The last time both the San Jose Sharks and their AHL affiliate missed the playoffs in the same season, Dean Lombardi was still the general manager.
Despite that fact — both the Sharks and the Cleveland Barons missed the 2003 postseason — current San Jose Barracuda general manager Joe Will and Sharks Director of Scouting Doug Wilson Jr. are excited about the future of the organization. Both spoke yesterday afternoon in a Zoom call that covered the cancellation of the AHL season, among other topics.
Sasha Chmelevski, Joachim Blichfeld and Noah Gregor stood out to Will among younger Barracuda prospects this year. The trio finished in the AHL’s top-25 in points per game among under-22 forwards.
“Chmelevski was trending toward the end of the year,” Will pointed out. “First six games, he only had a point, then in his next 36, he had 26 points.”
He was also particularly pleased with Maxim Letunov and Jayden Halbgewachs’s campaigns.
Will noted that the Barracuda finished the year with points in 11 of their last 13 games, a nod to work of the two-headed monster behind the bench. That said, Will made clear that it wasn’t his preference next season to have Jimmy Bonneau and Mike Chiasson as co-coaches.
“I would prefer to have [one head coach and a staff of assistant coaches],” Will said. “I think that’s really what you need.”
He also alluded to giving Evgeni Nabokov more help. Nabokov was promoted from goaltending development coach to NHL goaltending coach mid-season, but no one official was hired to take his place on the development side.
“It’s hard to be in two places,” Will acknowledged. “We’re not sure how that’s going to be drawn up. But the quality and vision of Nabby, we have the hard part done.”
Speaking of next year’s Barracuda, the organization’s top prospect will finally become an AHL regular — if he doesn’t make the NHL first.
The consensus is that Ryan Merkley will have no problem delivering offense at the professional level. Merkley, in fact, will finish his OHL career as the third-highest scoring four-year defenseman in league history. It’s defense that’s the question.
“He’s never going to hit guys like Brent Burns and Radim Simek, he’s going to play defense more like Erik Karlsson,” Wilson Jr. said. “If we can get him to use his stick to angle guys off in the neutral zone and get the puck going up north faster, that’s how he’s going to play defense.”
Another defenseman that Merkley might model his game after is Quinn Hughes. Now keep in mind, the expectation isn’t that Merkley produces like Karlsson and Hughes, Wilson Jr. was simply mapping out how the 5-foot-10 blueliner will have to defend to thrive at the NHL.
“It’s on him now to take this time to get his body into a pro body, work with Mike Potenza,” Wilson Jr. offered. “If he puts the work into it, he’s going to have a very good career with us.”
There are also high hopes for Jonathan Dahlen, who racked up 77 points in just 51 Allsvenskan games. The 22-year-old forward could actually play for the Sharks this season, if they’re pressed back to service.
As for next year, however, Will wouldn’t commit to the Swedish winger’s destination: “There’s flexibility. We’re very bullish about his year.”
The San Jose organization is also bullish about the Barracuda’s latest signings, forwards Kyle Topping and Joseph Garreffa.
The 6-foot-0 Topping has averaged exactly a point per game for the Kelowna Rockets over the last three seasons.
“Kyle Topping was at our development camp two years ago,” Wilson Jr. said. “He’s a very smart, play-making center.”
Meanwhile, the 5-foot-7 Garreffa promises to add significant offensive punch to the Barracuda attack after finishing seventh in the OHL in scoring last year.
“He had quite a few teams to choose from,” Wilson Jr. revealed. “We don’t have many players like him, his skill and play-making ability.”
While Topping and Garreffa should have an inside track on spots with the Barracuda, Timur Ibragimov might be a long shot. That said, the 19-year-old Russian winger is a candidate after inking his entry-level contract.
“We’ve had success with guys coming over young to the American league. We’ll have him over at training camp and let his play kind of decide,” Wilson Jr. said. “He plays a pretty physical game. He’s very fast and he’s a heck of a shooter.”
The CHL and other European professional leagues — besides the KHL — are also options for the 2019 sixth-round pick.
Of course, with potentially three picks in the top 60, no talk of San Jose’s future is complete without discussing the 2020 NHL draft. But six weeks out from the draft’s original scheduled date, we still don’t know if it’ll still take place in June or after the re-start of the 2019-20 NHL season.
June or later, it’s the front office’s focus right now, according to Wilson Jr.: “What I’ve told our scouting staff from the beginning, prepare as if the draft is the same time as it always is. We’re doing 8-10 Zoom interviews a day with draft eligibles, gathering intel, watching video and continuing with our meetings.
“We’re still in on a few free agents. But for right now, we’re pretty solid with going forward with the draft as our main focus.”