Quick Bites: Blues blow through rookie defense

Good energy and effort can’t make up for defensive miscues, even as this game throws the Sharks’ upcoming roster decisions into question.

Last night was the first game that the combined San Jose Sharks/San Jose Barracuda roster looked decidedly AHL at times. The 5-3 loss to the high-octane St. Louis Blues illuminated some gaps in the Sharks’ makeshift defense, which might help Sharks management make some decisions about the young players, including William Eklund.

The Blues were on a back-to-back after a loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, and rookie goaltender Joel Hofer made his NHL debut. Along with Hofer, Artemi Kniazev made his NHL debut for the Sharks, making him the 10th Sharks rookie to make their debut this season.

The first period opened up with stealth jerseys (I’m convinced they’re a curse) and early chances mostly controlled by St. Louis, although play evened up towards the halfway mark. While the Sharks had another hot start, one glaring problem began to make itself clear; the inexperienced players were looking inexperienced, and it was costing the Sharks quality defensive coverage. That’s not to say that some of the AHL call-ups like Nicolas Meloche, Jaycob Megna or Ryan Merkley didn’t have bright moments, rather, there is a difference between the NHL and AHL, and the physical Blues will remind a team of that difference.

St. Louis was fast and pressuring hard from puck drop, exposing some cracks in the mostly-AHL defense. San Jose had 7 giveaways in just the first period. They were giving up odd-man rushes early on, and it was clear there was struggling communication between Hill and the defense about what should be done in front of and behind the net.

A confusing, yet hilarious, string of penalties called against the Blues (seriously — what did Vladimir Tarasenko say to the referee to earn himself an unsportsmanlike conduct?) led to a 5-on-3 power play goal from Brent Burns, who had been driving the majority of the Sharks defensive coverage to that point.  Not to be outdone, Brandon Saad equalized the score on a short-handed rush chance given up by, you guessed it, a lapse in defensive coverage.

Logan Couture gave the Sharks their lead back, however, on his own short-handed chance during the Sharks’ penalty kill after Mario Ferraro was called for holding on Robert Thomas with less than four minutes left in the period.

The second period began with more early rushes for the Blues, and it was obvious that they were the fastest team the Sharkcudas had faced so far. Hill came out strong with a ton of huge saves. The Sharks’ defense did not.

Just five minutes into the second, Pavel Buchnevich capitalized upon a sloppy defensive play from Ryan Merkley, converting Merkley’s turnover into a goal that beat Hill short side.

This Sharks team didn’t give up though, and Nick Merkley scored his first goal in teal in retaliation, less than 40 seconds later. And the defense wasn’t all bad — Jonathan Dahlen and Jasper Weatherby continued to park themselves in front of the net, and Hill even swiped his blocker in the face of a Blues player during some ‘extracurriculars’ in front of the net after he stopped a shot. It was honestly very Jordan Binnington of him.

Despite Hill coming up with huge saves the majority of the time, Saad scored his second of the game on what was again, a defensive miscue in front of the net and a lack of concentrated plays to clear the puck or bring it out of the zone. It’s definitely a goal Hill would want back.

Part of the problem with the defense to this point was that there wasn’t much communication happening, either with each other (leading to two guys covering one player) or with Hill (leading to a bad clear and James Neal piling on to get St. Louis the one-goal lead, 4-3), along with getting caught out of position in their own zone. While Reimer had years of experience to clean up in Tuesday’s game against Buffalo, Hill is a younger goaltender who’s just starting to stretch his legs in net. He doesn’t have the same instincts Reimer has when playing with inexperienced defenders in front of him.

Add that to Hofer having a great game, and, well ... despite the score, sloppy plays and costly turnovers put the game in jeopardy early.

Third periods have been some of the Sharks’ best, although the team looked a little tired to start. The Blues approached the third with the air of a perpetual penalty kill. At times when the Sharks had gained control of the puck and secured extended offensive zone time, they were lax with shooting. The Blues closed out the game with an empty net goal with a minute left, a 5-3 win over the Sharks.

The biggest question mark that remains for the San Jose is what to do about their defense. Marc-Edouard Vlasic may be past his prime, and the bottom defensive pairing hasn’t been optimal. The COVID outbreak has given the Sharks a rare opportunity to test a bunch of potential rookies at once — so who will get a chance to stay up? And what will happen with Eklund?

Artemi Kniazev made a case for himself in his first game for the Sharks, although they’ll want to test him more. He had high danger chances throughout the game, and worked both the offensive, and defensive sides of his game, which is good news for the Sharks — they like to cultivate their defense to be shooters when possible.

Megna and Ryan Merkley had good chances at times, and they have good chemistry from their experience being D-partners for the Barracuda, but I’d be surprised if either of them stayed with the big club. Megna had a few chances he elected not to shoot on, despite having clear lanes and Ryan Merkley is such a complicated player.

Merkley can score a fantastic goal in one game, then make half-hearted plays and block Hill’s eyesight in the next. He has a hard time committing to plays and maintaining energy, two qualities the Sharks worked hard to shed in training camp. I’m not sure what it is with Merkley, and it looks like the Sharks coaches don’t either. He plays lazily at times, which is frustrating, because he’s not a lazy player, and is capable of so much more. It just seems to be a question of finding that next level for him, and he’s just not there yet.

Meloche, too, was physical, but had 3 giveaways attached to his name. He’s a likely candidate to return to the Barracuda along with Megna and Ryan Merkley.

William Eklund is a tough one. At only 19 years old, he’s proved his worth with his 4 points (all assists), in 9 games. Sure, he hasn’t gotten a goal yet like his rookie counterparts Dahlen or Weatherby, but both of them are significantly older, with more experience. It’s unsurprising to see Eklund where he’s at in his development right now. He’s excellent at slowing down plays, but as pretty as his passes are, they’re often soft and through traffic, which helps no one, except the other team.

I’d be surprised if they let him go back to Sweden, which would only delay his development by having him get acclimated to a different system than the NHL and the Sharks. He may go down to the AHL for a conditioning stint in order to motivate him and develop his scoring chances, but it’s just as likely they keep him up (it’s not as if he hasn’t been producing) and work with him one on one in practice to guide him.

Captain Logan Couture had a few words to say about Eklund staying in the line up for the Sharks now that he’s hit the 9-game limit before his ELC kicks i: “It’s tough when you’re playing in this league at 18 or 19 years old, and he’s showing that he can do it ... He’s shown up and proved that he can play in the NHL ... He’s going to be an elite player in this league.”