No moment more succinctly summarized Timo Meier’s season than that which occurred in the Sharks’ locker room after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Meier had scored twice during the 6-3 victory, including a Forsberg-esque finish around Blues’ goalie Jordan Binnington. On Meier’s second goal, he deflected — from behind the goal line — the puck off Binnington and into the net. After the game, Meier was asked if he had intended to score the second goal. In an exchange that was somewhat reminiscent of Joe Thornton butting into a question asked of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, who, along with Meier, influenced four of the team’s six goals, took it upon himself to answer.
Meier says he was trying to score on 2nd goal. Couture interjected, "He's always trying to score."— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 12, 2019
From the first shift of his rookie year, it’s been clear Meier typically has just one thing on his mind. The Swiss star wasn’t always able to turn that desire into results, but it appears this year he found out how to flip his proverbial switch.
During the 2018-19 season, Timo Meier established himself as one of the preeminent offensive talents in the league. This season, 388 forwards played at least 400 minutes at 5-on-5. Per Corsica, Meier’s 2.1 primary points per 60 minutes ranked 19. The cohort of forwards who scored between 2.1 and 2.2 primary points per 60 minutes is the following list:
- Viktor Arvidsson
- Sean Monahan
- Jonathan Huberdeau
- Elias Pettersson
- Patrick Kane
Though Meier has helped the team create offense since his rookie season, we can consider his third season to be his breakout year. Gone seem the days when coaches, teammates, media and fans alike harped on his penchant for taking QMJHL-type shots. While Meier’s shooting accuracy still hovers around league-average, he’s learned patience with his shot selection without sacrificing much shot volume. For the first time in his career, Meier’s shooting percentage on unblocked shots was higher (only just barely) than expected (EvolvingHockey).
These facts all evidence growth and the point to something in particular: Even if the 22-year-old forward never becomes a true sharpshooter, his offense-driving play should sustain his goal scoring.
It is Meier’s offense-driving ability that is the key to his growth. Some players are empty-calorie point producers. They rack up goals and/or assists by playing with strong teammates or finishing dangerous plays that others created. These players’ point totals belie their actual impact on the game, leading to overvaluations and undeserved — to varying degrees — contracts. Meier might be the opposite, a player whose individual raw point scoring may never live up to his true on-ice impact.
If there is anything else to take away from Meier’s outstanding third season, it’s that he left some points on the table. Or, perhaps more aptly, the Sharks left some goals on the table while he was on the ice. Meier’s main forward line — he played 277 minutes with Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski at 5-on-5 this year — generated 3.2 expected goals per 60 minutes. Of the 225 forward lines to play at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 together this season, that figure ranks 29. The trio scored 12 goals during that time, but were expected to score closer to 15 (Corsica).
Meier continued his strong regular season into the Sharks’ Western Conference Final run. He led the team in 5-on-5 shot and expected goal share relative to his teammates. He scored 5-on-5 primary points at a rate higher than all but 20 other playoff skaters (Corsica). He generated the 10th-highest rate of individual expected goals at 5-on-5 and led all conference finalists in that metric during the playoffs while the Sharks were still in the tournament. Only Logan Couture was on the ice for a higher rate of 5-on-5 expected goals among Sharks skaters (Natural Stat Trick). When the puck was near the opponent’s net this season, there was a good chance Meier was there, too.
He did all this while looking like a first-line forward. With each passing week, Meier seemed to have a better grasp on how to use his size to his advantage. There were regular highlight clips of him walking seasoned defenders and powering his way to the net to create scoring chances. More importantly, Meier didn’t revert to his old, scattershot self when things didn’t go as planned. During scoring slumps the forward simply kept at it, seemingly at peace with the knowledge that his point production would rebound so long as he continued creating offense at the rates he did.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
Meier’s ice time jumped from borderline second-line use to borderline first-line use. His primary point production at 5-on-5 left last year’s scoring rate in the dust. If anything sums up what Meier’s season has looked like in comparison to his career to date, it’s this chart. There was no smooth transition from his sophomore year to his breakout season. There was 21-year-old Timo Meier and then there was superstar-in-the-making Meier with miles of empty ice in between.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
The twins behind Evolving Hockey created a player evaluation model that adjusts for teammate, opponent, zone starts, the score of the game and the venue. This chart shows, on the left, that Meier had an outsized impact on the Sharks ability to generate even-strength goals, expected goals and shot attempts. The right-hand chart shows that Meier was also an astute power player, positively impacting the rate of expected goals and shots the team created with the man-advantage.
A chart of his three-year career to date looks similar. But this year’s impact is his most impressive. At even strength, only nine forwards this season produced a greater impact on offensive expected goals. Just 14 eclipsed Meier’s shot-generation impact. He sits behind 29 forwards who had a more impressive impact on their teams’ offensive goals. Whether through individual scoring or impact on his team, Meier produced offense like a top-line forward.
This goal starts on the forecheck. Meier pressures the St. Louis Blues’ defenseman on his way out of the zone. The pressure helps Couture make a play on the puck that springs Meier. Then he turns Bouwmeester around and stays strong, even as Parayko whacks at his arms. The finish is something for which words do no justice.
What comes next?
The areas where Meier can improve are his shooting, his defensive play and his transition game. If Meier finds out a way to constantly shoot above his expected shooting percentage, his volume of shots will lead to a pile of goals in a hurry. Defensively, he was actually solid this season. Still, if Meier ever wants to command a Mark Stone-like contract, he’ll have to make a bigger impact in his own zone. Finally, since an impressive rookie season controlling the neutral zone, Meier’s zone exits have slowed down. This output may be more a result of his increasingly offensive role than it is a sign of changes in his play, but it’s still a consideration. If he can round out these three pieces of his game while maintaining his current offense, he’s going to be a very impactful player for years to come.
First, Meier and the Sharks have to figure out his next contract. Evolving Wild have built and released the results of their contract projection model. The model believes the most likely outcome for Meier’s next contract is a six-year deal worth $5.89 million in average annual value (AAV). However, that model can’t take into account the fact Meier’s agent and Sharks’ general manager, Doug Wilson appear to have begun discussing the possibility of a less expensive bridge contract.
Wilson, on challenge of Meier's post-entry level contract: "We've done bridge contracts. I've had conversations with his agent. Timo certainly understands how everybody has been treated; we'll treat him well." pic.twitter.com/bnmlsMCP8k— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 23, 2019
Per the contract projection model, some of Meier’s potential, shorter contract projections include:
- 2 years, $3.7 million AAV
- 3 years, $4.185 million AAV
However, if we look at the Sharks recent contract history with other, successful first-round picks, we can see that Meier’s cap hit may come in even lower than expected.
the Sharks gave both Couture and Hertl 2-year bridges that were about 4% of the cap for the first year of the bridge deals.— playoff (timo) time (@FowleBall15) June 7, 2019
If the cap goes up to $83m next season, Meier's looking at something like a 2 x $3.32 deal
Splitting the difference between four percent of an $83 million cap hit and the contract projection algorithm, we’re left with something in the neighborhood of two years, for $3.5 million AAV. Not bad for someone who is worth closer to $8 or $9 million annually.
If Thornton returning is a foregone conclusion, then Meier signing is the team’s next biggest priority this off-season (assuming Erik Karlsson has decided to play elsewhere). Knocking a few million off his projected annual value will go a long way toward ensuring the Sharks can maximize their current cap space, even if said contract will pay Meier far less than he’s worth.
Whether the team bridges Meier and then figures out a big contract or locks him down long term right now, the young forward figures to be a crucial part of the Sharks’ plans for the foreseeable future.