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Behind Timo Meier’s lost season

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Timo Meier #28 of the San Jose Sharks prepares to take the ice for warmups against the Columbus Blue Jackets at SAP Center on January 9, 2020 in San Jose, California. Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

In the deluge of a dismal season, it’s easy to lose sight of your foundation.

Timo Meier is a critical piece of that foundation for the San Jose Sharks. The 23-year-old is on pace to become one of the most accomplished draft picks in San Jose history.

Last season, Meier became one of just four Sharks players age 22 or younger to score 30-plus goals in a season:

  • Logan Couture: 31 goals (2011-12, 22 years old)
  • Devin Setoguchi: 31 goals (2008-09, 22 years old)
  • Timo Meier: 30 goals (2018-19, 22 years old)
  • Logan Couture: 32 goals (2010-11, 21 years old)
  • Jeff Friesen: 31 goals (1997-97, 21 years old)

Meier is also one of just eight San Jose draft picks to score 70-plus goals in his first 250 NHL games:

  • Jonathan Cheechoo: 100 goals
  • Logan Couture: 97 goals
  • Devin Setoguchi: 80 goals
  • Jeff Friesen: 74 goals
  • Pat Fallon: 73 goals
  • Joe Pavelski: 73 goals
  • Milan Michalek: 71 goals
  • Timo Meier: 70 goals (*246 NHL games, as of February 3, 2020)

For comparison’s sake, in their first 250 games, Tomas Hertl scored 59 goals and Patrick Marleau potted 58.

This year, however, the theme for Meier has been unfulfilled expectations — and there’s good reason for it.

Last summer, Meier was part of perhaps the most impressive RFA winger crop in NHL history. Young stars like Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrik Laine and Meier, among others, signed lucrative extensions.

While the San Jose winger doesn’t have the fanfare of a Marner or Rantanen or Tkachuk or Laine — Meier, according to several scouts who I’ve spoken with, resides in at least the lower echelon of this elite group. In addition, Meier also made a strong analytical case for himself last season.

It’s against these expectations that we have to assess his 16-goal campaign: Has Meier been a difference-making first-line winger on a consistent basis this year?

The consensus is a resounding no.

“He’s lost his bite,” one scout complained. “He’s lost what makes him very good.”

The nadir of Meier’s season, perhaps, was December 27 against Los Angeles, when he was benched in the third period and overtime.

“You can’t dress 12 forwards and have eight or nine show up. We had a couple guys not sticking with the structure. Not playing within the team system,” Bob Boughner admitted after the 3-2 loss. “We can’t keep going on like this. Beating a dead horse. You have to send some messages.”

This wasn’t the first time this year, of course, that Meier had been called out in public.

So where has Meier been inconsistent this season?

Power

“Timo is such a powerful guy, we’re trying to train him to use that a little more,” Boughner noted. “Be heavier. More straight lines, instead of pulling up and try to cut to the middle.”

This is what Boughner was talking about, from January 11 against Dallas:

Meier (28) pulls up at the blueline as he’s approaching Jamie Oleksiak (2), opting for a tough pass up the middle to a well-covered Hertl (48).

Despite Oleksiak’s imposing 6-foot-7 frame, Meier could have tried a more north-south approach, use his feet and low center of gravity to beat the slower Oleksiak to the outside.

The scout agreed: “In his contract year last year, he played fast, heavy, with bite. Looked like a power forward with skill and tenacity and shooting. He looked like an all-purpose f***ing player, on a learning curve where I thought he’s going to be a f***ing great player.”

“We talked to Timo a lot about sticking to what he does best,” Boughner revealed. “He’s a powerful guy in getting to that net and dragging people with him, being that big body and physical. That’s the way he scores goals. When he veers away from that and tries to play that skill game...”

Meier’s intent here in St. Louis on January 7 — a drop pass to Evander Kane (9) to create a two-on-one down low — is understandable, but the execution is lacking. Hindsight is easy here, but this might be a situation where the Sharks might want a more direct attack.

“He’s still a power forward, but it’s the B-game. Last year was the A-game,” said the scout.

Engagement

When Boughner talks about “not sticking with the structure,” here’s an example from January 18 at Vancouver:

When Erik Karlsson (65) pinches down from the right point, it’s Meier’s job to cover for Karlsson. Meier does that.

But when Karlsson makes a poor pass back to the point, Meier, as the last line of defense at the blueline, shouldn’t be chasing pucks that he has no chance of winning. This is a time to retreat, not attack — it’s not even a 50-50 battle. Instead of defending a 3-on-2 with Meier, Mario Ferraro (38) has to face a 3-on-1 by himself.

Mistakes like these suggest some lack of concentration or engagement from Meier.

Pressured by Pittsburgh’s forecheck on January 2, Barclay Goodrow (23) moves the puck up to Meier. Granted, Meier doesn’t have a lot of time, but he selects the worst possible option — a soft pass up the middle that’s easily picked off by Dominik Simon (12). There’s the old hockey adage, if you’re going up the middle, you better be sure.

Meier has two defensive responsibilities here on December 14 against Vancouver: the high slot and the left point. He fulfills neither.

Notice his stick position, held too high, not low enough to prevent a pass along the ice, into the slot.

Then, Meier loses track of Quinn Hughes (43), allowing an east-west pass to the left point.

“This year, he’s quieter. Last year, he had more bite, more willing, more motivation,” the scout remarked. “Every game you saw him, you were like, Christ. He wants to have success, he wants to score, he wants to get points.”

Eye Test vs. Analytics

According to Hockey Viz, however, Meier’s isolated offensive impact on shot rates at 5-on-5 remains robust:

The top charts are Meier’s isolated offensive impact (positive is preferred on offense), whereas the bottom charts are his isolated defensive impact (negative is preferred on defense). This +20.0 figure leads all San Jose forwards at 5-on-5, suggesting that Meier is the team’s most-impactful offensive forward for the majority of a game.

So what’s not jiving between these charts and the eye test? What’s different for the Swiss winger this year as opposed to last?

It may be that Meier is still doing a lot positively on the offensive end, just not as much as expected.

For example, here’s a scenario that might not be captured by publicly-available stats.

The scout hypothesized: “It’s not so much perimeter. It’s the will. It’s in the battle area.

“For example, net front, he might’ve stayed in a tripod position, screen the goalie, taken a hit or two from a MacDermid and said f*** it, I’m not moving. That’s what he would’ve done last year.

“This year, versus MacDermid, he might go there or not. Or he might find an easier way to get rid of MacDermid. He might make MacDermid chase him behind the net, use the net as an obstacle and hang him there, then go to the front of the net, time it when the shot’s coming.

“That’s the difference.”

Another possibility is that Peter DeBoer, Boughner and every scout who I’ve spoken with about Meier is wrong about his performance this year.

Going Forward

Or maybe everybody’s a little right.

All these things can be true: Meier is a prodigious talent who hasn’t reached his full potential. Meier is capable of producing positive results even in an off year. Meier is a heavy player who can be heavier. Meier is an offensive force with work to do defensively.

The scout believes that Meier hasn’t reacted well to the first year of his four-year, $24 million dollar extension: “He’s having an adjustment year. You’ll see any player’s A-game in a contract year. Once he gets his contract, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find that A-game with regularity.

“This is all just part of the process. Part of reality in the league.”

The scout cited another inconsistent young forward who eventually blossomed into a team captain: “His contract year was really good. The next, he had three points in 17 games to start. The GM asked, ‘F***, what’s wrong with this guy?’

“I felt like saying he just got a seven-year deal. That’s what’s wrong with him.

“So I talked to him four times, then the fifth time, the gloves came off. I said, f*** it, I’ve had enough. I told him, you’re f****** comfortable. You’re playing f****** comfortable. It was denial, denial, denial. But anyway, you say that to one of your special guys, he won’t be happy.

“Eventually, he figured out. Eventually, he looked in the mirror. I probably hit a nerve. He probably thought, I better get f****** going here. Pissed him off, pissed me off, but he’s still there.”

For his part, Boughner said of Meier, “He’s very receptive [to coaching].” He added: “For a young guy that had a great year last year, it’s not an automatic that you’re going to come back and score 35, 40 goals.”

But that’s the expectation going forward for a talent of Meier’s caliber. Next year, the Sharks need Meier to reach his potential to get back to the top of the Western Conference. Of course, that’s what they counted on this season.

“The better read on him will be next year,” the scout concluded. “The next year, I guarantee you, he’ll add more snap to his game. He’ll look back and think, ‘I can play better than that.’ And he can.”