, but it’s their first real, full AHL season (the COVID-19 shortened year wasn’t the same considering the schedule and the watered-down league). It’s just too early to get too worried about any of them.
Merkley is a different story. There should be high expectations for him, given his age and experience. He is up to seven assists in 14 games, but he’s had at least a couple of rough games (because I saw them). Merkley’s best path to the NHL would be to get into a bunch of physical battles along the walls and win enough of them to show he won’t be a liability. It’s possible that his offensive creativity and passing ability won’t be enough to carry him. His quickness and short-area skating is strong, but he’s not fast and struggles to deal with the pace of some speedy forwards. The problem is in the NHL, like 80 percent of the forwards are speedy, compared to the AHL level.
Of the prospects who aren’t as young, Strauss Mann spent some time in the ECHL, but he’s made the most of limited chances with the Barracuda. Also, I wouldn’t say that Artemi Kniazev had great games when I’ve seen him, but he had some positive moments and flashed some NHL-level tools.
Anyone from the group of new minor league goalies standing out yet? — Neil O.
Mann has played really well for the Barracuda, but it’s only three games. He also had a strong summer camp and played well in the rookie tournament. He’s been an underdog his entire career because of his size, and that’s probably not going to change with the Sharks — especially after Grier added another bigger goalie (Eetu Makiniemi) that he has to compete with right now.
And Makiniemi is off to a strong start this season with a .926 save percentage in seven games … but that’s still a tiny sample. He only played 14 games last year because of an injury as well.
Below the AHL, Mason Beaupit started the year on a bad team (Spokane) but got traded to one of the best in the WHL (Winnipeg). He’s had two really good starts in three games for the Ice and could get some valuable high-stakes experience later in the year for a Memorial Cup contender.
Benjamin Gaudreau’s numbers have slid from last year, but two bad starts out of 18 games are part of that. He’s still a contender to make Canada’s world juniors team, but I’d imagine he needs to play better over the next few weeks if he wants to be in the lineup at the WJC. And Magnus Chrona is humming along with solid but unspectacular numbers for one of the best teams in the NCAA.
The Sharks don’t have a Yaroslav Askarov/Jesper Wallstedt type of prospect in net, but they have amassed a collection of intriguing players that will be worth monitoring over the next couple of seasons.
The Sharks need scoring and Logan Couture is a goal scorer — would it be wise to move him to the wing? Strum could play center and handle the defense so Logan would be free for offense. Sturm is big and could handle top centers. Doesn’t it seem like they keep putting bottom-six wingers up there that maybe have a good game or two then flip another? — John G.
Is Sturm trade material or will he end up part of a new “core” for the next few years? — Geno S.
The Sharks have settled, for now, on Matt Nieto and Alexander Barabanov has Couture’s wingers. It’s been one of the longest stretches for the captain having the same two linemates in a while, and it’s gone pretty well. Couture has been on a bit of a heater with six goals in the past seven games, some of which occurred after John submitted his question.
I don’t think the Sharks have any designs on moving Couture to the wing to help his offensive output. Right now, 10 goals and 17 points in 21 games is great production from any team’s No. 2 center. But Couture is really the team’s No. 3 forward, offensively speaking, and still its most important defensively.
Barabanov is fine as a complementary forward on a top-six line, but the Sharks could obviously use another potent offensive player and slotting him next to Couture would make a lot of sense. That could be one of the prospects in the near future, or it could be an offseason addition to explore if the Sharks do plan on keeping Meier and trying to build a playoff contender for next season (they would need to clear some cap space, though).
Sturm has had a strong offensive start to the season and he’s deservedly been promoted from the fourth line to the third. But that’s probably as high as he needs to go.
I can certainly see the argument for entertaining trade proposals for Sturm. If he continues to play well as the team’s No. 3 center, he’s on a very team-friendly contract. He’s a coach’s dream. The media certainly respects his willingness to be honest and insightful, but we can also be too quick to anoint a player a “leader” because he gives good interviews. That said, there’s no reason to believe that his new teammates don’t respect his candor, work ethic and willingness to “play the right way.”
Put all of that together, and he could be a valuable addition for a number of contenders. But … that also makes him pretty valuable to the Sharks, and to a new GM/new coach who have both preached setting a particular type of culture. Sturm seems like a near-perfect manifestation of that.
When a recent report said Grier would listen on anyone, save for maybe Hertl, that makes a lot of sense. And I’m sure if someone made a “whoa, that much, eh?” offer for Sturm, Grier and his staff would have a real conversation about it, and maybe even take the deal. But Sturm would also be pretty high on the list of “yeah, we’ll listen, but we’re not that interested in trading him, either” guys on the roster right now.
I don’t think that necessarily makes him a “core” player. Maybe if we group them into inner-circle and outer-circle core players, he’d be firmly in the latter right now.
Is a trade on the horizon for Noah Gregor? Seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaches and doesn’t seem to fit Mike Grier’s “hard to play against” style. — George R.
Gregor falling out of favor and spending so much time as a healthy scratch is probably the most surprising roster development of the season so far. Though I’d say James Reimer starting 14 of the first 20 games despite both goalies being healthy is also a contender.
It seemed like Gregor was an easy choice as a breakout type of player, just because of the number of scoring chances he created last year and the bad luck/poor finishing that could be correctable. I’m not sure the “hard to play against” style has really been the issue for Gregor. He just didn’t play very well at all in the early part of the season. If he’s not creating a lot offensively, then the other parts of his game are going to get more scrutiny.
Maybe getting back in the lineup Monday and scoring a goal will spark him. I wouldn’t say that was a “vintage” Gregor game like the best of his performances from last year, but it might be a step in the right direction. A trade seems pretty unlikely, because this would be moving him at a low point in his value. If he could start producing regularly, and the coaches/front office still weren’t satisfied with the rest of his game, then that might be a good time to try to flip him elsewhere.
That said, he’s 24 and still under team control beyond this season. It’s worth waiting to see if he can get it going again. Even if he never becomes a clinical finisher, a guy with that speed can be valuable in a depth role.
Is Joe Thornton still around the team facilities often? Any rumbling of an official role? — Scott S.
Jumbo has been at the various team facilities on a pretty regular basis this season. Practices at Sharks Ice, games at both SAP Center and Tech CU Arena, the tall guy with the bushy beard isn’t tough to spot. Never say never applies here, but it seems like a pretty solid bet that Thornton’s playing days are now behind him.
Whether or not he wants an official role with the organization, likely in hockey operations, remains to be seen. There hasn’t been a lot of chatter about it recently. It’s not like he needs the money, and I’m sure the Sharks are willing to give him as long as he wants to make up his mind on what’s next for him.
Devils fan here still following you since your move to the West Coast — I’m sure the weather and scenery is great, but given the fortunes of the current and former teams you cover, any tinges of regret? — Graham S.
The short answer is nope. It was fun to get back to The Rock earlier in the season and see a lot of old friends, but my decision to leave New York City/covering the Devils was much more a personal/lifestyle decision than a professional one. I lived in the Washington, D.C. area and Manhattan for about 10 years each, but I’ve always been someone who enjoys being in or near the mountains, hiking and that sort of thing. And being out here that sort of thing is everywhere, whether it’s the local stuff or a quick flight to Hawaii, Montana or the Pacific Northwest.
I’m happy for the people who have been with the Devils for a long time and are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. They’re a fun team to watch, and the barn is rocking again like it hasn’t since those two playoff games in 2018.
How was your trip overseas for the Global Series? What did you see? What did you eat? What did you like/not like? Any recommendations? — Donald C.
It was amazing. There are still two more Sharks stories coming from that trip, one this week and the other hopefully sometime next month.
I spent five days in Berlin and four in Prague. Both are great cities. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Berlin, but it’s a fascinating place.
Part of the Berlin trip didn’t get plastered all over social media for a reason … once that story is published, there will be more photos on Twitter/Instagram. I really enjoyed the Hertha Berlin match at Olympic Stadium. That was my first proper European football match, and everything about it delivered. There’s so much history in the city as well, and they have not shied away from trying to come to terms with the worst parts of it. Wonderful public transportation city as well — spent lots of time on the S-Bahn and the U-Bahn and they put every subway/tram in this country to shame.
My favorite foods in Berlin … the doner kebap (not kebab!) at Mustafa’s Gemüs was wonderful. I went to Fleischerei Domke a couple of times because Anthony Bourdain went there for “Parts Unknown.” Had the cordon bleu, the black pudding and the currywurst. Everything there was great. One of my grandmothers was Very German, and she used to make potato pancakes all the time. So I had them at two different places as well.
Prague had been hyped up to me by other hockey writers for a long time, and it took about one hour in the city to see why. It is now probably my second favorite city in Europe behind Rome. I told Hertl that and he approved (he’s also a big Rome fan).
I didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee in Prague, but it’s a city that is worth taking your time in. Old Town is the type of place where you feel like you have to stop at every street corner to take a photo. I stayed in Karlín, which is a wonderful neighborhood between Old/New Town and the arena where the Sharks played. Everything was walkable. Everything was beautiful. I’ll definitely go back at some point on vacation to see the other two-third of the city that I didn’t get to.
My favorite meal in Prague was at Di Carlo, which is an Italian restaurant in the suburb that Hertl grew up in. Trust me — when he told me the place to go was a pizza/Italian place on the outskirts of the city limits … I was skeptical. But it was an incredible meal — I had duck rissotto, a pizza (though I didn’t finish it, either) and one rather tall glass of Czech beer. And it was like $28 USD before the tip.
Every Sharks fan who goes to Prague should go to Di Carlo. They are quite proud of their hometown hero.
What’s your confidence level in Arsenal winning the league? — Fernando M.
Very low. But … higher than zero percent!
I’ve been a fan since 2010, and this feels like the first time where just finishing in the top four wouldn’t be a satisfactory season. Fully expect Manchester City to win the league, but finishing second would be a great accomplishment.
More than anything, this team has reignited my feelings about the club and the sport at its highest level after a lot of frustration recently. Arsenal have had lots of great players over the past 12 years, and the Gunners have played, at times, a fun-to-watch brand of football. But this team does feel different.
It is the deepest team they’ve had, and easily the best back line plus goalkeeper combo they’ve had since the prime Arsene Wenger glory days. There isn’t a world-class superstar (yet), but there are so many really, really good young players. I don’t watch matches waiting for the bad things to happen (though I’m sure there will be some of that later in the season). I’m not nearly as worried about every good young player getting scooped up by Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
Get back into the Champions League for next year, lock up more of the young core on long-term deals and plan on hanging around near the top of the league over the next few seasons. That works for me. And then hope that City slips up one of those years and maybe that’s not a Death Star-level season for Liverpool and Chelsea as well.
(Photo: Stan Szeto / USA Today)