1997 and 1998. Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart. Both defensively responsible defensemen who were parts of winning Sharks teams in the early 2000s. Both played over 1000 games in their NHL careers, and both were considered to be top pairing defensemen during their primes. It might surprise you to learn that these two players and those two years represent the last time the Sharks drafted an impact defensemen in the first round of the NHL draft.
Here's the list since that point:
Jeff Jillson - 1999
Ty Wishart - 2006
Nick Petrecki - 2007
Mirco Mueller - 2013
Ryan Merkley - 2018
The highest point total of the above belongs to Jeff Jillson, for his 41 points in 140 career NHL games, a number that Erik Karlsson probably passed sometime in December of this season. I'll be honest, I've never seen Jeff Jillson play ice hockey. Or if I did I certainly don't remember it. But I remember Ty Wishart and Nick Petrecki.
I remember the talk of Wishart and Petrecki hopefully becoming the new breakout studs that a rookie named Vlasic and a Hobey Baker award winner named Carle were becoming on an evolving Sharks club in the mid 2000s. Petrecki the big defensive stalwart, and Wishart the tall puck-mover from juniors.
Gone. Wishart gets added with Carle to acquire Dan Boyle, and is shortly out of the league after a minor league career. Petrecki never gets going and has 1 single game for the Sharks in his NHL career.
The ultimate cherry-on-top of the two above picks? The Sharks traded up in the draft to acquire them. The Sharks send a pair of seconds to pick Petrecki 28th overall in 2007, and traded the 20th overall and a second rounder to acquire Wishart at #16 in 2007.
Did the Sharks learn their lesson 6 years later when they decided to swing on a tall, "safe", and mediocre-offensively defenseman in the mid-first in 2013? Nope. I remember Mirco Mueller. The Sharks traded up and selected him #18. The two picks they traded become Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi for Detroit. Mueller is inserted repeatedly into the lineup way too young, hoping to re-ignite a Vlasic-like fire they struck a decade before. It didn't work. In an inexplicable trade for New Jersey he's traded with a 5th for a 2nd (that becomes Mario Ferraro...so...yay?) and a 4th. Despite playing with Nico Hischier (because everyone knows if you gather a countryman of your star player it'll make them both better because reasons and stuff) he's out of the NHL a short time later.
I have no evidence for this theory, but I suspect the Mueller pick did a number on the drafting strategy that led to Ryan Merkley, the impetus for today's article. Mueller had frankly poor numbers in juniors for his draft position. Being less than a half point-per-game in his draft year, his chance of success at the next level as a play-driver was minimal.
There's a lot more to drafting and scouting than the above numbers from Byron Bader's hockeyprospecting.com however, and I think the below numbers provide the perfect counter argument to that. Insert Merkley's junior career here:
I remember Petrecki, Wishart and Mueller, and I remember Merkley. I've watched Merkley since juniors, and I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know about Ryan Merkley. He's a gifted passer with some elite-level vision. He has a lot of issues in his own zone, particularly with his pathing to cut off attackers, defend 2-on-1s, and poor turnovers deep in his zone. He cannot operate with pace even at the AHL level, often running out of options and skating directly into the opposition without a plan.
He's a frustrating player to watch, to scout, and to project. Now, he's on the way out of the Sharks organization after the window of opportunity has passed him by (at least for this organization). I've talked before about the window of opportunity for players, specifically in the article here about Daniil Gushchin, but it's as important as a player's actual hockey skill. For players like Merkley with warts galore, skills galore, and question marks galore, it might be the only thing that matters.
The window was there this year and last. The window was the 4-5 games in the spring of 2022 that Merkley was able to dangle actual NHLers and launch cross-ice passes with ridiculous accuracy. When the talk from Burns and Karlsson was about how he was learning from them, and wanted to model his game in their footsteps. So what happened this year?
Stagnation, a lack of drive, and an early placement on the Barracuda during training camp. With the absolute hole present in the defense of the Sharks this year, this seemed to be the year that he finally would insert himself into a full-time role, and yet he was in the AHL before October.
In the AHL this season it's been more of the same from Merkley. Frustration, stagnation, and now a resolution of sorts. He's been taken off the top powerplay on a team that is struggling to score goals. He's been benched for poor effort. It feels like a failure from an organizational standpoint as much as it feels like a failure from Merkley. And now it's finally over after Merkley requested a trade that the Sharks will honor, according to reports.
Will this change the Sharks drafting strategy in the future? To be honest, probably so. Doug Wilson Jr. is gone, and with him the boom-or-bust model of drafting that took rise after the failures of Petrecki, Wishart and Mueller. I don't suspect the Sharks take a defenseman in 2023 however, given the star-studded forward class in the top 15 picks. If there was a way to acquire a middle or late first however, I hope they take Axel Sandin Pellikka. He's pretty good. His name also reminds me of a sandy pelican, and I think that's pretty cool.