Where did Timo Meier’s breakout come from?

Timo Time: Just like the Sharks' scouts drew it up.

As Timo Meier collected the puck off a sharp defensive play from Tomas Hertl and raced up the ice, the New Jersey Devils’ Yagor Yakovlev and Keith Kinkaid had possibly the best views in the arena of the Swiss forward’s movements.

Kinkaid covered the near side while Yakovlev, reading Meier’s moves, moved to his right to block a pass to Logan Couture. And so Meier, who had once been benched and demoted by Pete DeBoer for recklessly shooting from all over the ice, decided to shoot once again.

Not even Jacques Plante could have stopped the resulting 90-mph laser that flew into the top corner.

When Doug Wilson moved to the draft stage to announce the ninth overall pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the prospects available would have made any time-traveling Sharks fan green with envy. Instead of blindly throwing darts and hoping one of Nikolay Goldobin or Mirco Mueller would step up to fill a need, the top prospects still on the board in the deepest draft in a decade were all potential superstars in the making.

After the New Jersey Devils graciously took Pavel Zacha (who has a whopping four goals and zero assists with the Devils so far this season) off the board at number six, the Sharks had their pick of forwards to choose from.

The team was badly starved for young offensive talent and depth. When Goldobin and Rourke Chartier are your best prospects, having your pick of Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser and Mikko Rantanen is like being Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool of gold coins. It was to be the lollipop after the injection, the rainbow after the storm. It was the silver lining in the black cloud that was San Jose’s 2014-15 season — a season in which they finished fifth in the Pacific Division and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.

“Our pick from Halifax, Timo Meier.”

If having the prospects listed above as choices was akin to leaving a kid in a candy store, watching a team make that choice at ninth overall was somewhat like watching him come out with a bag of licorice, jellybeans and candy corn. Somehow, you knew there was a possibility something like that would happen, yet you still couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

They didn’t take the USHL superstar, the second coming of the Finnish Flash or the center that could have filled Joe Thornton’s shoes. They took the winger whose accomplishments on his Canucks Army prospect profile included “witnessing the greatness that is Nikolaj Ehlers on a day-to-day basis.”

Mirco Mueller. Nikolay Goldobin. And now Timo Meier.

What’s new?

The harsh reality for any NHL front-office member is that prospect projection can be a near-impossible task at times. For every hidden gem like Brayden Point, you get a handful of busts, like Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau or William Wrenn. Because of this uncertainty, General Managers often try to play chess when checkers is all that’s needed, and they often inadvertently end up playing tic-tac-toe instead, losing their jobs as a result (see: Nonis, Dave).

But it’s also true that for every surefire superstar like Jack Eichel, you get a can’t-miss prospect who does in fact miss, like Dylan Strome. For every generational talent like Connor McDavid, you get an Alexandre Daigle. And even when the prospect looks like he’ll pan out, something happens to prevent him from ever reaching his ceiling, like Milan Michalek and his nightmarish ACL tear.

A look at Timo Meier’s first season in the CHL would indicate a profoundly disappointing player who would be projected to bounce around juniors before taking a spot in the minors. On the face of it, such an assessment would not be out of place either; a stat-line of 17 goals 17 assists for 34 points, with more penalty minutes than points, would indicate absolutely nothing special.

Nikolaj Ehlers

It would also indicate a complete lack of knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Meier, who moved overseas as a 16-year-old with no friends or family in an entirely new place. The Halifax Mooseheads, however, still had confidence in their 12th overall pick, and so after a summer of intense training, Meier was placed on the top line with Nikolaj Ehlers to start his draft year campaign.

The results were absolutely astounding. Raw numbers of 44 goals and 46 assists for 90 points in 61 games were enough to turn any scout’s head. But there’s reason to believe that what caught the front-office’s eye was something more subtle. Meier was one of the top chance creators in the entire league, with an expected goals per game ratio of 0.72 and a stunning 5.18 shots per game (beating Connor and Boeser’s rates of 4.57 and 4.23, respectively). Both stats placed Meier among the top two chance creators in the entire QMJHL.

His even-strength play, derided by some before the draft, was surprisingly strong, with 1.89 expected goals (xG) per 60 minutes at even-strength (far better than Ehlers’ 1.50 and also second overall in the league). With a goals-for percentage (GF%) of 70.5 (37.5 percent better than Halifax’s GF% without him and four percent better than Ehlers’ GF% despite facing similar competition), Meier had clearly taken a seismic leap forward in play (all stats courtesy of Prospect Stats). This was reflected in his pre-draft rankings, with Meier being one of the biggest risers over the course of his draft year.

Scouts were equally enamored with Meier’s intelligence, demeanor and off-ice levelheadedness, especially at an age where so many other players were saddled with attitude and commitment issues. When added to the value provided by his on-ice play, it was enough for a gleeful San Jose to scoop him up with the ninth overall pick. In post-draft interviews, Director of Scouting Tim Burke said the Sharks were unsure that Meier would be available at nine, hinting that other teams saw the same thing the Sharks saw.

Meier followed up the pick with an unusually strong training camp. Head Coach Pete DeBoer will tell you that he nearly made the big club in his first season, surpassing the organization’s expectations. Cooler heads and common-sense prevailed and the teen was returned to juniors, but there was an understanding that he was not long for the big club.

That came to pass the following season. After 15 points and 17 games with the San Jose Barracuda in the 2016-17 season, Meier was called up to the big leagues.

Adjusting to the NHL is an entirely different challenge for a prospect, and many fail at this juncture precisely because the gap in competition quality is so massive. It’s the reason the yearly “Would the Alabama Crimson Tide beat the Cleveland Browns?” query is shot down with such unanimous disdain — even fringe players in the NHL, like Tom Pyatt or Taylor Leier, were once very good players, if not stars, in juniors. Every single play is a grind for a rookie, and there are no easy matchups (unless, of course, a team ices Mike Brown and John Scott at the same time).

Meier was criticized for trying to do too much by himself and breaking up offensive flows with inopportune and low-percentage shots.

Meier’s first NHL season got off to the worst possible start. Mononucleosis struck him down in training camp, and he never really recovered from it. Despite getting off to a hot start in the AHL and earning his way up to the NHL, the forward found himself on DeBoer’s healthy scratch list far too often while being snakebitten by horrid shooting luck. Meier potted a measly 3 goals and 6 points in 34 games, shuttling between the NHL and the AHL throughout the season.

The numbers weren’t the alarming part, however. What annoyed the coaching staff was Meier’s tendency to play the NHL game like he played juniors. Meier was criticized for trying to do too much by himself and breaking up offensive flows with inopportune and low-percentage shots. His first season yielded criticism from all over the fanbase, who were seeing Rantanen and Barzal light up their respective leagues like Christmas trees.

One season later, it was clear Meier would have to improve. And he did just that. With 21 goals and 36 points, he cemented his spot as a solid second-line winger. Meier’s shot selection and offensive impact seemed to be getting better and better, and yet still there was a feeling that the Sharks had missed out on a great many potential superstars with that fateful draft pick.

Mikko Rantanen helped carry the Colorado Avalanche to a playoff spot with 84 points. Kyle Connor scored 31 goals and 57 points with the Winnipeg Jets. Mathew Barzal gave the New York Islanders fans hope that losing John Tavares wouldn’t be all that bad, with 85 points and a Calder Trophy. Timo Meier, meanwhile, gave San Jose a nice second-line winger.

For many, it felt like someone giving them a hastily written Hallmark card after forgetting their birthday. It was a gut-punch to lose out on John Tavares, but it wouldn’t have been as bad if the Sharks had had Barzal to step into Thornton’s shoes, or Rantanen to help carry an offense anchored by an aging core.

Yet there was evidence to suggest that Meier might be primed for the breakout season the Sharks are currently seeing. Via Evolving Wild’s data, an analysis of the 2015 draft quartet listed above shows that Meier was statistically the most dangerous at generating chances.

His 0.99 xG/60 edged Connor’s 0.90, Barzal’s 0.76 and Rantanen’s 0.50. Moreover, his impact on his team’s shot differential was unparalleled, with his 17.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60) dwarfing Connor’s 13.18, Barzal’s 11.15 and Rantanen’s 9.42. Equally important, Meier did all this without dynamos like Mark Scheifele, Nathan MacKinnon and Tavares to help him along.

It would be a simple take to say that Meier found a new gear to his game this year that he lacked in years past, prompting an offensive explosion out of nowhere. The reality is that he was more than fine last year; he was excellent. This year, he’s building on that and has become exceptional.

Meier’s 2017-18 emergence paved the way for what has been a dream-like breakout season this year, with 18 goals and 32 points in 31 games. The Swiss star has not only been the Sharks’ premier forward at all strengths, he’s arguably the best player on a team that boasts Erik Karlsson, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. With an absolutely astounding 3.16 points per 60 minutes at even strength and a jaw-dropping 19.51 CF/60, Meier’s impact on this team cannot be understated.

Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz helps us understand Meier’s impact better. Meier’s isolated impact on offense and shot-generation at even-strength compared to league average is +19 percent, which is light years ahead of Barzal’s +8, Connor’s +2, and Rantanen’s +0.

This season, Meier hasn’t put up the types of counting stats shown by Rantanen (although he has been better than Connor and Barzal in that regard), but there’s reason to believe that he might be better at generating offense than any of the other prospects San Jose could have aimed for at the time.

It’s well known that this iteration of the Sharks’ core is on its last legs. Joe Pavelski will be 35 years old at the end of the season. Burns will be 34. Logan Couture will be 30. Vlasic will be 32. Thornton will be 40.

With that in mind, Meier, along with Tomas Hertl, gives the fanbase hope that there will be an era after these greats, that the team will not end up in a Vancouver-esque spiral of chasing past glories. They serve as an appeal to pending free agents that there is a young core and they are a bankable source of ticket sales. From a business standpoint, that’s important. In a small market like San Jose, ticket sales are the leading source of revenue, especially when a team is saddled with a questionable TV deal.

As the team’s best forward and one of its top three best players, Meier is likely a key face of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

The Sharks wouldn’t have it any other way.