Barracuda Season Preview: Back to normalcy, back to playoffs?
One of the youngest teams in the AHL gets set to start their seventh season in San Jose.
The San Jose Barracuda already have a lot to look forward to next season, and their current season hasn’t even started yet. As part of the expansion of Solar4America Ice, the Sharks and Barracuda’s practice facility, the Barracuda will be moving into a 4,000 seat arena to begin the 2022-23 AHL season. The new arena will provide a much more intimate atmosphere, which after five seasons of playing in the cavernous (by AHL standards) SAP Center should be an opportunity for the Barracuda to establish their own identity.
While the organization and Barracuda fans alike await the opening of the new arena, they’ve still got one more season to play at SAP Center. After an anything but regular season last year — starting the first month of the season on the road due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County and getting stuck in Texas at the height of the winter storm last February — the Barracuda took part in the Pacific Division playoffs to determine who would become the Pacific Division champions for the 2021-22 season. They made it to the semifinals, defeating the Colorado Eagles and the Tucson Roadrunners in the play-in games before being eliminated by the Henderson Silver Knights in a best-of-three series.
Mainly due to technicalities, the Barracuda have never missed the playoffs in a full and complete season. Now that this year’s AHL season is back to the standard 68 games, the Barracuda will look to make it six out of seven seasons of playoff hockey.
The youth of the Barracuda can mostly be found in their forwards. Of the 16 forwards on the Barracuda roster, 14 are under 25 years old, with the oldest forward on the roster being Joel Kellman at 27 years old. It’s nothing new for the Barracuda — they’re usually one of the youngest teams in the league, something that they’ve prided themselves on since the move to San Jose. While new additions to the Barracuda forward corps in the off-season are usually rookies, the Barracuda did add some seasoned AHL veterans when Nick Merkley and Dylan Gambrell were assigned to the Barracuda.
One name I’m looking out for this year is Jayden Halbgewachs. Returning for his fourth season of duty with the Barracuda, Halbgewachs maintains his role a scoring threat, finishing fifth in points on the Barracuda in his rookie season in 2018-19 and second in points in 2019-20. He only played in 25 games last season, though, scoring 6 goals and 5 assists. He’s been on the bubble of a Sharks call-up, so a much more normal AHL season may help Halbgewachs get his scoring touch going en route to a possible NHL debut.
In direct contrast to the forwards, the defense boasts more of the elder statesmen on the Barracuda roster. Captain Jaycob Megna returns for his second season with the Barracuda, playing in all 36 games for the Barracuda and scoring 2 goals and 6 assists. Though the team lost Robbie Russo to the New Jersey Devils in free agency, they added another veteran to their blueline in Mark Alt. Alt spent the 2020-21 season with the Los Angeles Kings organization, playing 29 games as captain of the Ontario Reign and two games with the Kings. Alt only has 20 games of NHL experience under his belt, but has played in 399 AHL games; in fact, his 400th AHL game will be the Barracuda’s season opening game in Bakersfield on Sunday. Both Alt and Megna should serve as leaders in a relatively inexperienced Barracuda locker room.
2019 second-round pick Artemi Kniazev will start the season on the Barracuda, as will 2018 first-round pick Ryan Merkley. Kniazev will get his first taste of professional hockey, while Merkley will look to improve on his rookie AHL season where he scored 11 points over 31 games.
After the carousel that was Barracuda goaltending last season, seeing four goaltenders splitting the 36 games, the netminder situation looks to be much more stable going into the 2022 season.
There was a lot of hype when Alexei Melnichuk signed with the Sharks, and for good reason. In 16 games played for SKA St. Petersburg, perennial juggernauts of the Kontinental Hockey League, he had a goals against average (GAA) of 1.68 and a save percentage (SV%) of .930, doing it at the age of 21 to boot. However, his great 2019-20 KHL season didn’t exactly translate to the AHL, posting a GAA of 3.47 and a .868% SV% during the 2020-21 season. There’s still a lot of time for Melnichuk to grow, and there’s certainly reason to believe he can do so in the upcoming season and possibly become an NHL-caliber goaltender after his brutal audition in the final games of the Sharks’ 2020-21 season.
Zach Sawchenko should serve as Melnichuk’s understudy to begin the season. After signing an AHL contract with the Barracuda in the 2019 off-season, Sawchenko started the 2019-20 season with the ECHL Allen Americans. He was called up by the Barracuda in January 2020 after poor play from then-backup Andrew Shortridge. Sawchenko made his AHL debut on Jan. 4 in Tucson, earning the win and proceeding to get the majority of the starts for the Barracuda until the AHL season was paused on March 12, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Sawchenko only appeared in five games with the Barracuda in the 2020-21 season, but looked solid in the majority of them, finishing with a GAA of 2.59 and a .914 SV%. Sawchenko was signed to an NHL contract in April 2021 to become the Sharks’ taxi squad goaltender after Devan Dubnyk was traded to the Colorado Avalanche and Josef Korenar became the backup to Martin Jones. While Sawchenko is probably going to be the backup for the ‘Cuda, it’s entirely possible that he can assume the starting duties should Alexei Melnichuk continue to struggle at the North American level.
The Barracuda’s season begins in Bakersfield, California on Sunday at the Mechanics Bank Arena, where they’ll face the reigning Pacific Division champion Bakersfield Condors. Puck drop will be at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. The broadcast will available on AHL TV, and you can listen to the game on the Sharks + SAP Center app or at sjbarracuda.com/listen.