Bob Boffner liked what he saw from Ryan Merkle in his first NHL stint earlier this season and has been impressed by the Sharks’ first-round draft picks from 2018.
Merkle, finding another chance to play outside the lineup with Eric Carlson, had 13:46 ice time in the Sharks’ 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabers on Thursday. In his first NHL game in nearly two months, Merkle also spent most of his ice time teaming up with Jakob Magna.
While a hard-nosed defense may never bode well for Merkle, Boffner believes the 21-year-old has demonstrated some progress in the defensive field to go along with his clear skills with the puck.
“Ryan, to me, was the last time he was called out and now, I think he showed a different level to his game and maturity,” said Boffner, who was facilitated by Merkle’s breakout against the Sabers. “I think there’s still a lot of work to do, but I think he showed a lot of promise.”
Merkle’s game at the Keybank Center was his first with the Sharks since November 11, when he and other Barracuda call-ups ended a nearly two-week stay in the NHL.
The Sharks were without Carlson, Jake Middleton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek at the time, all of whom were in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. In six games with the Sharks from October 30 to November 11, Merkle scored one goal and averaged 15:22 on ice time.
“I think I showed I can play here,” Merkle said of the experience. “I mean, it’s nerve-wracking to be in your first few games and even playing in the NHL for the first time. So just having that experience (now), being more comfortable, being around people again, it’s a lot easier. Is.
Merkle figures to return to the lineup on Saturday when the Sharks face the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center, Carlson, according to Boffner, remains unavailable with an upper body injury. Carlsen was injured in Tuesday’s game in Detroit and remains on the day but Boffner hopes he can play against the Red Wings at the Sapp Center this Tuesday.
Jake Middleton will also miss Saturday’s match due to an upper body injury. The Sharks put Middleton on injured reserve after being injured in the game on a hit from behind by Givani Smith in Detroit on Tuesday.
It is unclear what Merkle’s role will be after Carlson returns, especially if Carlson returns before Middleton returns. The Sharks could keep Merkle in the lineup, playing right side to Vlasic or Simek, return him to the taxi squad or hand him back to Barracuda, where he has 17 points from 22 games this season.
At what point Merkle becomes a full-time NHL player is also unclear.
The Sharks, of course, already have right-shot defensemen Carlson and Brent Burns on long-term contracts, and left-shot defensemen Vlasic, Simek and Mario Ferraro occupy three other spots. Middleton is showing that he can play in the NHL, and Santeri Hatakka, Nicolas Meloche, and Nikolai Knyzhov should be in the mix for NHL jobs next season, if not sooner.
“His path (to the NHL) is exactly what he’s doing right now,” Boffner said. “Going down, being one of the better players in the American League, working my way up there, putting points on the board and working on my defensive game. His defensive game has gotten a little bit better.
“(He’s not) just a power-play specialist. He’s playing really solid in five-on-five positions. With the right side (Burns, Carlson and Merkle), I think we’re in good shape for the future You can never have enough puck-moving defenseman, and that’s really what he provides.”
Buyers on Vlasik: Boffner said he felt Vlasic improved on Thursday night after a healthy scratch against Detroit.
Vlasic played a season-high of 18:50 and was credited with two blocked shots and a +1 rating to go with a second-period delay-of-game penalty for clearing the puck on the glass. He and Simek were the Sharks’ best defense pairing from an analytics standpoint, as they, according to Natural State Trick, were on the ice for six scoring opportunities and against just two.
Boffner had said he thought Vlasic handled his rare healthy bruise like a professional, but added on Friday that he and the Olympic gold medalist defenseman never actually sat down and discussed the reasons for benching.
“I didn’t talk to him, and it’s because he played a lot of hockey,” Boffner said. “He knows when he is at the top of his game and he knows that he can always approach me. But I wanted to leave it that way and see him respond and I thought he did. I have no problem with him just being (annoyed) and coming back and responding.
“That’s how we treated the condition. There wasn’t much chatter back and forth.”
COVID Update: Boffner said Sharks captain Logan Couture and fellow forward Len Pedersen both live in Detroit and will return to San Jose on commercial flights when they each complete their mandatory five-day isolation.
Couture, Boffner said, will be able to fly home from Detroit on Sunday and Pedersen is believed to be able to fly back on Monday.