MONTREAL – The competition for playing time among the Sharks' forward group has gotten a whole lot more interesting in recent days.
On Wednesday, it was forward Joonas Donskoi that was a healthy scratch against the Senators. The 24-year-old forward has just two goals and eight points in 29 games.
On Friday against Montreal, it will be Joel Ward’s turn. Ward, like Donskoi, has just two goals in 29 games, along with seven assists.
Scratching a 36-year-old veteran as universally well liked as Ward was obviously not pleasant for DeBoer – “those aren’t easy conversations,” he said – but the coach has been frantically seeking more offense from his team, which is 21st in the NHL with 2.43 goals-per game. The Sharks have failed to score more than two goals in regulation in 10 of their last 15 games (although they are 9-5-1 over that span).
DeBoer has given some of his struggling forwards some rope, but now that it’s the middle of December, he’s running out of patience.
“We’re 30 games in,” DeBoer said after Friday’s morning skate at Bell Centre. “We were good last year. We had a great season, but we weren’t good enough. It’s clear the mandate here is to take another step this year.
“Guys build up equity on what they did last year to a certain point, and then…we have to see some results. We’ve got a lot of depth here, and a lot of young guys knocking on the door. That’s the message.”
Younger players are challenging the established guys for lineup spots, which is a luxury the Sharks haven’t had in years. Kevin Labanc has made an impact, with four goals and two assists in 17 games, while Timo Meier, whose upside is even higher than Labanc’s, will make his NHL debut against the Canadiens Friday night.
“From a coaching point of view, that’s what you want. You want competition,” DeBoer said.
“We’ve got young guys that have come in and basically knocked down the door. They’re not coming in just hoping to survive. Labanc came in, and he’s made it so you can’t take him out of the lineup. Timo Meier is up here now, and I’m anticipating he’s going to try and do the same thing. Guys lose their positions when young guys come in and do that. It puts everybody on notice.”
All eyes will be on Meier against the Canadiens, as the 20-year-old will start on a line with Donskoi and Chris Tierney. The ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft, he has an opportunity to do the same thing that Labanc has done in recent weeks, and that's prove he belongs.
In his two seasons as the Sharks’ head coach, DeBoer hasn’t made it easy for a young player to crack the lineup. Guys like Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, and even Tomas Hertl, had to earn their places with weeks of consistent play. Others like Mirco Mueller, Nikolay Goldobin and Barclay Goodrow, showed the coach that they weren’t yet ready to play at the NHL level last season, and they were quickly reassigned.
Meier has been tearing it up recently in the AHL, and that’s why he’s here.
“I think that’s what we’ve been trying to preach, is the process of getting to the NHL the right way,” DeBoer said.
“Labanc did it. [Meier] did it. They came and had good training camps. Timo got sick [in training camp], unfortunately, but started down there and every week got better. The last couple weeks he’s been a dominant player down there. He deserved the call, and you get rewarded for that.”
Even if it leads to some of those unpleasant conversations in the coach's office.