Since reaching the Western Conference Final in 2019, the San Jose Sharks have failed to qualify for the postseason for three straight seasons. The team has struggled to produce goals in recent years and establish a consistent top-6 at the forward position and goaltending has been an issue up until this season with James Reimer, Adin Hill and Kappo Kahkonen all taking the net.
But throughout the last three slumping seasons for the Sharks, the one saving grace has been the depth at the blue line. With $26.5 million annual average value (AAV) tied up in the top three defenders, the likes of Nikolai Knyzhov, Mario Ferraro, Jaycob Megna and Jacob Middleton have stepped up to fill in the defensive holes that Brendan Dillon and Justin Braun left when they moved on from the team after 2019.
Count Nicolas Meloche amongst the names of those recent NHL-converts. He came over from the Colorado Avalanche organization prior to the 2019-20 season — which was shortened due to the COVID pandemic — in exchange for former San Jose Barracuda goaltender Antoine Bibeau.
Meloche has spent most of his time in San Jose with the Barracuda (80 games), but has established himself this season as a competent bottom- or middle-pairing defenseman, often playing hard defensive minutes alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, or complimenting offense-minded blue line talents like Erik Karlsson. Most recently, with Karlsson injured since mid-April, Meloche has slotted up the line-up to rear the second-pairing with Megna. Together, through four games, the pair are -1 at even-strength. Considering the Sharks’ mostly losing results through April, and the +/- performance of the other two pairs, that’s not bad for two 2021-22 call-ups.
Still, some can say they aren’t surprised to see Meloche playing more regular NHL minutes than, say, Ryan Merkley. Meloche was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche at 40th overall in 2015, the team’s third pick that year behind 10th overall Mikko Rantanen and 39th overall winger A.J. Greer, who is currently playing in the AHL with the Utica Comets. It was the same year that the Sharks drafted Timo Meier at ninth overall before selecting defender Jeremy Roy at 31st in the second round.
As far as Meloche goes, it’s easy to find the humor in realizing that in San Jose is where he found his first NHL role:
Colorado was busy in that year’s entry draft — they had previously acquired the original 31st pick from the Buffalo Sabres before trading it down to San Jose in exchange for the 39th that would bring Greer, plus a few selections in 2016 and 2017 that they had previously lost. In other words: they re-acquired assets that they had lost at the expense of a selection eight spots lower (as Greer could have also been picked at 40th, instead of Meloche).
San Jose, on the other hand, got the premier selection of the second round to take Roy, who, like Meloche, is a right-handed defenseman. Sharks fans might remember the fanfare, as Roy was touted by Central Scouting as the 21st ranked skater that year. In that same report, Meloche was ranked at 40th, so it’s fair to say he was picked to projection. To compare, the both were playing in the QMJHL, Meloche for Baie-Comeau Drakkar in his draft year, and Roy for Sherbrooke Phoenix. Both teams at the time were middle-of-the-pack in their respective divisions.
Roy was an alternate captain for Sherbrooke, and amassed 87 points through two seasons in the ‘Q’ by the time he was drafted. He also represented Canada internationally in the U17 and U18 divisions. Meloche would eventually become a Baie-Comeau alternate captain and had tallied 59 points prior to the entry draft. He was also teammates with Roy in 2013-14 for Canada during the U17 World Hockey Championships.
Meloche stayed in juniors a bit longer than Roy, and was a little further back in the terms of development, though it’s easy to see their inevitable comparison through their careers up to the draft. Though Greer never did pan out for Colorado — as Roy never did for the Sharks, due to unpredictable injuries — the Avs succeeded in drafting the only current NHL player of the trio.
But Colorado started 2015 with Tyson Barrie, Francois Beachemin, Erik Johnson and Nick Holden. Their prospecting defenseman at the time, Nikita Zadorov, played just 22 games that season. And though it takes time for defensemen to develop and make the jump to the NHL, the following years brought Sam Girard and Cale Makar into the fold, along with Bowen Byram in the works.
Johnson remained the only holdover from that 2015 defensive corps, so suffice to say, a once-hopeful Meloche was shuffled back into the deck, while head coach Jared Bednar took the reins in 2016 and an up-and-coming powerhouse Avalanche squad began to emerge.
Meloche posted 39 points in 114 games in his first two seasons of professional hockey with Colorado’s minor league affiliates, both ECHL and AHL, and finished second in points among defensemen in 2018-19 with the Colorado Eagles.
Ahead of the 2019-20 season came the aforementioned swap for Bibeau, sending Meloche to the Barracuda, where he played 41 games over the course of the season and earned his first call-up with the Sharks on Jan. 14 2021 against the Arizona Coyotes.
While the Sharks have moved on from Roy, Meloche signed a one-year extension in 2020, and another in 2021. The 24-year-old started this season with the Barracuda, but it only took eight games before he was back in the Sharks’ line-up. He’s posted 2 goals and 6 assists through 53 total NHL games with the club.
Still, the defensive pipeline is a crowded room, and there’s a little bit of everything to go around in terms of skillsets. Ferraro is a young player who sits only under Burns, Karlsson and maybe Vlasic on the depth chart. Megna is next, pending a decision to sign him after this season. But after that, things get a little hairy.
First, there’s a rare offensive breed in Merkley, and the same could be argued of Artemi Kniazev. There’s also Santeri Hatakka, who has skill and quick feet, but figures to be in the same mold as defensive-minded Vlasic. There’s also the question-mark of newly signed Nick Cicek, who might be primed for NHL assignment. Knyzhov figures to be in the mix if he’s healthy next season.
Then there’s the steady Meloche, right under everyone’s noses. He’s a pending restricted free agent, so it will be interesting to see what the Sharks can offer him. He brings physicality, decent puck-moving and shooting, and some proven experience against the league’s best after playing the majority of this season in the NHL.
Some other evidence may suggest the Sharks are higher on him than what is commonly believed. When they made the move to acquire him in 2019, they were likely going after who they could have drafted at 39th, the pick they traded away at the 2015 entry draft. In allocating a second-round pick to draft a defenseman, Meloche was probably on their radar at the time, anyway.
As previously stated, the Sharks currently have a lot of money tied up in just a few players, so they have struggled to sign any big-contract free agents in the past few years. As a result, the strategy has seemed to be to chase down reacquisitions of original Sharks draftees — see Rudolfs Balcers (2015 draft class), Matt Nieto (2011) and Nick Bonino (2007), who all come at a relatively cap-friendly price.
Meloche, drafted by Colorado, is not quite a reacquisition, but the Sharks have made plenty of mistakes at the draft table in the years leading to Doug Wilson Jr. taking over scouting in 2017. So is Meloche a coveted second crack, with a mind towards turning the clock back to 2015?
What We Like
From Elite Prospects’ Curtis Joe’s report on Meloche, three things have turned out to be true: he plays with an edge and a physical two-way game, he makes high-percentage defensive decisions, and he skates well. Joe also offered that Meloche has a strength in his shot and some offensive awareness, which hasn’t quite transferred at the professional level yet, but has still come in flashes.
Scoring is a nice bonus for defenseman, but as mentioned, Burns, Karlsson, Merkley and Kniazev all provide just that. It’s definitely an area Meloche could work on, but right now he fills an immediate team need: forcing accountability of opposing players, especially in front of the net.
Save for Megna, no other regular Sharks defender may be as physical as Meloche. What’s also great is that he’s already rubbed shoulders with the Nathan MacKinnons and Connor McDavids of the league, and necessity for damage control has been minimal.
Most of Meloche’s errors have been over-pinches in the offensive zone, but those are things young defensemen can learn to correct. The offense isn’t there yet, but a better team next year may open up more opportunities to show off his offensive instincts.
Areas of Improvement
Aside from the offense and occasional errors, Meloche will need to hit the books on his transition game going into next season if he continues with the Sharks. One of the biggest issues for the team has been the inability to exit the defensive zone cleanly. They may win the puck battle, block the shot, or otherwise kill the play — which Meloche has very much been part of — but usually get scored on anyway, due to failed first passes or dump ins.
It’s not something any defender is particularly great at either way, though Karlsson can at least skate his way out of the zone, and Vlasic and Burns can occasionally make a successful first pass. But it’s the kind of play which demands patience and touch, and that usually comes with experience. If Meloche can focus on patience in his decision-making and touch with the puck, his value as a two-way defender will skyrocket.
Nicolas Meloche wears one for the Sharks pic.twitter.com/orNByohdvd— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) January 27, 2022
This play came on the same night Meloche scored his first NHL goal, so all things considered, his two-way prowess was on display against the Washington Capitals. Here, his puck awareness gets the defensive treatment, as he quickly slid down and sold out to block a point-blank shot. Capitals right wing prospect, Brett Leason (49), took the shot, but that’s Alex Ovechkin (8) making the play to get the puck through a seam.
If Meloche can replicate these two-way performances more consistently, shutting down plays with world-class players like Ovechkin on the ice and getting the puck towards the net on the other side, he’s going to be an important piece on any NHL team.