The preseason is officially underway, with the San Jose Sharks having played a split doubleheader yesterday against the Anaheim Ducks and the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sharks lost 6-3 to the Ducks, but won in Vegas, 4-2, so just as the roster was split, the success was too.
But let’s be real; as much as many Sharks fans bemoaned the loss of Erik Karlsson to a minor thumb infection and thus his not being in the lineups tonight, the real purpose of the preseason games are to test the young guys; see who either fits into the current Sharks structure, or who could help the team find that next level.
Ryan Merkley and Adam Raska are two such players. Merkley’s development puts him on pace to slot effortlessly into the Sharks’ pre-existing system sooner rather than later, and Raska’s energy and physicality could help lift the Sharks out of their slump.
Just like the Rookie Faceoff Tournament, which was the last time Sharks fans watched Raska and Merkley, the Anaheim Ducks came out fast and physical. The period began with interchanging penalties and an Anaheim goal. Merkley’s the kind of player who does the grunt work in keeping pucks in the zone and generally protecting the pace of play. His strength is in the little details — and you can tell by the hits he takes, and the shots he gets.
You might remember Merkley’s three-point night against the Ducks’ rookies, which he collected from three assists on three goals. Merkley continued the trend with his assist on Nick Bonino’s power play goal at 5:07 in the first period. As Merkley develops, he’s becoming a dependable playmaker who can assist on goals and walk the blue line. (And, if you find yourself getting impatient with Merkley, remember that defenseman often take longer to develop than forwards).
You can see Merkley’s dependability in his consistent shots period to period. In this game alone he notched at least one good quality shot on goal per period. For a younger defender who is clearly still growing into his NHL-sized
shoes skates, at this point in the preseason, this reliability is a great sign for what Merkley could contribute to the Sharks in a year or so.
Sure, he had a giveaway at 14:23 in the third period, but Merkley recovered with some big hits and a shot on goal that was blocked by Kodie Curran (ANA). The Sharks lost after being overwhelmed by the Ducks’ speed and physicality, but if there’s a bright spot from that game, it’s that Ryan Merkley is right on track for what the Sharks want to see from him.
For the other half of the San Jose Sharks preseason roster, rookie Adam Raska made his presence known on the ice in the game against the Vegas Golden Knights. Head coach Bob Boughner mentioned at practice yesterday that for the most part, the opening night roster would be set by the third preseason game, so for young players who have the opportunity to cut their teeth on NHL ice, it’s imperative they make a lasting impression.
If you didn’t catch Raska in the Rookie Faceoff Tournament, particularly against Vegas, there’s two things you need to know about him. First, he’s confident when it comes to driving to the net and generating offensive opportunities for himself, and second, he hits big and he’s not afraid to be physical. In other words, he’s an NHL agitator in the making.
Raska’s first period in Vegas was relatively quiet, with one hit on Brayden McNabb (VGS) at 17:33 to point to, but as the second period rolled around, the game as a whole became much more physical, which allowed Raska to shine.
Boughner had mentioned, too, that increasing the Sharks’ physicality was a focal point for the coaching staff, especially against teams like Vegas who thrive on exhausting their opponents with big, open ice hits. It’s clear that whatever message he passed on to the team about throwing their weight around worked. Raska began the second period with two big hits, a takeaway, and then, a goal, at 12:29 on a wrist shot from a feed from Jeffrey Viel, which put the Sharks up to 3-1 over Vegas. Preseason might be the time for rookies to show what they’re made of, but it’s not often that your 5-foot-10, 20-year-old rookie snags a goal in his first real game with the team.
From there, Raska’s confidence only built as he rose to the energy of the game. The Sharks have struggled with maintaining energy throughout a full 60 minutes, so to have a young player like Raska who plays a confident, emotional game and can be a spark plug for his teammates with big hits is a huge plus.
The one downside to a player who likes to goad their opponents is that they often take penalties. Raska was called for boarding against Lukas Cormier (VGS) at the 2:18 mark, which sent Vegas to the power play until the end of the second period.
Raska then spent the third period trying to hit anything that moved (and getting hit by Paul Cotter as well), with Max Pacioretty (VGS) and Zach Whitecloud (VGS) his successful victims. Eventually, Raska and the rest of the Sharks pulled out a 4-2 win over the Golden Knights.
Where Merkley is a behind-the-scenes guy, Raska is all flash, which is exactly what the Sharks need to revitalize their scoring. Between the fate of Evander Kane up in the air and the ‘reset’ the Sharks are going through, there’s a real opportunity for some of these younger, bold players to earn themselves a spot in the lineup.