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Off the Charts: Using NHLe to evaluate development of Sharks defense prospects

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Ryan Merkley aaaaand...

2018 NHL draft Ryan Merkley San Jose Sharks defenseman
One defenseman to rule them all
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A little while ago we looked at Emmanuel Perry’s new NHL equivalency (NHLe) scoring rates to see how the San Jose Sharks’ forward prospects developed last season. Today, we’ll use the same scoring rate measurements, as well as a few other numbers, and put the organization’s defense prospects under a microscope. While high scoring rates at a younger age correlate well with future NHL success, points aren’t everything for a defenseman, so take the numbers with a grain of salt.

Player ages in the following chart are as of July 15 this year:

Ryan Merkley, defense prospect for the San Jose Sharks
Ryan Merkley is officially the Sharks best defense prospect
@manny_hockey

One thing that becomes clear looking at this table is that San Jose has not done a great job of drafting and developing defensemen recently. The Sharks drafted just three of these eight players, and they took all three of those since 2015. Ferraro is likely on a longer timeline because of his NCAA path, Roy has now torn his ACL in back-to-back seasons, and Merkley, as good as he is, is still a season or to away from joining the mother club. Everyone else on this list has been acquired via free agency or trade, and none of those players brings a particularly exciting statistical profile to the team.

You likely don’t need a table to tell you this, but Ryan Merkley is officially the Sharks’ best defense prospect. His NHLe is tied for third among these eight players, but he’s the youngest by nearly two calendar years. Mario Ferraro represents the team’s next-best drafted defense hope. However, since scoring for defensemen isn’t everything, we can look at each of these prospects’ chances at making the NHL, according to Perry’s model.

Jeremy Roy, San Jose Sharks defense prospect
Jeremy Roy might not be as exciting as we thought
@manny_hockey @gableingaround

Jeremy Roy was once considered the Sharks’ most exciting defense prospect. Two knee injuries later and we’re left to wonder what his future holds. Using Perry’s prospect model, however, we can see that the year before he was drafted was Roy’s best in terms of NHL potential. Even his impressive 2015 season departed in a bad way from NHL relevancy.

Middleton has improved his NHL outlook during each of his two seasons with the Barracuda. Because of that progression and his place atop the Barracuda defense pecking order, Middleton is likely closest of all defense prospects to seeing NHL ice time. Unfortunately for him, it would take an injury and/or trade or two for a spot on the Sharks roster to open and breathe life into his chances of making the show.

Radim Simek and Nick DeSimone of the San Jose Sharks
Despite the hype, Simek’s chances of making the NHL are relatively slim
@manny_hockey and @gabelingaround

Though Radim Simek has been the subject of beat writer praise, this model disagrees with the idea that he might be next in line for NHL time. No model is perfect, and prospect success models seem particularly subject to the whims of uncontrollable factors, so this is not to suggest Simek has zero chance of making the NHL. It does give one pause before declaring the defender heir to the seventh defender throne, however.

Nick DeSimone has been Jacob Middleton’s partner the past two seasons. The two have formed a decent, if not special, combination. Both skaters played an estimated 15 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time last season, per Prospect-Stats, a full minute and change more than the next closest defender. It seems the Barracuda coaches trusted those two (and Roy, who enjoyed a similar amount of time on ice when healthy) more than the rest of their cadre. For all that, Perry’s model believes the top-pair AHL duo has no more than a 30 percent chance of making the NHL.

Mario Ferraro and Kyle Wood of the San Jose Sharks
Ferraro might have a future with the big boys
@manny_hockey and @gabelingaround

The Kyle Wood for Adam Helewka trade was one of two AHLers with dwindling chances of becoming NHL players, though Wood currently boasts the second-best chance among all Sharks defense prospects of making the league.

Beyond Merkley, Ferraro shows best according to this model, at least in terms of NHL likelihood. The left-handed defenseman was an important part of his UMass Minutemen team’s scoring network (more so than the much more highly-touted Cale Makar), something that doesn’t always show up in raw scoring rates:

Unfortunately, Perry’s model thinks Ferraro would be a below-replacement level player were he to jump to the NHL next season.

Thomas Gregoire, like Merkley, doesn’t show up on the same visualization that highlights the other defenders’ chances of making the NHL. Perry’s model gives Gregoire (based on his 2017-18 season) a 33 percent likelihood of becoming an NHL player, with a projected WAR of just below replacement-level.

Merks

I had to leave the good stuff for the end to keep you reading. Ryan Merkley turns 18 years old in August of this year and his skill and statistics turned heads leading up to the draft. Not only does Merkley project to have the only positive WAR per 82 games of all the Sharks’ defense prospects, but his projected wins above replacement ranks fourth among all 2018 drafted defenders. Only Rasmus Dahlin, Evan Bouchard, and Ty Smith project to have a bigger impact. Merkley is also the only Sharks defense prospect with higher than a 50 percent chance of making the NHL. His 78 percent likelihood ranks fourth again among all 2018 drafted defenders, trailing only Dahlin, Smith, and Adam Boqvist. Merkley is in rarefied air not just among Sharks prospects, but among prospects drafted this year, period.

The sad truth about the Sharks’ blueline prospects is that they are far from the swashbuckling marauders the team and fans hope might roam lower leagues awaiting their chance at NHL glory. Unfortunately, that assertion comes as no surprise. We have to go back to the 2005 second-round pick of Marc-Edouard Vlasic before we can find any early-round defense successes. Dylan DeMelo and Joakim Ryan, like Jason Demers and Justin Braun before them, bucked trends on their weird and winding ways here, but constantly relying on sixth-round picks to worm their way into NHL contention is not a sound strategy. Whatever the reason, the organization has simply not had selected defenders well. This crop seems to be no different, with the exception of Merkley.

The organization must do all they can to pave the young, talented defender’s path forward. If everything goes well, he’ll be seeing regular NHL time by the 2020-21 season.