The San Jose Sharks, whether they like it or not, have entered a new phase of their franchise history. At their current pace, they are likely to miss the NHL playoffs for the second consecutive year, the first time this will have happened to the franchise since 1997. The Sharks’ players themselves are becoming keenly aware of this fact. Erik Karlsson, who the Sharks made a blockbuster trade for in 2018 and then signed to a massive contract, recently made comments that he “did not sign here for a rebuild.”
Longtime franchise stalwart Patrick Marleau, drafted by the team when they were last in this position in 1997, also expressed his disappointment with this state of affairs, calling the Sharks’ situation “tough to swallow.” He expressed his desire for a trade if the Sharks were indeed going in the direction of a more sustained rebuild. Karlsson has not done so, although it is a moot point as he has a full no trade clause, and even if he did not, his $11.5 million dollar annual salary/salary cap hit would make trading him anywhere an impossibility with the NHL’s current flat salary cap.
Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson has acknowledged that a “reset” is needed for the team given the franchise’s recent inability to make the playoffs. Although he has expressed reluctance to use the term “rebuild,” that is almost certainly the situation that his team is being forced into, whether he (or ownership) like it or not. This will entail the Sharks having to build through the draft in order to create a pipeline of young players that will replace since departed stars like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, or current mainstays like Karlsson or captain Logan Couture.
The Sharks’ 2020 draft seems to have already been a step in the right direction with regards to replenishing the team’s farm system. It was a devastating blow that the Sharks’ own first round pick was surrendered to the Ottawa Senators in the deal that brought Karlsson to San Jose, as that pick became the draft lottery’s third overall selection. With that pick, the Senators chose Tim Stutzle, who looks to be on the path to stardom in the NHL.
The Sharks had no choice but to make the best they could out of this unfortunate situation, however. At the 2020 trade deadline, they acquired the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first round pick (31st overall), and with that selection, took winger Ozzy Wiesblatt. Wiesblatt is a right wing for the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League, one of Canada’s three major junior leagues. Also from the WHL, the Sharks selected another forward, Tristen Robins of the Saskatoon Blades at 56th overall in the second round.
In his review of the Sharks’ 2020 draft class, hockey prospect analyst Will Scouch called Wiesblatt as having “tremendous potential down the road… at 31st overall he’s a high potential pick.” While noting that Robins exploded in scoring during the second half of the WHL season, Scouch cautions that much of Robins’ scoring came against the WHL’s worst teams. However, Scouch did note that Robins is “a really smart, aggressive offensive player… he showed great metrics in terms of getting dangerous shot attempts himself.”
If the Sharks are to accelerate their “reset” and become a top team in the NHL again soon, they will need players like this to exceed expectations, if not dramatically so. The Tampa Bay Lightning may have built their Stanley Cup winning juggernaut through top draft picks like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, but they also found hidden gems relatively late in the draft like Brayden Point, who they selected 79th overall in 2014.
The Sharks will need the likes of Wiesblatt, Robins and other prospects to exceed expectations the same way that someone like Point did for the Lightning. We will not be able to tell for multiple years if Wiesblatt and Robins are this kind of hidden gems, but, in the COVID-delayed 2020–21 WHL season, both are off to the best kind of start that Sharks fans could hope for. Through six games so far, Wiesblatt has scored six points in nine games, good for a point and a half game pace, flashing highlight reel ability with goals like this. Robins is only slightly behind, with six points in six games.
Compare with Brayden Point’s first post draft season in the WHL. Point scored at a point and a half game pace, similar to the one Wiesblatt is on currently. However, a massive caveat should be noted in that Point did this over a sixty game season, literally ten times as many games as Wiesblatt and Robins so far. Even if Wiesblatt and Robins keep this pace up over a full season, it will not be for nearly as many games, due to the fact that the WHL season has been drastically shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact is, finding a diamond in the rough of the draft like Brayden Point is extremely difficult. If it was not, every NHL team would do it every year. However, the Sharks have targeted at least two players with a similar profile that allows for higher upside, that is, skilled offensive players of a smaller size. It was for this reason that Point, at 5 ft 10 in, fell as far as he did in the draft back in 2014.
It is extremely premature to say that Wiesblatt and Robins will be discoveries of the sort that Brayden Point was. However, the Sharks developing players whose impact outweighs their draft slot will be key to a successful Sharks rebuild. It is far too early to say whether Ozzy Wiesblatt and Tristen Robins will be the type of prospect success stories that San Jose needs, however, their starts of the season are everything Sharks fans should be hoping for. Only time will tell if their stories will continue to progress at the WHL level and, hopefully, to the professional ranks beyond.