With the San Jose Sharks having completed almost a third of their season, now is a good time to evaluate the team and players thus far. Although they currently sit at a disappointing seventh in the Pacific Division, a number of individual players have been having very solid seasons so far. While star players such as Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Erik Karlsson command most of the attention, others have turned in good performances while flying under the radar. Here are four Sharks who you may not have realized are off to very good starts in 2022-23.
After establishing himself as a consistent part of the Sharks’ rotation last season, right wing Alexander Barabanov has become one of the team’s most important offensive players this season. He is currently fifth on the team in points and consistently finds himself involved in scoring chances. The Sharks seem to find opportunities to put the puck on net whenever he is on the ice, thanks in large part to his ability to create plays for both his teammates and himself.
Barabanov has also earned the trust of head coach David Quinn, playing on the team’s top power-play unit alongside four established veterans — Meier, Hertl, Karlsson, and Logan Couture — despite being in just his second full season in the NHL. His defense could use some improvement, as his plus/minus of minus-7 is tied for sixth-worst on the team, but he is proving essential on offense and will need to maintain his production for the Sharks to win games.
The Sharks’ leader in plus/minus is someone you might not expect, given that he hasn’t even registered a single goal. It’s defenseman Jaycob Megna, who has been involved in some of San Jose’s most positive developments this season.
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Megna currently plays on the Sharks’ top defense pairing with Karlsson. Karlsson’s injuries have limited his ability to be an elite defender, often meaning that his partner needs to cover for him. This season, that job has fallen to Megna, and he has proven worthy of the task. His superb defense has eased the burden on Karlsson, who can focus more on the offensive side of the puck. As a result, Karlsson is having his best season as a Shark and leads the NHL in points among defensemen. Karlsson’s resurgence is garnering him Norris Trophy consideration, and he has put in a ton of work to get to this point. But Megna deserves his own recognition for his role in this outcome.
Furthermore, as the Sharks maintain the NHL’s best penalty kill by a wide margin, it is not a coincidence that Megna is part of the team’s top shorthanded unit. For a penalty kill to be as successful as San Jose’s has been, all four players need to handle their assignments correctly, and Megna has done so to perfection. Not bad for a guy who has spent the majority of his eight-year professional career in the American Hockey League.
After being acquired by the Sharks this past offseason in a relatively small trade, forward Luke Kunin is off to the best start of his career. The former first-round pick is on pace for 38 points, which would be a career high. As a member of the third line, his offensive output often serves as a barometer of the team’s success. When he and the rest of the bottom-six forward group produce, San Jose tends to play well.
But Kunin’s contributions aren’t limited to offense. Like Megna, he also plays on the Sharks’ first penalty-killing unit, and like Megna, has proved more than capable. In addition, he has brought the physicality needed from a third-liner, as his 55 hits are second on the team.
Kunin has spent his first few NHL seasons bouncing around the league and trying to find his place. In his first season with the Sharks, it appears that he may be on his way to doing so.
Right wing Kevin Labanc has appeared in 25 games this season, and it’s undeniable that the first 12 were rough. He posted just two points in that stretch and was the weakest link on a first line that wasn’t producing at the level it needed to. But in the 13 games that have followed, he has quietly and efficiently returned to his normal play. He has looked for better-quality shots, and made smart and crisp passes with consistency, recording 11 points in that span to move to sixth on the team in that category.
During those 13 games, the first line has had a much stronger overall performance, and the Sharks as a whole have picked up 12 points after earning just six in Labanc’s first 12 games. That both his line and the team have played better as he has played better is no accident.
Outlook for Rest of Season
Hockey teams need contributions from players throughout the lineup to maximize their success. This includes players who perform well without commanding too much attention. Despite the Sharks’ struggles this season, they are gradually finding these players and improving their record as a result. If those four players can continue their positive trends, the Sharks may not be a playoff team, but there’s a good chance they’ll look like the team we’ve seen recently rather than the one we saw at the beginning of the season.
Alex Hutton is a San Jose Sharks contributor at The Hockey Writers. A native of Oakland, California, he recently completed his master’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Alex has written about a wide range of sports for various publications and is excited to provide Sharks content for THW. Follow him on Twitter here.