The San Jose Sharks have had an incredible run over the past two decades. Since 2003, they have only missed the playoffs in two seasons under the tenure of General Manager Doug Wilson, even though they have failed to win a Stanley Cup in that time. Part of their success in sustaining strong teams over such a long period is their ability to find top talent in the draft despite almost never picking high in the first round.
In recent years, however, the Sharks’ pipeline of young prospects has started to run dry. In his ranking of the top talent under 23 in each team’s organization prior to the NHL Draft, The Athletic’s hockey prospect expert Corey Pronman ranked the Sharks 28th out of 31 NHL teams. Only one prospect, defenseman Ryan Merkley, ranked as a potential “very good NHL player,” which according to Pronman’s ranking means he “projects as a top four defenseman in the NHL.”
The consequences of the Erik Karlsson trade proved to be disastrous for the Sharks’ pipeline of future talent. In order to make the trade with the Ottawa Senators, they surrendered center prospect Josh Norris, who was ranked as the second young player in Pronman’s ranking of Ottawa’s organization, projecting as a “high end NHL player,” one tier above that which Merkley is in. Were he still in the Sharks’ organization, he would rank as their top player under age 23.
To make matters worse, the Sharks surrendered their 2020 first round pick in the NHL Draft, with no lottery protections. With the Sharks turning in a highly disappointing season and missing even the NHL’s expanded play in round, that pick became the third overall draft selection. With that pick, the Senators selected Tim Stutzle, an immensely talented forward out of Germany who has the potential to be the face of their franchise and the star of their next great team. Whenever he plays the Sharks, San Jose fans will have no choice but to wonder “what if?”
Nonetheless, the Sharks have no choice but to press on and make the best of the resources they have in order to rebuild their farm system. They did have one first round pick in the 2020 draft, albeit the thirty-first and final pick, which the Sharks acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup. Luckily, the 2020 draft was considered to be exceptionally deep, giving Wilson and his scouting director (and son) Doug Wilson, Jr. an opportunity to find top talent later on in the draft.
The Sharks bet everything on forwards in this draft, taking one with each of their eight selections in the draft. Especially in their picks after the first round, the Sharks’ selections seemed to be in search of the type of player who, if all goes right for them, hockey pundits will look back years later and say “how did he go that late in the draft??”
Tristen Robins, the Sharks’ pick at fifty-sixth overall, could well be an example of this type of draft steal. Relatively unheralded as a junior prospect before this season, before the draft he had a breakout year playing in the Western Hockey League (which encompasses western Canada as well as American teams based in Spokane, Portland and elsewhere), playing with the Saskatoon Blades. In the second half of the WHL season, Robins came on strong, with only Seth Jarvis (a first round pick this year) scoring more points in that league. A smaller forward, Robins was compared in one draft profile to small WHL forwards of the past who went on to great NHL success, such as Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens (drafted 147th overall in 2010) and Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning (79th overall in 2014).
The Sharks’ pick at ninety-eighth overall, Brandon Coe, is almost the opposite physical profile to Robins, but nonetheless represents the Sharks taking a bet on finding upside. Unlike Robins, Coe has size and plenty of it, measuring in at six foot four inches tall. Despite his size, Coe’s skating ability is a major asset, with one draft profile saying “for a big man, he can fly.”
In his note on Coe when writing up the Sharks’ draft, Corey Pronman observed that Coe’s “toolkit is one of the best in the draft,” and “outside of the first round, you won’t find a more enticing toolkit.” But he also cautioned that “he’s under a point per game as a third year player in the OHL” and “scouts note he has a lot of off days with his effort and that inconsistency shows up in his production.”
This may have been partially due to the fact that Coe’s junior team, the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, had a disastrous year as one of the worst-performing teams in that league. The Sharks are betting that, if they can get Coe into an environment more conducive to growth and development than his old team, then he can maximize his chances of living up to his talent.
Betting on talented but inconsistent performers has been a recurring theme of the Wilsons’ drafts in recent years. Ryan Merkley, the Sharks’ first round pick in 2018, was considered by some analysts to be a top 10 talent, only to fall due to inconsistency, defense and attitude concerns. Some, although not all, of the Sharks’ picks in the 2020 draft reflect similar high risk, high reward profiles. Whether these gambles will pay off in assembling the next generation of great Sharks players is yet to be determined. But without the luxury of top draft picks, these types of players are the ones that the Sharks should be drafting. It is incumbent on their coaching and development pipeline to ensure that at least some of their players reach their full potential as great Sharks players of the future.