Mirco Mueller’s last appearance with the San Jose Sharks was a game in which he only played for 69 seconds.
This was thanks to a lineup snafu on January 11 against the Calgary Flames, and just one game following the first multi-point effort of his career. Much like his overall time with the Sharks, Mueller began that game with high expectations, was expected to be something he wasn’t (in the case of the game in Calgary, the refs literally expected him to be Paul Martin), and impeded by factors outside of his control.
Yes, Mueller failed to take the steps forward expected of a prospect of his first round pedigree, but the Sharks did him no favors.
Expectations were high for Mueller when San Jose traded up two picks to select him in the 2013 NHL Draft, when the likes of Anthony Mantha and Andre Burakovsky would have been available in the Sharks’ original selection slot. Thanks in part to a lack of blue-chip blueline talent in the system, San Jose rushed Mueller to the professional ranks after he completed his second season with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.
This, despite the red flags raised by his mediocre scoring pedigree in the WHL, which then-managing editor The Neutral noted on the night Mueller was drafted:
By all accounts, it sounds like Mueller has a decent shot of developing into a second-pairing two-way defenseman at the NHL level if a lot goes his way but it's also important to note that the track record of defensemen picked in the top three rounds who score at less than a 0.6 point-per-game clip at the CHL level in their draft year isn't great. Mueller's scoring rate was 0.49, which admittedly lacks a lot of context and was most likely at least in part depressed by the tough minutes he was playing and was perhaps also impacted by the fact that this was his first season on North American ice. But defensemen who don't excel at both ends of the ice in junior prior to being drafted generally don't turn into blueline staples in the big leagues. It's entirely possible Mueller bucks the trend and is one of the 10% who make it but I wouldn't necessarily bet on it and I can't see how he was worth giving up a second round pick in a deep draft to acquire.
The Swiss defenseman made the team ahead of the 2014-15 season, red flags and all, and was asked as a rookie at various points to play on his off side, alongside a far-past-his-prime Scott Hannan, and with a pre-Norris-nominee Brent Burns, who was then returning to defense after spending the previous one-and-a-half wreaking havoc up front on Joe Thornton’s wing.
Of course, Mueller didn’t exactly enter the league in a time of organizational harmony, either. He debuted in the NHL in the same season the Sharks decided to take a step back following a first round collapse against Los Angeles the previous spring.
This was season, if you recall, that began with Joe Thornton stripped of his captaincy, proceeded with him telling Wilson to “shut his mouth” during the stretch run, and ended with the organization and then-head coach Todd McLellan parting ways via “mutual agreement.” What rookie could expect to succeed in such an environment?
Mueller made the Sharks as an in-over-his-head 19-year-old during an incredibly dysfunctional time for the organization, and it showed. He played only 39 games during his rookie season, failing to crack the lineup over Hannan and Matt Irwin.
Used so sparingly, Mueller played for his country at the World Juniors that winter, an oddity for players who began the season in the NHL and burned through the first year of his entry-level contract. Ineligible for the AHL, he could have rejoined the Everett Silvertips following the WHL trade deadline, but finished out the season in San Jose.
Wilson, likely recognizing that Mueller wasn’t going to make the impact the team had hoped, acquired defensemen Brenden Dillon, Paul Martin, Roman Polak, and David Schlemko at various points to shore up the team’s defense. With a logjam in front of him under new-head coach Peter DeBoer, Mueller was also ultimately beaten out by Dylan DeMelo for a spot with the big club, and spent most of his second and third seasons in the organization with the Barracuda, the team’s AHL affiliate.
There, Mueller showed flashes, but continued to fall on the depth chart, which ultimately made him expendable on Saturday. Wilson deserves credit for recognizing that Mueller was unlikely to pan out in San Jose, and acquiring value (second and fourth round picks) for a player the organization had little use for, just as he did when eventually trading Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart.
Yet Wilson and the Sharks deserve some blame, too. The organization rushed him to the NHL, into a situation that was far from conducive for a young player’s growth, especially for a player that entered the league in need of patient development. His first year was wasted in the professional ranks when he could have continued to hone his skills as an overage player in junior, and by the time he was actually able to play significantly in his second season, it was probably already too late.
So now, days before the Sharks are set to draft another first round pick, Mueller heads to the opposite coast remembered as a cautionary tale. He has a chance to revitalize his career, and San Jose has some much-needed draft picks. The time was right to part ways, but the Sharks were wrong in how they handled his development. Wilson deserves credit for recognizing the former. Now that the Sharks have traded away three of their last four first round picks (only two of which were prospects), he can’t afford to fail to recognize the latter.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed that the Sharks had traded their last three first round picks, when they've actually traded three of their last four. We regret this error.