SAN JOSE — Pete DeBoer recognized his team’s good fortune when the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft wrapped up on June 21.
As the Pittsburgh Penguins watched star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury join the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and the Nashville Predators waved goodbye to former-40 goal scorer James Neal, the Sharks coach accepted the loss of defenseman David Schlemko, believing his squad has the organization depth on the blue line to fill his spot on the third pairing.
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“Everyone went in knowing they were going to lose a good player, or pay not to, and we felt fortunate to get out with (minimal damage),” DeBoer said. “As good as David Schlemko is, and as hard as he played for us, we have some young guys here in (Dylan) DeMelo and (Tim) Heed and (Joakim) Ryan that are knocking on the door.”
As the Sharks search for viable ways to replace Patrick Marleau’s offensive production in training camp, another position battle is brewing on the undercard as Barracuda defensive partners, Heed and Ryan, compete for the seventh spot on the team’s blue line.
After Saturday’s practice, DeBoer acknowledged that DeMelo has all but locked up the job vacated by Schlemko on the third pairing, leaving one open spot for Heed and Ryan to fight over.
“I’m a big DeMelo fan. I love what he’s done here over the last couple years,” the Sharks coach said. “We’d be crazy to be overlooking him. He’s done a very good job and he’s one of the guys who’s shown that he can do it consistently and get our trust.
“He’s already passed a few of those tests.”
When DeBoer picks a seventh defenseman for the Sharks season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 4, he’ll be choosing between a pair of blue liners who bring drastically-different skill sets to the rink.
“We do bring different things to the table,” Ryan said. “Heed’s got an absolute rocket of a shot, very good offensively. I just play a simple game, keep it steady and mix in offensively when I can.”
Heed, a former-Swedish Hockey League defenseman of the year (2014-15), emerged as the Brent Burns of minor league hockey last season. The 26-year-old led all AHL defensemen in points per game (56 points in 55 games), driving the Barracuda’s offense with his Burnsian blast from the point.
The Swedish blue liner, who played one game with the Sharks last season, was also the centerpiece of a Barracuda power play that ranked second in the AHL (23. 8 percent). His addition to the Sharks lineup would potentially give the team another offensive producer from the backend, taking some weight off Burns’ shoulders, while also giving the squad a much-needed scoring threat on the second power play unit.
Like Burns, Heed, who’s listed at 5-foot-11,165 pounds, can pass the puck, too, drawing defenses toward him and then finding the open man.
“He sees the whole ice,” Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer said. “On the offensive blue line, he’ll find guys off to the side where most guys will shoot it, and he’s got a bomb, too.”
The question with Heed is whether his play in the defensive zone is up to snuff for NHL hockey. In some ways, it’s difficult to know how well Heed plays in his own end because he and Ryan spent most of their shifts in the attack zone.
“He’s better than you think. I was saying the same thing, can this guy defend?” Sommer said. “But there are some things he’s got to work on: finding guys earlier and boxing out because he isn’t a big guy. And there’s no doubt it’s quicker up there. The (Connor) McDavid’s, we didn’t have guys like that that he had to play against.”
Ryan, on the other hand, plays a more Marc-Edouard Vlasic-like game. With the Barracuda, he showed exceptional puck retrieval skills, leading the breakout with a strong first pass out of the defensive zone. He’s smart and positionally sound, too, which allowed him to rank fourth in the AHL in plus/minus (plus-27).
Playing alongside Heed, Ryan’s offensive numbers spiked up last season as he led the Barracuda in shots (185) while producing 49 points in 65 games.
“He’s such a good skater and a smart player, with the puck and in the defensive zone,” Heed said. “It’s tough to know when a guy’s never played up in the NHL, but he’s such a smart guy, I think he’d handle it very well.”
Like Heed, the knock against Ryan is his size (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) and whether he can hang with the big forwards in the Pacific Division, like Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and Leon Draisaitl.
“Everyone talks about his size, but he plays bigger than he is,” Sommer said. “No one knows how his game is going to translate to the NHL, but I think he’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, Heed and Ryan are competing against one another for a chance to fulfill their NHL dreams. In addition to being partners on the ice, Heed and Ryan are good friends away from the rink.
Ryan, the son of former-tennis pro Catarina Lindqvist, lived in Sweden during his pre-teen years and Heed naturally gravitated toward him when he joined the organization last year. They speak to one another in English on the ice and Swedish in the locker room.
“He’s a great guy. I love playing with him. We make each other better,” Heed said of his 2016-17 defensive partner. “Of course, I want to earn the spot, but if he gets the chance, I’ll be happy for him.”
But with injuries, and the proximity of the Barracuda, both players will likely see NHL action this year. DeBoer can use Ryan for one game and Heed for another depending on what his needs are on any particular night.
In 2016-17, the Sharks recalled 10 different players from the Barracuda at some point during the season.
“If there’s a drop off, we’ll go to the next guy,” DeBoer said.
Although the competition is just getting started after two days of training camp, conventional wisdom would suggest that Ryan has the upper hand.
Trust is a big word in DeBoer’s dictionary, and while he isn’t showing his cards, the defensive-minded coach acknowledged that he tends to favor risk-adverse players.
“We’re not looking for a specific skill, we’re looking for the guy that can help us win games,” the Sharks coach said. “Consistently being able to defend, getting the trust of the coaches that we can put you on the ice and you’re not going to get exposed.
“Any offense that comes after that is really a bonus.”
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