SAN JOSE – The Sharks' top minor league affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, has advanced to the American Hockey League's conference final round. The best-of-seven series against the Grand Rapids Griffins begins on Saturday at SAP Center for Game 1 and continues on Sunday for Game 2.
Their performance so far, both in the regular season and the playoffs, is encouraging for an organization that fielded an NHL roster in 2016-17 that was among the oldest in the league. The Barracuda is just the opposite. While every AHL roster features young players and prospects, the Barracuda were younger than most.
Essentially, AHL teams are permitted to field no more than six veteran skaters on a nightly basis, or players that have skated in 260 or fewer professional games at the start of the season. Only John McCarthy, who had played in 457 professional games, qualifies as a veteran for San Jose.
"It's really rare. Most of the year we've been the youngest team in the league," said Sharks assistant general manager Joe Will, who oversees the Barracuda. "If you average it out over the year we've been the youngest team in the league while doing this. It's just a good sign."
Many of the players on the Barracuda roster were either drafted by the Sharks or unearthed and signed as free agents. Some were high round picks, like Timo Meier (first round, 2015) and Mirco Mueller (first round, 2013), while others like Danny O'Regan (fifth round, 2012), Kevin Labanc (sixth round, 2014) and Joakim Ryan (seventh round, 2012) have been late bloomers. Tim Heed, their top offensive defenseman, and Marcus Sorensen, who cracked the Sharks' playoff roster, were both signed out of the Swedish League last May. All are under the Sharks' control past this season (Heed, Ryan, Sorensen and Mueller are restricted free agents).
The added emphasis on accumulating players for the future began in 2013, according to Will. The Sharks selected a total of 24 players in three drafts from 2013-15, utilizing some of their own picks and others acquired through various trades, with 10 of those drafted players appearing in games for the Barracuda throughout the course of this season.
"There's just a lag time, you don't see it right away," Will said. "Sometimes it's three or four [years]. That's kind of what it is now, and we just happen to have a very good freshman class, a bunch of young guys coming in at once."
Considering the uncertainty of the Sharks' roster next season, with players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau pending unrestricted free agents and others like Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin all on the other side of 30, the Barracuda's rise would seem to be coming at a good time.
Will isn't afraid to look ahead to training camp already.
"The ultimate motivator is just to have this competition come through," he said. "I think the players with the Sharks know that the players with the Barracuda are playing really hard, and are going to come into camp and compete for jobs."
"All these guys going through [the Calder Cup playoffs] right now, it's just valuable experience. It's almost like a new season for them. So many of them played [for the Sharks] this year and are candidates to come up for jobs in the near future. It's really a good thing."
Barracuda vs. Grand Rapids third round schedule
Game 1 – Saturday, May 20, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (6 p.m.)
Game 2 – Sunday, May 21, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (5 p.m.)
Game 3 – Wednesday, May 24, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
Game 4 – Friday, May 26, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
*Game 5 – Saturday, May 27, Barracuda @ Grand Rapids (4 p.m.)
*Game 6 – Tuesday, May 30, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (7 p.m.)
*Game 7 – Wednesday, May 31, Grand Rapids @ Barracuda (7 p.m.)
* – if necessary